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...
Step 1: Getting hold of the basic tools
I've actually found a great online shop here in the UK called T N Lawrence & Sons Ltd. A nice old Victorian sounding name that gives me plenty of comfort. Their site has basically everything you need under the convenient title of Woodblock Engraving. They've been really reliable and quick. If you're not in the UK then I pity you, but I'm sure there will be something similar near you, and at least you can visit this shop so you know what things are supposed to look like and are called.
I've been working primarily with small bits of wood of about 2x3 inches. I like this small size for working with because it's easy to manage, besides which decent wood for a woodblock is pretty expensive. It's really down to what you want to pay for. The more expensive the wood, the tighter its wood grain and the harder the wood. T N Lawrence basically has boxwood (the 'best'), lemonwood (the next best) and maple (the 'economical' wood). I've been using the maple. Economy is my middle name. Maple is about £5 for a 2x3" piece. Hard to do the conversion to dollars with all the fluctuations in currency, besides which we're always getting ripped off here in the UK.
Something to support the wood while you're carving
You need to sit the piece of wood on something soft-ish while you're carving it so you can move it around easily (when carving you basically keep your hand in one place and move the piece). I use a medium sized book covered with a towel. The book is a guide to potty training toddlers, but you can use whatever is handy.
A drawing to cut from and a pencil
In the end, you're going to have to do some kind of 'art' to put on your bit of wood. There are ways of transferring sketches onto the wood with transfer paper etc. I tend to just copy it over by hand with a pencil.
A/some "graver(s)" or chisel(s) for cutting
I have 4 or 5 of these little gravers for cutting. They look so cool in the pictures. But I've really ended up only using one, the "Medium - Spitsticker". It seems very general purpose, good for thin straight lines, and for getting around awkward corners. I'd start with one of those, and then think of picking up one of the other gravers if you feel you need it.
Some printers ink
I've tried two types of ink - oil based and water based. I prefer the oil based. You can really tell that it takes to paper better and it's nicer to work with, but it takes a long time to dry, and you have to deal with the smell of both it and the white spirits you'll have to use to get it off your tools. So I'm actually trying out some water based inks at the moment. I'm not really happy with the way they take to the paper (the results seem a little more patchy and less deep) but the cleaning is a dream. These are the oil based inks that I've used. These are the water based. The choice is yours!
A piece of glass for spreading ink onto
A roller for rolling out the ink on the glass and applying it to the wood
Some paper to print onto
I'm not much of an expert on the right paper to use for printing. I've actually been mainly using some matte, heavy weight printing paper that has a good weight and seems to take the ink well. I'm sure there are a lot of options here. I've also tried using some blank cards from Paperchase. The ones with too heavy a texture don't seem to work well, but some of the smoother ones have been quite successful. Some experimentation is due here.
A spoon (or equivalent) to rub down the print onto the paper