In this Instructable, you'll learn how to make a two-colour linocut relief print, printed using regular household items.
A linocut print involves carving into linoleum, rolling printmaking ink onto the block, then using pressure to transfer that ink to paper or fabric. You can also use plywood and make a woodcut using the same methods.
My project involved making wine labels, and I also use letterpress to print some of the text.
Step 1: Tools and Materials
Smooth linoleum for carving (alternatively, plywood)
Smooth paper for printing (I used Japanese hosho paper)
Relief printing ink (also called block printing ink)
Pencils, pens and chalk for marking up lino block
Lino carving tools (if you only use one tool, the medium size V tool is the most versatile)
Ink rollers (also called brayers)
Ink knives / paint scrapers
Glass or plastic slab for rolling out ink
Letterpress type, chase and furniture (optional, not required for straight up relief printing)
For printing your lino block, one of the following:
Albion press (not shown)
Book press (not shown)
Step 2: Preparing the Lino
I made a two-colour print, so began by cutting a larger piece of lino in half. The easiest way to do this with the grey printmaking lino I use is to cut through the weave on the back of the lino with a sharp blade then snap the lino in half. It's easier and safer to cut lightly four or five times than to try and do it in one pass with a lot of force. After I snapped my lino into two pieces, I cleaned up any rough edges with a sharp blade.
Because my image includes text, I printed a rough design out from my computer, making sure to flip the image horizontally, as images are always reversed through the relief printing process.
I usually use carbon paper to trace my images onto the block (you can also just draw directly onto the lino if you choose), but I couldn't find it for this project. Instead I coloured over the back of my paper template with soft pastel, placed it on the block, then traced with a hard, sharp pencil. This transferred the pastel onto the lino, which I went over with a permanent marker for visibility. I then made a mark in the same place on the back of my lino blocks to match up in the printing process.
Step 3: Carving the Lino
The first image here shows a variety of tools that can be used for lino and wood carving. If you're just starting out, choose a cheap set that includes a V tool and a U tool. V tools are used for carving sharp lines, and U tools are used for clearing out large areas. If you only buy one tool, choose a medium sized V tool. The tools at the top of the image are E C Lyons brand tools that are very comfortable to hold and made from high quality steel that can be sharpened, and are middle of the road in terms of price. The Japanese tool in with them is a very fine (1mm) V tool that I use to carve very fine lines; these are also made from very high quality materials and designed to be sharpened, but are very expensive, so not a beginners tool. The tool down the bottom is a Speedball brand multi-tool, which is very comfortable to hold and use, with 5 interchangeable nibs including a very fine V tool. The Speedball tool costs about the same as one of the Lyons tools, but the downside it that the metal used is not as high quality, so the nibs need to be replaced when blunt rather than sharpened. The tools I used most for my particular project were the 1mm Japanese tool (for the lettering and cleaning up the edges on the small circles), the large Lyons U gouge (for clearing out the large areas and the circles) and a medium V tool (for defining edges).
The material I have underneath is a piece of non-slip matting. By using this under my lino, the block doesn't slip when I carve, and I can easily move it around as I go. The most important rule of lino carving is to always, always, always carve away from yourself. Never hold your block with your opposite hand in front of the carving tool, as it's very easy to slip and cut yourself. Having some kind of non-slip matting or a bench hook helps with this.
When you're carving, think of your tool as a pen, pencil or brush, and carve in the direction that you would draw. It's highly likely that ink will pick up on the edges of some carved ridges, and if you carve in the direction you would draw, this will look more natural and intentional.
Step 4: Preparing the Paper
If you're printing by hand, choose a thinner, smoother paper. I chose Japanese hosho paper for my prints, which is a strong, thin paper often used for printmaking and calligraphy. Also take the final product into consideration. I printed my edition using a press, so could have gone for a heavier paper, but needed something thin and flexible as I was making wine labels.
Normally I would tear my paper down to size using a steel ruler, but decided to cut it with a knife in this instance as the hard edge makes it easier to get the correct colour registration for a multi-colour print, and also because I knew I'd be trimming each print to size when done.
Step 5: Making a Registration Sheet
There are many different methods for printing a multi-colour print with correct registration (printing so that the colours consistently line up between prints). This is a very simple method that works for me in most instances.
Take a sheet of scrap paper larger than the paper you'll be printing on, and trace around the edge of the paper (or mark the corners, remove the paper and use a ruler to draw the outline). Figure out the placement of your print on the paper then trace along the top and left edges of your block.
I keep a sheet of thin plastic on my press bed and place my registration sheet underneath this when printing.
Step 6: Inking Up Your Block
Usually when printing a two-colour print, you would print one colour at a time, leaving the first colour to dry before printing the second. I printed both colours at the same time, wet into wet, as I wanted the colours to blend and produce a third colour. This effect can also be achieved by mixing a product called extender into your ink, which increases the transparency. I didn't have any extender on hand, so printed both colours in the same run. Definitely use relief printing ink for this rather than paint, as paint dries too fast to be practical for printing. The ink I've used is a water-based relief ink, which also dries fairly quickly, but you can buy retarders to mix in that slow the drying time if necessary. Oil-based inks dry more slowly and give a nicer finish, but can be harder to clean up, although many brands are making oil-based inks that can be cleaned up with soap and water now.
I use an Ikea glass topped dresser as my inking bench, but you can use any piece of flat glass, acrylic sheet or glossy tile. Because I needed to print two colours in the same run, I used a separate roller (brayer) and ink knife for each colour. The black roller on the left (for the yellow ink) is a cheaper roller from a brand called Essdee, and is a good option for beginners. The roller on the right is a Japanese roller made from a higher quality rubber with a larger diameter, and is more expensive but much nicer to use. The larger the diameter of your roller the better, as you can pick up and roll out more ink in one go.
To ink up your plate, take a small amount of ink from your tub or tube and work it with a paint scraper until the consistency is even. Take a small amount of that ink with your paint scraper and make a squiggly line of ink just slightly less wide than your roller. Roll out the ink with your brayer on the glass until it looks even and makes a smooth "ssshhhk ssshhhk" sound, then roll about 8 times onto your lino block. Ink up your roller with the same colour again, about 8 rolls, then roll in a different direction 8 times on your block, and repeat this a third time. If you notice that you're over-inking your block, cut back the number of times you roll. I then inked up my second block so that I could print each plate one after the other.
Step 7: Printing by Hand With a Spoon or Baren
To print by hand, set up your registration sheet on a flat, clean, hard surface. Place the top left corner of your block against the marks made on your sheet, then place your paper carefully from the top left hand corner. Always place your blocks and paper down the same way to improve your chances of getting the registration to line up properly.
Flatten the paper onto the block with your hands. The will help the ink stick the paper in place lightly while your rub the back of your print. To print with a metal or wooden spoon, rub the back of the spoon with even pressure all over the paper in circular motions where you can feel the block. Go over the plate multiple times from multiple directions. If you're using a baren, the idea is the same, but the surface area is bigger and it's easier to get an even pressure. Mine is a teflon coated baren made by Speedball, and I like it because it has a good amount of knuckle clearance and you can push down on it nice and hard, but there are a number of cheaper barens available that also do a good job.
When you've printed your first colour, replace the block immediately with the second block and repeat the process. Printing yellow and blue wet-into-wet gave me a green area in the centre of my print. If I was to leave the yellow to dry and then print the blue without any transparency or extender added, it would print as an opaque blue over the yellow.
The last picture in this step shows the result from each method I used. The metal spoon was the most difficult to print as the surface area was the smallest, but it did give me a better result than the wooden spoon (possibly because it was smoother and harder or possibly because I just didn't press as hard with the wooden spoon). The baren was the most comfortable to use of the lot, and gave the best result, but all of the methods are completely valid ones to try.
Step 8: Printing With an Etching Press
If you have access to an etching press (or a letterpress or Albion style press), this is the fastest process and gives the most even result.
I set my etching press using runners on either side, which are two long scraps of lino the same height as my block. These stop the roller hitting and dropping off the block, which can make it shift. I set my press lightly on the runners, place my registration sheet under the plastic, place my block and paper, then add a folded up sheet of newsprint as a backing sheet. I then roll each lino block through the press once. If your pressure is set correctly, there should be no need to run the block back and forth through the press.
Step 9: Cleaning Up
Before I bought an etching press and set up my own studio, I printed in a shared open access community printmaking workshop. There was a poster in the bathroom that laid out the rules for printmaking, and one of them was "if you don't have time to clean up, you don't have time to print". So true! I always clean up my printing area as soon as I'm done.
The water-based inks I used for this print are very easy to clean up, but I use essentially the same process for oil-based inks as well. The first step is to scrape up as much ink as possible using a razor blade. I collect that ink on a scrap piece of paper, then roll any excess ink off my rollers and onto the glass, scraping that up also. I then clean away the rest of the ink from my glass, rollers and any other tools with a damp sponge, then finish off the lot with a clean rag or paper towel. If I was using water wash up oil-based ink, I'd use a little dish soap on my sponge to aid the clean up, or I'd use vegetable oil in place of water, which is what I use to clean up traditional oil-based inks. I also clean the ink off my plates at this stage, with water for water-based ink or a citrus-based cleaner for oil-based ink.
Step 10: Printing Text by Hand With Letterpress
At this stage, the relief printing part of the process is done, and you can finish your print in any way that you like. For my wine label project, I needed to add some extra text so chose to do this using letterpress type and printing it by hand.
I first measured the width of my design and set the measurement on my type composing stick, assembled my type, then locked it into my chase. I would normally print this type using a letterpress machine, but needed to use my water-based relief ink, which is not suitable to use with my letterpress printer. Instead, I inked up the type with a small roller and printed it by rubbing the back of my paper lightly over the type with my fingers. To make sure the type printed in the same place every time, I made a small cardboard registration jig to lay over the type block.
Step 11: Cutting the Prints to Size
The design on my wine labels is the constellation Equuleus, so I finished them by cutting them into the shape of the constellation. To do this, I made a jig from scrap cardboard, which I used as a guide to cut stacks of five prints at a time using a sharp utility knife.
Step 12: The Finished Product!
Et voilà! The finished product! For those interested in the wine label aspect of this project, I stuck them to the bottles using a simple glue stick, which seems to work very well.