I’ve been in the relief printmaking business for a few years now, and as time went by I learned a lot and gathered quite a few tools. Some were gifted, but for the most part, I invested in these myself; selling prints made it possible for me to buy the Etching press of my dreams for example! I often get questions about the tools and materials I use, so I decided to write down a list for you, along with some information on why I use them.
This article is not sponsored in any way, it’s just me sharing what products I personally like and use for printmaking.
In short, these are the tools and materials I work with:
The name says it all; linocuts are carved out of linoleum. It’s a 3mm thick flooring material made of sawdust, pine resin, ground cork dust and linseed oil, with a hessian backing. I know there’s brown and sand coloured stuff available, but the linoleum I use has a grey color. My supplier calls it Walton linoleum, I think it’s the same as Battleship grey lino. It’s a great material to work with, allows quite a lot of detail, but you will need to use sharp tools of course! And it’s best to have fresh linoleum - when it’s old it can get brittle and harder to carve.
On the left: Birch ply - On the right: Basswood ply
For woodcut, I primarily use birch ply and basswood ply. Both are not too expensive, less prone to warping (like wood planks do) and have a nice flat surface.
When starting out with woodcut, I used basswood ply, or Sina ply. Sina ply is basically the same, though it has less (but thicker) veneer layers and is therefore a bit more expensive than the basswood ply I buy at the art supplies store. Basswood is easy to work with; it’s soft but holds detail rather well, and it’s easy to cut across the grain. The pieces I work with are about 5mm thick.
I now mostly use Birch ply when I carve woodcuts, this material is much denser than basswood ply and holds detail extremely well. You can buy birch ply at the lumberyard, but the quality can be a little unpredictable. I’ve had pieces that had spots that would splinter easily, and you can’t always predict that when you look at the surface. I love the Baltic ply from Jackson Art Supplies, this costs way more than the stuff from the lumberyard but it is of excellent quality.
Some people think using plywood will destroy the edge of your tools because of the glue, but I don’t think it causes any trouble. The layer of glue between the layers of wood is rather thin, you won’t be carving through thick blobs of superhard glue… And you will need to keep sharpening your tools while working anyway; wood will dull your tools a lot quicker than linoleum.
Pfeil is a Swiss brand that makes a great variety of tools of great quality. Their palmtools for lino- and woodcut are very nice, they’re sharp and easy to hold. Some people don’t like the mushroom shaped handle, but I obviously do. I use these exclusively for linocut, I have tried them on wood as well which was great initially… but they don’t seem to keep their edge too well, so I decided to use other tools for woodcut instead.
These are the Pfeil palmtools I use the most:
In addition to the Pfeil palmtools I also have a special tool for making dots. This dot tool is a relatively rare one, I found out about it via Instagram. Polish artist and printmaker Karol Pomykała developed this dot tool and sells it in his webshop. With this tool you can create tiny dots, and I must say it has been a welcome addition to my toolset! I love creating all sorts of textures and being able to make dots this effortlessly is really nice. You can create dots with other linocut tools of course, (like using the tip of a V-cut tool) but the way this tool works makes it a lot easier, you can work a lot faster. It doesn’t work on wood though!
I bought one palmtool from Flexcut years ago, and the way it was able to carve super thin strokes kind of blew my mind! I’m talking about their 1mm wide 45° V-cut tool: this V has a sharper angle than the 1mm V-cut tool from Pfeil which enables it to carve such thin marks. The lovely people from Flexcut discovered my work on Instagram and offered to send me two sets of their new Premium Palm tools… which was super nice! I primarily use these on wood, they are very sharp and keep their edge really well. Some of these I use on lino as well, like their 1.5mm U-gouge (slightly bolder strokes than the Pfeil 1mm U-gouge), and their 2mm 70° V-cut tool that makes great bold marks as well.
Though I love the Flexcut tools, my absolute favorite to carve wood with are my Japanese Moku Hanga tools. These are really expensive (cost about twice as much as one Flexcut palmtool), but they last a lifetime. And the metal the knives are made of is very good, it holds an edge extremely well. My most-used V-cut tool lasted a year before I had to sharpen it on a whetstone. Also, this V-cut tool has such a sharp V shape that it can carve very fine lines, but also broader strokes because of the width (1.5mm). This makes it a very versatile tool, which is really nice.
Keeping the tools sharp, especially while working on a woodcut, is very important. A sharp tool is easier to handle and far less dangerous than a blunt one. Also, a blunt edge will give a jagged edge to strokes carved in lino, and you certainlywon’t be able to carve wood with it properly. It will tear the fibers of the wood instead of cutting through it, which will give messy results.
Flexcut has a nice product to help keep your tools sharp. It’s called a “SlipStrop”: a wooden block, molded in several shapes that match different tools, with a small piece of leather attached to the bottom. It comes with a honing compound, which you rub on the surface before you start stropping your tools. Flexcut has a nice video on Youtube in which they explain how to use it.
If you strop your tools regularly (every 15 minutes while working, for instance), your tools will remain sharp. But you’ll find out that after some time, your tools will need a bit more than just stropping…
And here comes the tricky bit. In all honesty, it’s not THAT hard to sharpen tools on a stone, but it takes time to get it right. I’ve completely ruined one of my tools in the past, though it was good practice…
Sharpening lino- and woodcut tools is best done by hand on a sharpening stone (not on a grinding wheel), and there’s all sorts of stones available. I primarily use waterstones; no need to mess around with honing oil because you can use water as lubricant. NEVER sharpen your tools without a lubricant, it will ruin them! I also have a few Arkansas slipstones, to remove burrs from the inside of the tool with. These do need a drop of honing oil before using them.
Since I’m not really great at sharpening, I’m not going to give any advice on it. There are videos available online that explain it better than I ever could, and also, I wouldn’t want to give you any tips that’ll cause you to ruin your tools…
One material that is essential to the way I work is black Indian ink. I use this to darken my blocks with before I start carving. I mix it with a bit of water, to make it translucent, and put one to two coats on the linoleum or wood. When working with wood, I make sure I seal the wood first with varnish, otherwise the wood would soak up the ink, causing the surface to get rough (which causes trouble during printing). And if I were to carve it, there won’t be much contrast between the surface of the wood and the carved areas, which would defeat the purpose: I darken my blocks to have a clear impression of what I’m carving away.
When I started out, I used only water based inks for printing. Though some brands are OK, I never got the results I wanted. The ink can dry out pretty fast, be really patchy, or it can be runny and fill up your carved areas, which all cause poor results. So after messing around for quite a while, I finally invested in oil-based ink: Caligo Safewash relief inks made by Cranfield Colors. These are washable with water and soap! Easy to clean up, which is super nice. Oil based inks take a few days to fully dry, so they won’t dry out on your plate while working.
A good roller is usually made of rubber, and the hardness of rubber is measured in Shore. I have two favourite brayers that I use, both with rubber rollers, and they’re both about 45-50 shore. My biggest brayer (brand is called Hauer) is 20cm wide, its roller has a diameter of 6cm and the rest of the brayer material is mainly cast metal. This thing is quite a beast and weighs over 1kg! It was expensive (over €120), but it’s made my work a LOT easier.
The soft rubber brayers from Speedball are nice to work with as well. These are quite soft, but easy to work with and an overall great buy when you’re on a smaller budget. The rubber roller can get sticky after a while, you can solve that by applying a bit of chalk powder. The stickyness doesn’t cause any problems with inking though.
I’ve worked with a rather cheaply built etching press for a few years, which caused me quite a lot of trouble when I started making larger blocks, especially woodcuts. Last year I decided to finally invest in the press of my dreams: a 60cm wide geared etching press manufactured by Polymetaal! I now wish I had done it sooner, as it practically solved all issues I encountered with my old press. It’s a great beast (still need to give it a name…) and a real treat to work with.
When I started out, I found this bit very difficult to decide on. I eventually started out with Simili Japon paper, which is not too expensive and has a nice, smooth surface. It was easy enough to print on by hand, but it’s a bit of a boring paper…
The second paper I tried, which I still use very often, is Fabriano Rosaspina paper. This is made of cellulose and cotton, which makes it possible to dampen before printing. It has a lovely soft surface and feel, it’s not expensive and is available in two weights and two colors; white and ivory. I often like the latter best for my prints.
Khadi cotton rag paper
Handmade papers from cotton or other plants are nice to use as well, but those do come with some challenges. It’s hard to print them by hand for instance, and because the surface is not even, it can cause permanent dents in a woodblock when printing on a press. I use these kinds of papers exclusively when printing linocuts, though Khadi rag paper can be used with woodcuts as well. These are made of 100% recycled cotton rags, there are different sizes, weights and types (rough, medium and smooth surface) available. I really love this paper, though it can be a bit tricky to print sometimes. Also, it needs dampening before printing to get a nice, even ink coverage.
Nepalese Lokta paper
Another handmade paper I like is Nepalese Lokta, this has a lovely texture and comes in a great variety of colors, though I have only used natural colored Lokta. It’s made of Lokta fibers and has a beautiful texture, which makes each print come alive even more. As it can cause dents in wooden surfaces under the press, I only use this for printing Linocuts.
Awagami Kitakata paper
A Japanese handmade washi paper that I practically fell in love with is Kitakata paper from Awagami Paper Factory. It’s very lightweight (but STRONG), has a lovely soft and smooth surface and comes in a natural color, but also a greenish tint. Many printmakers prefer this paper when printing by hand, but it’s also great when printing with a press. My prints turned out very crisp and sharp, I was quite blown away when I first tried it out. This paper is available in sheets and rolls (the latter making it possible to print very large blocks as well).
I can recommend trying out several before buying large stacks of one kind, and don’t hesitate to ask for samples when your supplier only sells paper in large quantities!
Most of the shops I buy my supplies from are based in the Netherlands:
The next three shops are based in the UK. I’ve ordered from them multiple times, and I can recommend all three of them!