Linocuts Step by Step

Linocutting is a very democratic style of printmaking, it can be done at home without a press, and with equipment that is not too expensive to buy. 

Let the linocut line set free your creativity...Below I've put together some photos of the process, and particularly my techniques, to show just how easy and enjoyable it is.




The Linocutter's Tool Box



PREPARING THE LINO

I use Silk Cut linoleum. It is a relatively inexpensive specialty artist lino that is readily available. The tools I use to carve the lino are also inexpensive. Most of the time I use Speedball cutters. You can buy a handle and some removable blades of various sizes and shapes. My favourite is the no. 1 v-shaped cutter; it gives me the fine lines that I love so much.

The first step is to sandpaper the lino a little to make is silky smooth. You can use it straight from the shop, but I prefer a more even and smooth surface to work with. Use wet-and-dry sandpaper with a little water and work up a good sludge. Start with 220 and use something finer like 1000 to finish off. Try not to get the jute backing too wet, it will shrink and make your block curl. Wipe the block clean with a rag, then let it dry before cutting.


Keep adding a little more water, to get a good sludge


CARVING THE LINO


Now for the safety tips before cutting starts:
                     The tools are sharp!
                     Use a non-slip mat on the table, especially for small blocks (this can be purchased from the Supermarket).
                     A hot-water bottle is handy for warming the block a little - especially for beginners.
                     Never cut towards your hands or body, always away from yourself, and away from the hand that's holding the block steady. And don't put your face too close to your work, you don't want to gouge out your eye if you slip.

                     
For the first time it's best to just have a play. Don't start your first print with great plans of epic scenes; just doodle. Try the cutters and see how much pressure and control is needed. Try all the different cutters, try straight lines and curves, try controlling the cutter and slowing down to join one line to another.


Lino Doodling on a non-slip mat


When you're ready to try something a little more challenging, prepare a drawing on tracing paper.




Transfer the drawing onto the block; it will be in reverse on the block, and the right way around when you print.



Then the cutting can start. I always have a scrap piece of lino handy to get in the 'groove', as it were. My lines are fairly fine and close together, so I like to practise a bit and 'warm up'. As you carve, the little pieces of cut lino can be swept away with your hand. Smaller bits will get stuck in the carved lines, these can be swept away with an old toothbrush or paint brush.

The finished leaf



PRINTING

Now you're ready to print.

Printing relief blocks can be done by hand, using a spoon or baren (available from art supply shops), or on a press. I use an etching press but there are other relief presses available, including old book presses.

First you need to prepare your paper, and clean the block of all those tiny offcuts of lino.

The old toothbrush will clean away little pieces of lino that are stuck in the grooves

There are many varieties of paper suitable for lino printing. I favour Japanese papers as they are finely textured yet strong. The Kozo papers are made from the bark of the Mulberry tree and are suitable for printing by hand or with a press. 

Below is a collection of my favourite papers, from left to right: Kozo Igusa (with some brown flecks of bark), Kozo Heavy, Kozo Extra Light (whiter and thinner), Iwaki (thin and with a warmer tone), and Gampi Silk Tissue (very transparent and fine)

The first two are particularly suited to spoon printing as they are very strong and it is still easy to see which parts of the block have been rubbed.

Cut your paper to size before you start printing. Your hands will be clean and the block is still free of ink for you to judge the size of paper needed.

Kozo Igusa, Kozo Heavy, Kozo Extra Light, Iwaki, Gampi Silk Tissue

Now prepare the ink.
I use a piece of glass to roll my ink, but an op shop mirror will suffice (without a frame). And I use Graphic Chemical Company water-soluble relief inks. They are of good quality, come in a good range of colours and are safe and easy to wash up in warm soapy water. But for your first time, the Speedball water-based inks are still very good.

Put some ink on your glass and move it around with a pallet knife for a few minutes (the amount of time will depend on the weather conditions, on a cold day this step can take longer). The ink needs to be worked a bit before using, making it easier to thinly spread out for the rolling.

After warming up the ink, spread out a thin layer for rolling

For small prints like this, there are quite inexpensive rollers available, particularly those produced by Speedball. I prefer the soft roller, rather than the hard, as it picks up more of the subtleties of line. These only come in small sizes, so if you find you want to do larger linocuts, you'll need to purchase a larger and more sturdy roller.

As for the amount of ink to spread out, this will become easier as you gather experience. But it's best to start with a little and build up, than to start with too much. It should make a lovely sticky sound as you roll.

Smooth out all the blobs of ink by rolling over and over

Roll back and forth over the lino block once, then replenish by rolling on the glass again. Repeating about 6 or 8 times. Remember to change the pattern of rolls on the block to ensure the ink is evenly distributed. If you always start your rolling in the left-hand corner, for example, that area will have too much ink and the rest not enough. I tend to have the block on a piece of newspaper, and rotate this around each time.

The first rolls on the block

The block will glisten with a smooth layer of ink when it's ready to print. The roller can be turned on its back when you're not using it.

Ready to print
If you don't have a press, you can print with a spoon. This is my trusty silver printing spoon, which has developed a lovely shiny spot on is base from the many hours of rubbing. The paper should be gently placed on top of the block and carefully smoothed over with your hands. If you're worried about tearing the paper while rubbing, use a piece of tracing paper on top of the printing paper and rub on this. 

It's easy to see which areas have been rubbed

Rubbing needs to be delicate but with quite a bit of strong pressure. If all your lines face one direction, like mine in this print, it's best to rub along the lines and not across them. Large areas of black are hard to print by hand, but it also depends on the density of black you like. The hand printed and hand made look is also very appealing. And as I'm going to cut out these leaves and stitch them into a book, I don't need to worry about the black areas outside the leaf shapes.

But if you have access to an etching press, there's no need for this hard labour.

I've already set the pressure on the press, before the block was inked. But when using an etching press it's necessary to protect the block from the arrival of the roller. If the first piece of lino the press roller hits is your block, it will probably move it a little and smudge your print. To avoid this it's best to use longer narrow offcuts of lino (of the same thickness) along each side of the press bed, and this will make your prints smudge free (most of the time!).

And before you run the block through the press, you will need to lay another piece of paper over your printing paper (inexpensive drawing paper is fine) as a backing sheet to protect your press blanket.

As you turn the press wheel to move the press bed, put one hand gently on the blanket, then move your hand away when the rollers have 'grabbed', and this will guard against any slipping.

But whichever way you print, the best and most enjoyable part is lifting the paper from the block!

Gently lifting the paper to reveal the print (notice the offcuts of lino at each side of the press bed)

The first print may be a little light, but the ink will gradually build up as you do more.

And now you're ready to do it again and again...

The ink on the glass may need to be replenished a little after a few prints have been taken, but simply spread a small palette knife-full over the rolling area, and roll over it again a few times to even it out, before re-inking on your block.


DRYING THE PRINTS AND CLEANING UP


The prints will need to dry from between 2 to 7 days (this also depends on the weather conditions) before they can be cut and stitched into a book, or before framing, or before storing in a plan drawer.

They will dry best with air circulating around them, so can be hung with pegs from a line strung across the room. Hang them somewhere you can see them and admire them; like bunting to celebrate the art of printmaking!

Prints hanging to dry, like bunting that celebrates the art of printmaking

And the cleaning up is fairly easy and quick, just use lots of newspaper spread around, and warm soapy water. Clean off the block with a wet rag at first, then attack the fine lines with the trusty old toothbrush that's been rubbed a little on the cake of soap.

Be careful not to get the backing jute of the lino block too wet as it will shrink and make the block curl.

When it's clean to your satisfaction, gently press it between dry pieces of newspaper to get the last of the water off, then leave to dry. 

All the other equipment can be washed in the warm soapy water, but be gentle with your roller, as you don't want to make impressions in the rubber that will make it difficult for you to print with it again.

Keep cleaning off and washing again, until the soap is its natural white
(get rid of all the black as you might want to print in a lighter colour next time)