Introduction: 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...

Step 1: Getting Hold of the Basic Tools

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

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

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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