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Creating, cutting and printing your own woodblock

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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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Step 1: Getting hold of the basic tools

Picture of Getting hold of the basic tools
Four gravers
Ink, glass and some kind of spreader (which I don't actually use much)
Roller and glass
Here's a page with the basics of what you'll need to carve and ink a woodblock.

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.

Some wood.
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

Step 2: Draw your image and copy it onto your block

Picture of Draw your image and copy it onto your block
Sketch in ballpoint pen (blue)
Sketch reversed to black and white and flipped
Sketch written onto woodblock with pencil
I'm afraid you'll have to do some sketching at some point, and there's not a lot of opportunity once you start carving for much spontaneity. Some, but not much. You pretty much have to know what you're going to carve before actually sticking the graver in.

The two things you have to remember when sketching are that what you cut out from the wood becomes white, not black, so all those little lines you're cutting are actually going to become the white space, and that what you draw will be flipped horizontally when you turn it over to print it. If you want a print that is predominantly white (a 'positive' one, if you like) you'll have to do a lot of carving to get rid of the black areas. Doing a 'negative' print, which is primarily white on black requires less. I'd recommend this latter option.

When sketching I tend to jump between larger, more detailed images and small, 'to scale' ones. Buying the wood before you sketch helps, because then you can draw around it directly into your sketchbook and use it as a frame so you know you're getting the size right.

Once I have my finalised image on paper I scan it onto my PC. This makes it easy to reverse the image color in PhotoShop or some equivalent, and see what it really looks like as white on black. I can also then flip it horizontally for copying onto the block, since I know that once it's printed I'll get back the orientation that I originally intended. I hand copy it over to the woodblock with a pencil. I'm happy for the copied version to not be a perfect facsimile of the original. If you're a little more fussy (which is fine) you could use transfer paper or equivalent to trace over the original, pre-flipping version, and THEN flip it over and rub it down onto the block.

Step 3: Cut your block

Picture of Cut your block
Holding a graver
Carving from the side
Carving from the front
After the first cut
I think I mentioned earlier that you'll need something soft to put the block on as you cut it. There are special tools for this (aren't there always?) but a book wrapped in an English tea-towel (or, if you must, a standard hand towel) seems to work ok. The soft surface helps hold the block in place, whilst also allowing you to move it around as you cut. Yes, you move the block, not your hand. More on that in a second.

Put the handle of the graver in the palm of your hand and wrap your fingers around the blade so the point feels like an extension of your index finger. That's what it feels like to me, and what it looks like in my head, although the second image below probably shows it a little clearer than what I'm trying to describe.

Keep your hand in a fairly fixed position. When it comes to cutting you'll just move it forward and backward as you need to, and move the wood beneath it with the other hand to line up the cut. You have to figure out the angle of cut so that it's not so high that the blade keeps jamming, and not so low that it skitters too easily across the top of the wood. Take your time. Breathe easily. But try not to make too many mistakes. Even quite shallow scratches are hard to remove and can show in the final print. This is where patience counts. The most cathartic bit, if you like. Or the most stressful.

Be especially careful when you come to the end of a line that you're carving. It's quite easy to keep going past where you intended accidentally, and where two lines are supposed to meet at a nice right-angle you can easily end up with them crossing one another.

Step 4: Ink and print with your block

Ok, on to inking your block and printing. You need a lot less ink than you think when you come to actually printing. The key here is to be fairly frugal with the amount of ink that you apply to your block. Add too much ink and you can end up filling in your diligently carved channels so that the final print doesn't come out with quite the sharp contrast that you'd intended between light and dark areas. Remember, if you put too little on, you can always fix it by applying a little more. It's harder to do the reverse.

The first part of the process involves laying out a layer of ink on your piece of glass. No, you don't apply the ink directly from the tube to the block! Putting the ink on the glass first means that you are then in a bit of control of the process, which is a pleasant illusion. You can then work on getting a really clean layer onto the roller, and then onto the block.

Take your sheet of glass and put a blob of ink in the middle, about the size of a reasonably proportioned bean (I'm thinking of the English runner bean, here - again, probably better to look at the pictures if you're not familiar with our vegetables). Take the roller, and start rolling the ink in one direction, then at right angles, then back to the original direction and so on. The goal is to get a regular, rectangular layer of ink on the glass, whilst also making sure that your roller is consistently covered.

Once you think you've got your roller completely covered in a (thin) layer of ink, carefully roll it over the block. I roll it along the length of the block first, then do it across the width. Strictly speaking you should only have to do it once in each direction, but I've sometimes (i.e. often) had to go back over it again with a second roll, just to make sure I've got the ink right up to the edge of the block.

Once you've got the ink on the block (congratulations, by the way!) you're ready to print it out onto paper. You basically put the sheet of paper that you want to print onto ON TOP OF the woodblock, which is ink side up, obviously, then you use the spoon to rub the paper down onto the block, as if you were doing a brass rubbing. That's actually probably yet another useless British reference. You're just rubbing with a spoon, though. Not hard to picture.

I don't have a scientific method for lining up the paper with the block (I don't have a scientific method for anything, actually). I tend to eyeball it. You could, if you want, figure out roughly where the paper needs to be by lining everything up first in some sort of jig, or measuring everything out, or whatever method you want to use. I don't tend to worry about it because the paper I use tends to be bigger than the picure frames I'm putting the images in, so I can line everything up afterwards and trim off what isn't going to show.

I'm not that happy with my printing attempt in the image below. This was actually my first attempt with the water based inks that I mentioned in step 1. It's a little patchy. Water based ink seems to need more rubbing down to adhere to the paper. Rubbing down with the spoon can actually take some practice, and you need to make sure you're even all over, and work right up to the edge to avoid the patchiness that I've so clearly illustrated can be a problem.

Step 5: Fix, re-cut and re-ink

After the first print you can actually take a look at the image and decide what you're not happy with. With the water based inks, particularly, which dry so quickly, it's easy then to go back and carve out a little more of the block where you want more white to show through.

It's a good idea to annotate your first print with the changes you want to make, rather than just trying to remember. It forces you to be a little more diligent about working through problems. Then fix the problems with a little more carving and give the print another go.

That's it, really. I've stuck a couple of finished examples in the images on this page that I'm a little more happy with than the version I used throughout this explanation. One is straight onto the heavyweight paper I mentioned that I use, and the other is a card I made for the holidays using some rather nice blank, brown stock that I picked up from the stationery store, Paperchase. I'm not sure if Paperchase are just in the UK. I know that Borders Books and Music bought them, so they may be around in some areas of the States.

Good luck with your project(s). Please leave comments if you have questions or corrections.
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snoyes3 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?
cpesacreta snoyes6 months ago

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.

ploukides1 year 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.
lozartist4 years ago
A great place for print making supplies in the US is Graphic Chemical. http://www.graphicchemical.com/ They are a little pricey compared to , say, Dick Blick or Utrecht, but their stuff is top notch.
Ninzerbean4 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)  Ninzerbean4 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: http://www.chromosart.co.uk/catalog/lino-blocks-p-5837.html
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)  leahbuechley5 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
Thanks!
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--------------------------------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.
http://www.slowlydownward.com/lv01.html

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:
http://www.slowlydownward.com/viewslibrary02.html

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!
Patrik6 years ago
Great instructable! I couldn't open some of your images though - for example, I can't get to the 2nd, 3rd and 4th picture in your last step....
It's a small 'ibles problem, sometimes the script wont load, or possibly it's because I'm still running FF3 which gets up to a terminal loading speed which is too fast and crashes, I refuse to fix until I get the non beta release...
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