Creating, cutting and printing your own woodblock

Picture of Creating, cutting and printing your own woodblock
Here's the basic process for buying tools, cutting a woodblock, inking and then printing with it.

I've actually been trying to find a way into printing for a while, but don't have any access locally to equipment or classes. I finally came across Louise Woods' awesome book entitled " Practical Printmaking" and realized I should just get on with something, rather than waiting for the perfect opportunity to show itself. She describes pretty much all the printing processes, with equipment lists and great photos. I'd definitely recommend that book if you're looking for a proper, practical explanation of general printing techniques.

I picked woodblock as the technique I wanted to learn since it requires very few tools and the piece of wood itself is typically small, so there's very little mess and the whole thing is easy to do on the kitchen table.

As background, it's worth knowing that there are basically two ways of doing relief printing with bits of wood, woodcut and woodblock. Woodcut is a process that cuts ALONG the grain of a piece of wood, and the grain itself often becomes part of the print, showing itself through as a texture. Woodblock, which is what I'm going to focus on, uses really tightly grained wood that is cut across the grain (the same way you would cut through a trunk to fell a tree if you were a lumberjack). Because of the way it's cut it's a little easier to carve. The direction you cut doesn't matter since you're looking at the end of the grain so it doesn't have a fixed direction, and your cutting tool isn't always being pushed around by the grain. But good wood with tight grain can cost a little. We'll get into equipment and tools now...
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DaniR218 days ago

As far as lining up the paper goes, i would recommend giving yourself a wide margin and then cutting the paper to be square after your proof has dried. I tried this at a printing facility in Berlin once, however, and they persuaded me to tear the paper by hand instead of cutting it with a razor. Their reasoning was that 'it looks better.' Hard to argue with that logic. Great article! Thanks for it.

MarthaM1 month ago

Thanks for posting this. It's good and clear instructions. I've just started making rubber stamps, but am wondering about making wooden ones. I have carved wood in the past. We used basswood, which is soft but has a fine grain. (It's your lime trees.) I'm wondering how it would be for stamps. I'm amazed at the price of your wood! I think maple would be one of the more expensive woods here, as well, though. Thanks again!

snoyes4 years ago
Would an ink pad of the kind used with rubber stamps work, or is there a particular necessity to use the ink-on-glass approach?

not really, those are very thin water-based inks (essentially what you'd find in like a crayola marker), so while you might see something it'll be really faint and splotchy. printers ink will get a clear image with sharp detail.

ploukides2 years ago
Forget the spoon. While there are tools for sale for rubbing, make your own. A block of wood roughly 3 inches long and one and half inches wide and equally deep is how you start. What you want to do is sand one surface smooth and round the edges of that surface by sanding. Your goal is a smooth surface with no edges or points. Baby's bottom is the standard. Poplar wood works well as does clear pine or ash. Cherry would work but you'll want a power sander for this harder wood.
As you use the block it gets better with the polishing effect of rubbing paper.
Spend a little money, a little time, and have a great tool!
sasika3 years ago
Thanx a lot for sharing this instructable. It's really helpful for me.
lozartist5 years ago
A great place for print making supplies in the US is Graphic Chemical. They are a little pricey compared to , say, Dick Blick or Utrecht, but their stuff is top notch.
Ninzerbean5 years ago
Great ible! I think you will really like this resingrave as it is just like boxwood but at a fraction of the cost, plus this site (McCains) is just heaven to peruse for folks in the US interested in wood block printing. They also sell a very good water based ink. I have yet to order because shipping is so high but it's getting that way everywhere now.
rbanks (author)  Ninzerbean5 years ago
Thanks! I wonder if this is available in the UK.
I believe it is their own invention/product. I'm sure they would ship to you.
enginepaul6 years ago
We used to glue linoleum to wood blocks for printing in small quantities. It is easier to cut and cheaper than good tight-grained wood. I'm not sure if real linoleum is still available. Also, a general rule for printing inks to transfer is the length of time of the impression and pressure. Pressure is a main factor, but a delayed impression allows the ink's vehicle to transfer the ink into the paper.
You can get sheets of lino designed for printing, with different levels of toughness. Though I must say, my local art shop had never heard of such a thing, but I di it all the time.

Like this:
I don't think anything is still marketed with the name "linoleum" anymore, but the "vinyl composition tiles" made by Armstrong and others feel like about the same thing. Some of the cheaper stuff is very thin and sometimes textured, but I got some very thick (one-eighth inch) Armstrong tile, I think the type was called Excelon, for about 68 cents per one-foot square. It cuts easily with an Xacto knife and should work for lino-cuts. Also, this type is smooth, and the material is constant all the way through, unlike some floor coverings that are just a thin layer of texture & color over something else. Fiddling about in a big discount hardware/lumber outlet should turn up something usable, I think.
What a great, casual, and easy to read instructable! Very informative, highly detailed and written with a great style. Since I like your style so much, can you also do one on raising kids, how to understand your wife, and the meaning of life? Then I'd be set! Thanks! I'll be sure to try this out in the near future.
cool!! I did this in high school & it's so nice to be reminded of how nifty it is! I keep meaning to try using a laser cutter to etch printing blocks. Have you tried this or seen any info about it online?
rbanks (author)  leahbuechley6 years ago
I've used a laser cutter for etching before, using MDF, but I haven't printed with it. I've no doubt that it's possible, though, and something I've been thinking about doing too. Let me know how you get on if you go ahead!
smokehill6 years ago
This is probably a silly question, but I've never tried wood or linoleum printing, though it's always been on my list of fun things to try. I know you can always remove more wood to "adjust" your print, but can you also go back and "fill in" mistakes with some filler material -- auto body filler, JB Weld or some other epoxy? Or would the difference in texture be too obvious ? I suppose on a short run of prints you could use the same ink with an artist's brush and "fill in" areas that shouldn't have been cut, too. Just curious ....
You should try linocut printing. Its really fun and its not very expensive. Earliar today i linocut printed some christmas cards.
Really depends on the wood you're using. If the wood doesn't have much texture to it then using some sort of filler material wouldn't be terribly blatant except to the trained eye. But if the woodgrain is adding to the piece and you fill it in with something, it's going to show up as a flat non-textured area. And in either case since it's not actually part of the woodwork, it would start to deteriorate and flake/fall off. So if you do plan on filling something in, don't plan on using the block for many prints.
Wonderful work! Very common in my Country. Congratulations
frazy6 years ago
Just a question: is woodblock printing method expensive??? i never tried it.
rbanks (author)  frazy6 years ago
Not awful. If you follow the list of what you need in step 1 the wood costs about £4, a basic chisel is about £11, a roller is about another £11 and the ink is about £7. Most of that is reusable except the wood.
You should try MDF for a real economy alternative. Although you wont be able to make as many prints with it i think at least not if you use a roller, Should be ok with a spoon or a metal squege(wrong spelling but iam tired) though.
arte.sano6 years ago
Fantastic, great project, great instructable! one of my favs.
rbanks (author)  arte.sano6 years ago
Saint6 years ago
Is there a specific reason to use thick blocks of wood? I have seen thinner plates, even plywood panels, being used to print woodcuts. It would be much cheaper that way, and also make the process of cutting more easy since your work area is almost level.

Apart from that, there's another simple solution from keeping your wood from shifting. Take a wooden board and screw another piece at each end, like this:
I I--------------------------------I I
I I--------------------------------I_I

You put one end on the edge of the table and the other prevents your piece from shifting. This works best with bigger (A4 sized) woodcuts, but smaller pieces should also work fine.
If you use a thinner piece of wood for your cut you can also just bang a nail in a cut away area somewhere in the middle. That way you can freely rotate it.
(please excuse my terrible English, I don't use it nearly often enough to get some practice)
Saint Saint6 years ago
The layout messed up my diagram a bit, but it's basicly just roughly S-shaped, with one piece sticking out on one side and the reverse side sticking out to the other side
rbanks (author)  Saint6 years ago
I think you could get away with using any piece of wood, although all the plywood I've ever played with has an edge-on grain, which puts it in the category of a woodcut, rather than a wood block. To be fair, you do call it a woodcut. But as I mention in the intro page, a wood block is end-grain. My impression is that it is harder to come by end-grain wood, and that part of the point if wood bock is to use higher quality wood, with a tighter grain structure, so you can get really fine lines etc. I like the idea of your board. Totally get what you mean. In practice, though, I can't imagine if that would work well or badly. I'll have to give it a try. When I'm carving I'm constantly moving the wood, and it's not such a large piece of wood that it's a problem to hold it. Having it in my hand definitely gives me some subtle flexibility that I'd be worried the the board or the nail wouldn't have. Would be worth trying, though! Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
Saint rbanks6 years ago
The biggest advantage of edge-on is the cost, and with softer woods you don't have any problems with the grain interfering with your linework. You can even use some kinds of plastic to make your prints. Apart from that, if you use a full-size press you can use lots more pressure, so the grain and other small imperfections don't show up that much. When getting to know new materials I usually go for the least expensive and easiest to use materials, so I can make lots and lots of studies. And for the board, holding it in your hand works really well for roughly stamp-size cuts, but when you scale up and your hands get cramped it's really nice to have something to hold your piece sturdy in place.
unjust Saint6 years ago
having done both, you can't get as fine a print out of any wood other than a nice dense end grain. you may not get grain patterning, although on a finer print you will, but the block won't last as long, and you can have issues with grain direction determining how you make a cut, where as endgrain you don't have to worry as much. now, that said, i've used flat stock as one or more plates in a multi color print specifically to introduce the grain pattern to the ink. if you're using a non-wood material (linoleum, rubber, copper, stone, etc) you're not doing a wood block print, you're doing another sort of print (depending on the material, each of which has advantages and disadvantages)
What a great wee tutorial. Re: papers - supersmooth papers tend to be best as they show the most detail; rough or textured papers tend to lose some detail but if you are looking for something a little more impressionistic or abstract then that can be cool too. Printing papers generally are available (at least in the art store I work!) in cream or white, but hot press (ie v smooth) watercolour paper tends to work just as well. Really, you can use anything that will take the ink. Like you I tend to prefer oil-based inks but that's because I dislike how quickly the water-based ones dry. I have done this sort of thing with school-aged children before and just used acrylic or even poster paints, sometimes with a little medium or retarder added to increase the working time.
Would this work with plexiglass or do you need actual glass? How similar is this to using linoleum? I've never done any printmaking but it sounds pretty cool.
You can roll the ink on plexiglass instead of glass. I think the only difference between wood and linoleum are the different carving tools...
rbanks (author)  justbepatient6 years ago
I have a piece of linoleum that I'm just on the verge of having a go at. The tools are quite different. The linoleum is much softer, and the tools are almost like sharp scoops for scooping out the lino. The woodblock tools are much more like very narrow chisels. I'm guessing that the woodblock is harder going, but allows you to get much more fine detail.

If you want some lino inspiration take a look at some of the work of Stanley Donwood, who does the cover of Radiohead's albums. His cover for Thom Yorke's solo album, the Eraser, is done in Lino.

The cover was originally printed from a series of large linos, each about 2 foot by 1.5 foot. You can see the results here:

So he went for a large size and a lot of the detail comes from scaling down, I think.
I've seen some people working with linoleum before and they were just using exacto knives I believe. I suppose they had other tools I didn't see that they were also using, and were using the exacto knives for more detail. The wood gravers look like pretty much the same thing that we use on metal, but I think the technique is somewhat different.
Cool! Great Instructable! Thanks Joe
maxman6 years ago
That holiday card is wonderful. Thanks for writing this instructable. This is something I've wanted to do for a long time.
adidame6 years ago
Very nice. I have also been waiting for woodblock instructions to fall in my lap. Thank you.
cookula6 years ago
A great idea for someone looking for an inexpensive craft to sell at markets. Will give it a go as they cost far too much for me to buy at my local scrapbook shop.
aphrael6 years ago
that looks amazing!
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