Introduction: Woodblock Printing With an Epilog Mini/Helix Co2 Laser Cutter

About: I am a Dream Consultant at TechShop San Jose and I make stuff. Follow me on Twitter or Instagram @ellieectrode

This is how to build a simple wood block print set using some 1/4" board and a laser cutter. I'm an art history nerd and an artist, so I know that the best way to learn something is while making a fun project. You can follow the steps or you can read along and learn a few things about woodblock printing through history.

Woodblock printing is an ancient method for duplicating images on cloth, paper, books, scrolls, or other materials. Examples of woodblock prints can be found all over the world from many different historical periods; 2,000 year old scroll prints from China and woodcuts created in the 20th century by Pablo Picasso— who was better known for his impressionist murals and oil paintings— are all evidence of the ingenuity of craftsmen to fill the demand for beautifully decorative art pieces.

I made it at TechShop!

Step 1: Gather Your Materials and Prepare Your Files.

For this project you will need:

•   1/4 inch MDF
•   double sided tape or glue
•   1/4 hardwood or plywood boards (different types create different textures)
•   paints or printing ink
•   paper for printing
•   materials for mixing and storing your pigments
•   a large spoon or smooth tool to rub the back of your piece

•   access to a laser cutter for 2 hours
•   Corel Draw or Illustrator to prepare your files

Woodblock prints are made by layering ink or other pigments onto paper. Typically each color is applied one at a time, so a complicated piece of art will require several wood cuts, and a jig (use the mdf to make the jig) to line up or register your papers. My jig is a simple frame to place each block in with another L-shaped piece of MDF glued on to use as a registration guide.

Prepare your files in your graphic program of choice and send them to the leaser cutter. Remember that all your art needs to be reversed to print the right way onto paper.

Some of the most well known examples of woodblock printing were made by Japanese artists during the Edo period (1603-1868), a time when the rapid expansion of a prosperous Japanese middle class increased the demand for popular arts and entertainment. The Great Wave of Kanagawa, by the artist Hokusai,— who printed dramatic scenes of his homeland, many times featuring the distinct shape of Mt. Fuji on the skyline— might be the most recognized work of Japanese Edo period woodblock printing. 

Step 2: Cut and Fit

Here's a print block being laser cut onto oak. Use different woods to create different textures, or use MDF for perfectly smooth texture or your own texture. This part takes a while since you need to get a deep, high DPI etch. Two passes of etching might be needed to get the depth on your block.

Once you've printed all your parts out assemble and test them for fit. Some woods warp more than others when you cut them. I've included pics of my set, made with poplar and oak.

Because so many different craftsmen from so many different parts of the world have printed using wooden blocks, there are many different tools or methods one could use for making woodblock prints.

The Japanese method for printing uses Cherry wood, which has a very smooth fine texture when cut, and water based inks applied with brushes. The print is made on paper by placing the paper over the carved and inked woodblock and then gently rubbing the back of the paper with a baren. A baren is a round, smooth disk with a handle.

Picasso may have used oil based inks, applied to his blocks with a roller, and then run his blocks and paper through a press to make prints. To make a print on cloth, an artist might simply dip his woodblock into a puddle of pant and firmly press it along the length of his cloth to make a repeating pattern.  William Morris created a complicated mechanized jig system for using wooden blocks to apply dyes to his mass produced home decor fabrics during the British Arts and Crafts movement in the later half of the 19th century.

Step 3: Inking the Block

I'm using a roller to apply water based printer inks but feel free to experiment with pigments and application methods. If you decide to make a lot of prints, it's a good idea to save in containers any custom ink colors you mix.

One color of ink is applied at a time. A very complicated wood print may take several applications of color and the artist may work for days or weeks preparing and registering his wood blocks before he ever prints onto paper.

Step 4: Ink Onto Paper

Lay your paper onto the inked block and gently rub the back to transfer the ink onto the paper. I tried using a glue roller left over from another project (sheet rubber rolled around a cardboard tube for a paint roller) and a burnishing tool for small details. I'm a big advocate of making your own tools whenever you can because it's fun and saves money.

Step 5: Finished Print

All the different ways to make a woodblock print show how a craftsperson will use what raw materials are available to him to make beautiful art. Don't be afraid to experiment. The best way to use this instructable is to read it, maybe even try it yourself if you're so inclined, and then discard everything except the parts that are important to you and make something completely different.

Happy printing!