Tools of the trade
I've been in the business of relief printmaking for a few years now, and as time went by I learned a lot about the technique and the tools that are used. I often get asked about what cutting tools to get, or what kind of ink, paper, brayer, etc.. from people who are just getting started. I wrote about this subject before but decided to write a new article, with more up-to-date info and (hopefully) better pictures! I’m going to share what tools and materials I work with, and I’ll give you some tips about beginners grade tools that are nice when you're just starting out.
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:
Palmtools from Flexcut and Pfeil, and Japanese cutting tools
Flexcut Slipstrop (for stropping the tools)
Arkansas whetstone and slipstones + honing oil
A soft pencil
Tracing paper or carbon paper
A permanent marker
Indian ink (or other coloured drawing ink)
Caligo Safewash relief printing ink
Hauer professional ink roller
A glass plate
Paper that is suitable for blockprinting
A wooden spoon
Abig 50cm wide etching press
When I started out, I had a beginners grade linocutters set. It was basically a small wooden handle with a few interchangeable cutters. In the beginning they were sharp enough, but it can be a challenge to work on linoleum with these. So instead of linoleum, I decided to try out another, softer material. There's blocks made of rubber, vinyl or plastics, the first one I tried was a product called Softcut (I believe the brandname was Essdee, there are other brands that sell something similar). It's made of some sort of plastic, so it won't dry out like rubber does and will last longer. Softcut has its benefits, but I do not work with it anymore. It is easy to carve, a good combo with cheap cutting tools, but I don't like the surface. It's rather smooth and you can't darken it with ink. I always like to paint my blocks black with Indian ink, this way I have a good impression of what I'm cutting away. One cannot paint Softcut with ink, it'll just come off and leave everything covered in smudges and stains.
Rubber is a better alternative in that regard; I have used it a few times and it's easy to darken the surface with a permanent marker or stamping ink. It's easy to carve with cheap tools as well, it's rather soft and will be easy to print as well. However, the softer the block, the harder it is to achieve tiny details. I actually don't like the way my tools glide through the material, it's like I don't have any grip... This is personal of course! I think it's good to just try different materials and find out what's suits you best.
Top left: a piece of Softcut, right under it is another plastic alternative to linoleum, which basically cuts the same way Softcut does.
Centered: a piece of Walton/battleship grey linoleum (it has a hessian backing)
Right: a piece of Factis "rubber" (it's actually not real rubber, but I'm told it cuts the same as the pink colored carving rubber from Speedball)
The material I prefer to work with is linoleum. The stuff I get is called Walton linoleum, I think it's the same as "battleship grey" linoleum. It's about 3 mm thick and has a hessian backing. It's a lot cheaper than the other alternatives by the way! In my opinion, it's the greatest to work with, especially when trying to achieve great detail. When you want to purchase some, make sure it’s fresh (old linoleum is a lot harder to work with, it gets stiff and crumbly) and don’t buy a large amount (unless you’re planning to use it all in a short amount of time).
After trying out my cheap linocutter set I soon found out I could not achieve the amount of detail that I wanted. I went and bought the smallest gouge I could find: the 0.5mm U-shaped palmtool from Pfeil. Pfeil is a Swiss brand, they make great quality tools. It didn't take long before I purchased some more of their tools; they have a wide range with great variety of shapes and sizes. Good quality tools come at a higher price, but I think it's important to keep in mind that investing in quality tools will never be a waste of money!
Because of the wide range of tools, it can be a bit tricky to decide which ones to buy. Pfeil sells different sets, but you can also buy tools separately so you don't have to spend this big amount of money in one go.
These are the Pfeil palmtools I use the most:
- the 0.5mm U-shaped tool (11/0.5), which is ideal for making small cuts, outlining details, etc
- the 1mm U-shaped tool (11/1), ideal for outlining details, making dots, strokes, etc
- the 3mm U-shaped tool (11/3), ideal for bigger dots and marks, clearing smaller areas
- the 1mm V-cut tool (12/1), ideal for making small strokes, details, dots, dashed, crosshatching, etc
- the 3mm wide 45° V-cut tool (15/3), which is a V-tool with a smaller angle, so it makes thinner strokes. Ideal for making tiny details.
- the 2mm shallow U-shaped tool (9/2), for clearing small areas
- the 10mm shallow U-shaped tool (7/10), for clearing large areas
Another popular brand that makes great quality tools is Flexcut. It's a relatively small company based in the US, and they have a great line of woodcut- and linocut tools available. After working with only Pfeil tools for quite some time, I found out Flexcut has one particular shape/size tool that no other brand has: a 1mm wide 45° V-cut tool. This V has a smaller angle than the 1mm V-cut tool from Pfeil and carves even thinner strokes! Which is ideal when you want to carve tiny details. These thin strokes are tricky to print sometimes though, so be careful what you wish for...
I have been using this Flexcut tool for a few years now, and the people of Flexcut noticed my work on Instagram. They contacted me and wanted to gift me their new Premium palmtools sets, to which I of course said YES! So now I have their Premium Mini Palmset and Premium Micro Palmset in possession... These tools all have a lovely wooden handle made of Cherry, and come in a Cherry box. Both sets contain 4 tools, varying in width and shape. The ones I use the most are their wider V-cut tool, their smallest V-cut tool and the 1mm U-shaped tool. These tools are of great quality and they come really sharp! Flexcut also has a nice product to keep them nice and sharp, I'll tell you more about that later on.
From left to right: Japanese 1.5mm V-cut tool, Japanese 1.5mm gouge and the Dot tool by Karol Pomykała
In addition to the Pfeil- and Flexcut tools I also have two Japanese cutting tools and a tool for making dots. The Japanese cutters are expensive (about 3 times the price of a Pfeil palmtool), but they really last a lifetime. These are made for professionals, they come VERY sharp and are designed for making woodcuts. But you can of course use these on lino as well. I have a 1,5mm V-cut tool and a 1,5mm U-shaped tool, and I'm using these mostly on woodcuts. They have a different handle than palmtools have, which took me some time to get used to, but I've become to like these tools a lot! A great investment, in my opinion.
The 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 easily 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 easily 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. So if you're into dots, I can totally recommend this dot tool. You should also check out Karol's work, he's the master of dots and makes astonishing prints!
Keeping it sharp
Once you got yourself a quality tool from Flexcut or Pfeil, you'll going to love how easy and almost effortlessly it'll cut through your blocks. But of course, after some time, your tool will get blunt... So keeping it sharp is definitely key. A sharp tool is easier to handle and far less dangerous than a blunt one.
As I said earlier, Flexcut has a nice product to help you keep your tools sharp. It's called "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. They have a nice video on Youtube in which they explain how to use it, I encourage you to check it out!
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 sharpening done than just stropping... And here comes the tricky bit. In all honesty, I'm not good at sharpening my tools. I've even completely ruined one, and there are a few that just don't cut the way they used to, even though they're sharp.
Sharpening linocut tools is best done on a sharpening stone (not on a grinding wheel), and there's all sorts of stones available. I have an Arkansas stone, which needs honing oil as lubricant (otherwise your tools get too hot and it will change the hardness of the steel), and Arkansas slip stones (to remove burrs from the inside of the tool). Before sharpening your tools on a stone, please read all you can about how to do this, and look for proper instruction videos online. As I said, I'm quite bad at it, so I'm not going to give any advice on sharpening. I wouldn't want to give bad advice that'll cause you to ruin your tools!
Transferring the design
So, I've talked about blocks and tools. Another thing needed before starting is, of course, a design! The way I start on a new block varies. Sometimes I "freestyle" on draw directly on the block. But most of the time, I have prepared a sketch on paper or digitally (on my iPad, using the Procreate app). When it's a sketch on paper, I trace it onto tracing paper with a soft pencil. The paper is placed on the block, image side down. I then use a folding bone to rub the pencil lead from the tracing paper onto the block. This takes some time and quite an amount of pressure, and the transfer will not be very accurate. I don't mind about that, since I never make very extensive sketches. Most are just shapes, that I fill in with leaves, dots, strokes, etc while carving, I just make those up while I'm at it.
When I have a digital sketch, I just print it using a laserprinter, and use carbon paper to transfer it on the block. When you use this method, don't forget to flip the image before printing! The transfer of your design should always show up reversed, otherwise your final print will be a reversed version of your initial idea. That might not be what you want...
From left to right: Edding permanent marker, pencil, tracing paper (folding bone on top) and black carbon paper
After transferring or drawing my design on the block, I trace all lines with a permanent marker. And after that, I cover the whole thing with one or two layers of Indian ink, that I've made a bit translucent by adding water. This way the block is darkened, but I can still see the drawing. I darken my blocks so I have a good impression of what I'm carving away.
There are more, and maybe easier methods to transfer images onto linoleum. I prefer these, but I can encourage anyone to try out what suits them best!
Ink and roller
After carving, it's printing time... For me, this is the most frustrating part. Sometimes blocks print very easy and everything is just smooth sailing, but there's also blocks that are difficult to print and just make you scream out of frustration. Things that make the printing process a lot better are the right inks and a good inkroller/brayer. I think when starting out, many of us tend to not buy the best materials, because they're expensive... But I can assure you; those will get you far better results!
When I started out, I used water based inks. Though some of those 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 results in poor print results. So after messing around for quite a while, I finally invested in oil-based ink: Caligo Safewash relief inks from a brand called Cranfield Colors. These are washable with water and soap! No stinky additives and no turpentine needed to clean things up, which is super nice. Oil based inks take a few days to fully dry, so it won't dry out on your plate while working. It's rather thick and a bit sticky, you can get a nice even layer of ink on the block.
On the left: Brayer from a brand called Hauer, bought at Polymetaal.
On the right: Japanese brayer from Holbein.
When it comes to getting a nice even layer of ink, one thing you'll need is a good brayer. I started with a cheap one with a plastic handle, they're all over the internet and many people use them (at least when starting out), but I've never understood why. I have NEVER had a good result with those. They're either too hard, or soft but with dents so you can't transfer a solid layer of ink. The things that you should look for in a brayer, is the material, the hardness of it, the diameter, and the overall build quality. I don't think it's most important to focus on width when you're buying your first brayer. A medium to soft rubber brayer, with a diameter of at least 4 cm is nice, even when it's just 6cm wide.
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 is 20cm wide, its roller has a diameter of 6cm and the rest of the brayer material is mainly cast metal. This is quite a beast and weighs over 1kg! This brayer was expensive (over €120), but it's made my work a LOT easier. And better too.
The other brayer is smaller and lighter, but I love it all the same. I mainly got this one for printing wood engravings; those need, in my opinion, a slightly harder roller to ink properly. This one is somewhere about 50 shore, is 10cm wide and has a diameter of 4.5cm. It's a Japanese roller, made by Holbein, there are multiple sizes available. They're not nearly as expensive as my big roller, but are really of a great quality.
Why a soft brayer over a hard brayer? This is personal I guess... If you ask any other printmaker they might not agree, but I'll tell you why I think a soft roller is the way to go. Many think a soft brayer will fill up the block too quickly, but in my experience, a hard brayer is actually more likely to push ink forward into the carved areas. A soft brayer does tend to apply a thicker layer of ink, but you can prevent that by paying attention by rolling out many thin layers, rather than applying 1 thick one on your block. A soft brayer will be better at filling dents and uneven areas in the linoleum (or rubber) as well. Otherwise, you'll end up with unwanted lighter spots in your print.
Cheap soft rubber brayers can have bumps, or are uneven, just like cheap hard rubber brayers. I can recommend a Speedball soft rubber brayer when you have a small budget to your disposal. In my opinion, it's better to start out with small prints, for which a small brayer is good enough!
Printing the block
A carved block, ink and brayer... only thing left to do is make a print. You won't need a press to have great results, just strength, patience and a wooden spoon.
I've seen many printmakers on social media using "the" speedball baren, so I when I started out, I got one as well. It turned out to be a bit disappointing, so I won't advice you to purchase it. The surface is rather soft, I've never been able to make a good linocut print with it. Some use these when printing stamps, and for that it's really useful. But for printing (large) blocks, the only thing you'll need is a spoon. You can use a metal one, or a wooden one. Quite cheap and extremely effective! There are other kinds of barens available in art supplies shops by the way, but I've never tried one of those...
After two years of printmaking, I finally invested in an Etching press. The one I chose is from a German brand called Abig. It's a table top, direct drive press, 50cm wide. A press makes printing a lot easier, but it presents a whole new set of problems when you start working with it. It's all worth it though, it's so nice to be able to make more than 3 prints per hour!
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 boring paper. It doesn't add much character. I now only use it for wood engraving prints, these delicate tiny images actually look great on this paper.
The second paper I tried, which I still use very often, is Fabriano Rosaspina paper. This is made of cellulose and cotton, and it prints best when dampened. I've never printed dampened paper by hand, only on the press, but I'm sure it can be done. This paper is not too expensive and comes in several weights. Also, you can choose between white and ivory, and I often like the latter best for my prints.
Handmade papers from cotton or other plants is nice to use as well, but those do come with some challenges. It's hard to print these by hand for instance, I'm not even sure it can be done... Maybe when it's very lightweight. Cotton handmade papers definitely print best when damp.
I recently fell in love with a Japanese paper: Kitakata from Awagami Paper Factory. It's very lightweight, 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 for use on a press. My prints turned out very crisp and sharp, I was quite blown away when I first tried it out.
All in all, the choice of paper is very personal. I can recommend trying out several before buying large stacks of one kind, and don't hesitate to ask for samples when your suppliers only sells paper in large quantities!
Thinking about giving block printing a try?
I don’t think you should get all the professional grade stuff when trying out block printing for the first time. You might end up investing a lot of money in something that is just not for you… So, how to find out if it is? By trying, of course, with a few beginners grade tools & materials!
- lino cutter sets are great to begin with. These sets include a handle and a few different kinds of cutters. There are several (similar) sets available, like these from Speedball for instance.
- since a beginners grade cutter is not too sharp, I think it’s best to begin with a soft alternative to linoleum, like carving rubber. There are different kinds available, by different brands. I’ve not tried all of them, but I like Factis carving rubber. I've heard Speedball Speedy Carve is also great.
- You'll need a brayer to ink the block with. A soft rubber roller is great, but can be a bit expensive. Just start out with a small one, you can always get a second, bigger brayer later on. I have tried this soft rubber brayer from Speedball and I quite liked it!
- As for inks, I think it's best to ignore beginners grade stuff and go pro! Caligo Safewash relief inks will give you great results, and it's easy to clean up. Just pick one color, instead of wanting to buy more and then go for a cheaper ink... You won't regret it.
- You’ll need a surface to roll out the ink on, like a piece of glass or plexiglass. I just happened to have a large sheet of thick glass lying around here (piece from an old table). You could use a piece from an old picture frame, an old refridgerator shelf, or otherwise buy one from a (local) glass supplier. Speedball has a bench hook plate available, which is of course a great option as well.
- To use as a baren, get yourself a wooden spoon. Or just grab one from the kitchen…
- And last but not least: paper. This one is a bit difficult to advise on, and good paper will never be cheap. When I only printed by hand, I mostly used Simili Japon paper. Kitakata paper is more expensive, but a very nice paper to print by hand. Just try different kinds and see what works for you! And when you make a test print, just use a cheap lightweight paper (like regular office paper) with a smooth surface.
Where to buy?
I sometimes find it annoying when people ask where I get my stuff, because I often get the feeling they didn't even try a store or do a Google search first... So that would be my first recommendation: try Google! 95% of the suppliers I buy from are Dutch, and many of them don't ship abroad. Nevertheless, here are a few suppliers that I visit (online) regularly:
- Baptist: I got several Pfeil tools there, and they're the only Dutch shop that sell Flexcut tools!
- Gerstaecker: I get most of my supplies here: inks, paper, and sometimes cutting tools. Also bought my press here.
- Polymetaal: they build excellent presses, and also sell great quality printmaking tools and supplies. I bought my big Hauer brayer here, and most of my wood engraving tools as well. Polymetaal ships internationally!
- De Kwast: this is where I get my Kitakata paper.
- Papier Royaal: this is where I get my handmade papers (like Nepalese Lokta or Indian Khadi Rag papers)
The next three shops are based in the UK. I've ordered here a few times, and I can recommend all three of them!