PART I - Supply List for new relief printers
This week, i started work on a new linocut. The image is actually a drawing from last year that I sold in April of 2018. When I started getting hooked on relief printing, all I could think was that this drawing would be so perfect as a block print. Another drawing I have my heart set on carving is my Raven Perched drawing from last year. Anyways, I thought I would take this opportunity to walk through everything I have learned to date on the subject. I am no expert but I am in a unique position that I am not totally green anymore, I have a pretty good understanding of what I am doing, but I am new enough that I am empathetic to the often overwhelming feeling of starting up. So let's get started! What frustrates me the most when reading blogs on any new subject is the lack of specifics. People who have been doing something for too long or are experts often have what I refer to as an "assumed knowledge".
My day job is in broadcasting, and when I first started, I had absolutely zero knowledge about the industry. People love to spout acronyms and fancy words that make it sound like they are exclusive holders of a niche of knowledge, but when you start to ask questions and pick away at the meaning behind abbreviations, acronyms, and other fancy words, you are left with simple, basic truths, and more often than not, you can expose people hiding their lack of knowledge behind the shield of those fancy words, but that is another article altogether!
Anyways...in part one of this entry, I thought I would go through all the different supplies and try to narrow it down to the best supplies I have found to complete the task at hand, which is not simply carving an image you made, but printing it as well. The problem with a lot of "beginner" art supplies is that they are often so bad they can have the negative result of deterring people from the medium. This isn't to say I have the mentality of "only the most expensive". On the contrary, I always look for affordable professional quality materials. In the case of items I know I will have either forever, or a very long time, I will sometimes invest a little more if I know in the long run it will save me money.
Secondly, I will try to tackle and address the process I use. From drawing and carving, to inking a block and running a series.
This list is a startup list. If you get into linocut, you will eventually want more. This will get you through a first block from carve to completing a run. I have detailed explanations below of why I chose what I did on the supply list. I will provide costs in Canadian, as that is where I live.
Red - Items you will probably need to get
Yellow - Items you will most likely own as an artist
Green - Common house hold items you should have
1. Unmounted battleship grey linoleum $15 (depending on size, but I would recommend starting 8x10" or so)
2. Self healing cutting mat 24x36" $50
3. T-Square $20
4. Box cutter knife $3
5. Golden GAC 500 gel medium $20
6. Acetone $3
7. Rubber gloves $3
8. Plastic ink squeegees $2
9. Cheap 2" hardware store or craft store brush $4
10. Any old rag or the ball of your thumb
11. Grey tone Copic markers $8 (you could use a cheaper craft store brand, but as I am an illustrator, this is something I happen to own)
12. Black markers or brush pen $3
13. Pfeil tools (3 or 4) a 11/0.5 veiner, 12/1 V gouge, 15/2 V gouge is what I got and a Flexcut 4 blade starter set $25 each,
14. Flexcut honing slip strop $25
15. Registration jig DIY (foam core ) $5
16. Inking surface glass plate or palette (tempered) $30
16. Speedball 6" soft brayer $20
17. Wooden spoon $5
18. Caligo Safe Wash Oil based Relief Ink 150ml tube $20
19. Fabriano Academia 20x30" $2 sheet (x10)
20. Work bench or table $50
21. Dish Soap $2
22. String with bull clips or clothes pins $4
$208 CAD startup cost
$85 CAD preexisting art supplies
$19 CAD house hold items
Total: $312 CAD (actual price you'll be spending is around $200 CAD, and many of these supplies are one time purchases if taken care of)
I will go over the supports I have tried.
1. Unmounted battleship grey linoleum - there are several versions of this, they all pretty much seem the same to me. This is the go to. It is the best. You need the right tools for it, but it is the best. It holds smooth, clean lines, fine detail, and is easy to cut with the right tools. Will require a bit of elbow greese for hand printing.
2. Speedball Easy Carve - easy to carve, easy to crumble. I really like it for simple designs or illustrations with limited detail. I used this to make postcards for my booth at marketcollective. Any fine details and the block will start to crumble. I think Speedball intends this product to be more for stamp making as it is more like rubber than linoleum, however many people do use it like it is lino, and you can if you so desire. Does not require good tools. It is also very easy to print off of by hand.
3. Speedball mounted tan block - hated it. I made a nice design on the block, but the block never printed properly by hand. I feel like it is designed for press printing. The carving surface itself was similar to battleship grey. Full disclosure, I have seen some people print on the battleship grey mounted blocks with good success when hand burnishing, so maybe I was doing something wrong, but I don't really see any benefits to mounted blocks. With unmounted, if I want to I can cut the shape out of the square so I don't get any stray printing. The regular linoleum also holds up very well, it is not nearly as delicate as the easy to carve blocks.
4. Softoleum or Softcut - similar to easy carve, but a little better, cuts easily with beginner tools. I expeeienced an issue with transferring, I use gel medium to transfer a photocopy, then acetone to remove the photocopy before inking. I noticed the acetone actually reacted with my block and ruined it, causing the surface to bubble and warp. If you draw directly or use carbon transfer, totally viable, otherwise avoid! Also holds a line fairly well and less crumbly than easy carve. This stuff is fairly easy to print off of by hand.
Overall winner: Battleship grey linoleum
Self healing cutting mat
This is really important for measurements. I actually don't cut any of my paper, instead I use a T-Square as a metal tear bar to trim my paper, but I do use the mat to make all my measurements and make sure the paper is square and lined up properly. You also may want to cut your linoleum.
Lot's of trimming paper and cutting blocks is linocut, and later on proper registration will become more important when you do reduction blocks or multi block prints and multi colour print registrations. If you are lining your paper up without using tabs, then you will want proper cuts and tears made to your paper and block. Invest in a good metal one.
Box cutter knife
Any old sharp knife will do.
I'm not going to spend too much time on this. There are all sorts of different routes, pick one that works for you. I am not going to spend time talking about transfer paper and tracing. Instead I will discuss a method I learned going down this road that works with printouts (both inkjet and photocopy). I have tried the acetone transfer method and it is just not as clean and precise as this one
1. Golden GAC 500 gel medium. it's quite simple, get a brush you don't care about, poor out some gel medium onto your block, spread it around with the brush till a sufficient layer has covered over the block (don't be stingy). Place your print down on top of the block and using a flat edge or baren, smooth out the print out against the block, pushing out any excess medium from the center to the sides. I usually let it cure for an hour, but have removed it as quickly as 10 minutes later, but have occasionally had issues removing it too soon. An hour seems to be a good safe time. Once cured, soak it under water and start rubbing away the paper. Once you are done, you will be left with a reverse image of your image on the block.
2. Acetone - This is a photocopy transfer method, and I know it works because I used to do it in art school using acetone markers. I did try just acetone and a brush to burnish the image onto my linoleum block, but it didn't work nearly as well as I wanted it to. Regardless of whether or not you use this method, I use the acetone to clean the transfer off my block after I have caved it, so I still recommend getting this even if you don't use it for photocopy transfer. Remember, if you are buying nail polish remover, make certain it is the 100% acetone type!
3. Carbon paper and tracing paper - I will probably use this method in the future, but for now I have been drawing images, then photocopying them to use the GAC 500 transfer method, but I know many others prefer this. You can by this at pretty much any hobby or art store, and there is even a special red transfer paper that you can purchase that is used by many relief print artists.
Overall winner: GAC 500
This is sort of personal, but I do feel this is versatile, especially if you are just starting out, you probably made a drawing and thought..."what if"? This method will allow you to simply photocopy the drawing and transfer it very accurately to your block. This is really important if you are planning to follow the guidelines of a preexisting high detail drawing. If you plan to kind of make it up as you go, then a loose carbon transfer is probably best.
You'll want these when handling solvents like Acetone, and you may also want to wear them while inking up your plate or handling your ink so you aren't getting smudges all over your paper. Something I wish I had bought for my first print runs.
These little guys are both handy in the image transfer process when trying to smooth out the paper against your plate, and they are also handy for moving ink around on your palette.
You should already have one, it's the brush you use when you don't want to ruin your good brushes. (applying mediums, glues, etc)
You already own one.
Grey Tone Markers
1. Copic Markers - not necessary but handy, use a grey tone marker (I use a mid value) and colour the block. This makes it nice and easy to see what you are carving away as it increases the contrast between carved block and uncarved block.
Markers and Brush pens
Great for cleaning up transfered images, or just adding and drawing new designs directly onto your block.
1. Speedball interchangeable blades - homestly, if you are going to get into this, just avoid. The difference is like using a dollar store brush versus a Kolinsky Sable. YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR! I will say that these do work okay on easy carve and softoleum blocks, but then I find you are limited to surface carving materials that have a lot of limitations. It's also worth mentioning that while you may be saving money on your tool here (but not really as they are still fairly expensive and you will have to replace the blades when they dull), you usually have to pay a premium for the "easy to carve" linoleums. So while you cut corners on your tools, you will be doling out big money on the easy carve stuff. It costs you around $20-25 CAD for the Speedball cutter, or $25 for one quality Pfeil blade that will last you a life time if maintained.
2. Flexcut tools - pretty good set of tools, and the starter kit comes with a leather honing strop and honing compound to sharpen your blades, and all good blades will need sharpening. The carving tools themselves are 4 interchangeable blades. It comes with 2 V gouge blades and 2 U gouge blades. I still use the large chisel gouge in this set to clear big areas. I have heard complaints from some that do not enjoy the feel of certain high quality tools (how they rest in your hands). This would certainly be a high quality options, though I would invest in the individual wood handle blades as no one likes changing through blades while working as this totally kills the flow.
3. Pfeil tools - the best I have used. They cost me 25 bucks each, and I currently own 3. Two small veiners and a medium V gouge tool. These are the only tools i used to make the eagle aside from a wide Flexcut U chisel to clear the large area around the subject. They are stiff and easy to guide and control. They are sharp enough that I find I am able to guide them along large curves and ellipses in the carve, a problem I have had with other tools is making a continuous circle look as though it is smooth and flowing, these tools eliminated that problem as I was able to simply hole the tool still and guide the block itself to create the circles. They don't flick or jolt out of the lino causing unwanted scratches in the surface. Think of it like having a good Chef's blade and the difference between cutting a tomato with one of these blades versus say a knife you bought at Safeway for $9. As a result, due to the sharpness and smoothness, I have cut myself a lot less with these tools...in fact only once, and I was being very careless. However, as I mentioned in the Flexcut tools portion of this article, some people have complained about the palm tool. So buy just one, like a small veiner or V gouge (something you use more than any other blade) and test it out. If you don't like it, I'm sure you could sell it easily on a relief printing group on facebook or reddit.
Overall winner: Pfeil tools
There seems to be a lot of repetition and cliche about certain tools in linocut, and this is one of those cliches. The reason is because they are legit, awesome tools! They glide through the linoleum with ease, making regular lino feel like easy carve without the crumble or the hefty price tag. Don't forget, you will still need a slip strop to hone and sharpen your blades!
In part 2, we will go over making registration jig out of foam core.
You will need a surface to roll ink. You can by a tempered glass palette at an art store, or tempered glass from Lowes
1. Esdee hard 10" brayer - I don't know, every time I use it, I instantly put it down and use another. It's cheap garbage. I just remembered, last time I used it, it fell off the table and I forgot to wash it...oh well
2. Speedball soft 6" brayer - it's surprisingly ok. It inks up my blocks well enough, doesn't miss anything, does the job. Durability wise, not sure how it will hold up. It was around $20.
Overall winner: Speedball 6" brayer
I have a Japanese brayer on order that I can only assume will be better, but let's keep in mind this list is about what you need to start up.
1. Premium Speedball Baren with mesh - I don't know who dreamed this piece of trash up, but it's absolute garbage. It's cushioned on the bottom. It actually robs you of the pressure you apply to the baren, and this is the single most important aspect of ink transfer. It's %100 counter intuitive, and it makes no sense to me whatsoever. Avoid this like the plague unless you don't want nice solid ink transfers on your prints.
2. Cheap starter Speedball Baren - It's still not ideal, but at least it does what it's supposed to. I am sure there are much better options, and you could probably DIY something way better. I personally use a wooden spoon and a Thule wrench that came with our hitch bike rack. They work way better, but I do use this to lay down the overall, initial transfer, then switch to the spoon and wrench for problem areas.
3. Wooden Spoon - You already have one, and it works. It's a little slow going because the contact area is pretty small, but you can really lay in the power with it, getting smooth ink transfers.
4. Student grade bamboo baren - Pretty crappy, my bamboo split during my first series pull. I unraveled it to reveal a cardboard disk...you get what you pay for.
Overall winner: Wooden Spoon
Another one of those cliches that's true. On a side note, I have ordered a good bamboo baren and will be testing it shortly, and I may purchase a disk baren down the line. I have looked into ball bearing barens, but they are expensive and from what I understand could break under the pressure required for solid ink transfers so I will probably avoid.
I know what you are thinking, why not just get a press? I intend to get a small table top press, in fact, this is where I have planned my birthday earnings to go this year, but this will only print smaller prints (typically a maximum print width of around 26cm). The large presses are far too expensive. I will also be looking into the possibility of a membership with my printmaking society in Calgary to access studio time.
Relief Printing Ink
1. Speedball water based ink - garbage, avoid. The worst part is...this is pretty much stocked at EVERY local art supply store. If I could avoid Speedball altogether, I really would...they just suck so bad at making the product they make. Unfortunately I can't show you any of my speedball inked prints because they all went into recycling.
2. Schmincke Aqua inks - Not a bad little product. It's water-based and I got pretty good results doing a large print run of some small postcard prints. I will definitely experiment more with it.
3. Caligo Safe Wash Relief Ink (oil based) - great product. Another linocut cliche. Goes on smooth and solid (with pressure). The only reason I am even remotely considering an oil based ink to work with at home is the fact that it cleans with regular old dish soap. The downside, is it can take 2-3 days to dry.
Overall winner: Caligo Safe Wash
Paper is very much a personal choice. I can offer some suggestions based on my experiments. If you are new to this, you will most likely be hand burnishing prints. I know there is an attractive allure to heavy papers, but unless you plan to do low print runs and spend a ton of time burnishing, I recommend lower GSM papers.
What is GSM?
GSM just stands for grams per square meter. In short, the lower the GSM of the paper, the thinner it is, and thus easier to hand burnish.
But don't take my word for it, I encourage you to try the papers you want and see how they perform. I do occasionally use papers over 200 GSM for smaller prints, but for the one I am currently working on (12x16"), I have had much greater success at lower GSM.
1. Fabriano Academia 200 GSM 20x30" - Nothing fancy here. It is an acid free cartridge paper that performs overall quite well. It's cheap. I get it for less than $2 a sheet. It picks up detail reslly well, has a bit of stiffness to it. You won't break your arm working it, but don't kid yourself, you'll have to throw down some pressure.
2. Stonehenge 250 GSM 22x36" - I really like Stonehenge, it is affordably nice heavyweight paper, coming in at around $6 per sheet. If your print is smaller like an 8x10" block, Stonehenge looks really nice. Buyers will apreciate the weight to the paper and the deckled edge.
3. Somerset Satin 250 GSM 22x36" - This paper is really gorgeous and absorbent. I was actually surprised at how well the ink transferred based on the thickness of the paper, but it is still stiff, and I find it is difficult to keep in place while hand burnishing a larger print, I often get offset lines as a result. I haven't tried this on a smaller print but I really want to. Coming in at just under $10 a sheet, it's a paper that you really don't want to mess up on. Not for experimentation!
4. Hahnemuhle Biblio(?) 150 GSM 15x20" - This paper is pretty nice. It's light weight, but still has a bit of heft to it. It doesn't creese as easily as say the 120 GSM sheets. It has a deckled edge, and it's cheap at just over $2 a sheet. It's very easy to hand burnish through this paper, and it holds detail incredibly well. I am currently doing a run of prints on this paper and really like it, but I am also waiting for another set of papers I have yet to try out.
5. BFK Rives lightweight 115 GSM 20x26" - It's a good paper, but pretty pricey for how light it is. It costs about the same as a sheet of larger Stonehenge at 250 GSM. I haven't been insanely impressed by this paper. I don't think I will buy it again. It's too thin without having the same charm as a lightweight Japanese paper, it's expensive, and not really exceeding at anything, and the Biblio is so easy to burnish, that I feel I don't need to go any lighter on the GSM. Again, this is all personal preference.
I am waiting on a few papers to tryout:
Zerkall Book 145 GSM
Somerset Book 175 GSM
Fabriano Tiepolo 150 GSM
I am really anxious to try out the Somerset Book Wove based on my experiences with their paper.
Overall winner: Fabriano Academia
It's a safe pick, but I am trying to think of the beginner. It isn't my favourite by a long shot, but I do think it is a good starting point. You want something inexpensive with a bit of weight but still easy to hand pull. It does not have a lot of personality, but it picks up fine details well, and when you are just starting, you don't want a material that will take the control out of your hands by adding too much personality. Also try out some Stonehenge so you can get a feel for a heavier paper without breaking the bank like you would with Somerset Satin or BFK Rives heavyweight. My advice, stick to the 150 - 200 GSM range of papers, and then branch out once you have done a few prints, but if you are doing smaller 4x6" to 8x10" prints, I would definitely consider Stonehenge as a top pick! I recently sold a run of 8x10" prints on Stonehenge, and I had the same image on Fabriano Academia, and the Stonehenge ones sold out, and the Academia ones stayed simply because one had the deckled edge and lovely thickness. Go figure!
1. Workbench or tables - I have moved into the garage and am working on a couple fold out tables. You just want to have a good space you can ink on and burnish your prints. You'll want room to hang prints and also keep your clean paper. Organization is really key to making sure you get good prints. The messier your work station, the more ink smudges you'll get on your prints. I guarantee it. You'll be trying to juggle to many things and you will get ink on your fingers, then it will transfer to your burnishing area, and then to the print, and the back of the print. Keep everything as tidy as you can.
2. Dish soap - You will need some dish soap for cleaning up your Caligo Safe wash inks. It's also handy for just basic cleanup. I like Dawn soap, it's the mechanics choice, and the choice of environmentalists cleaning up oil spills. I'm not even joking. Ask any bike mechanic, they will have Dawn soap in their arsenal.
3. Clothes line with clothespins - You can use any old piece of string and clips, just make sure it is sturdy enough to hold up your prints to dry as the ink takes at least 2 days to dry.
That's it for now! I hope this has been informative and helpful. Stay tuned for Part II - Process
In part 2, I will go over all the procedures from ink transfer of your drawing, to carving and inking, to clean up.