I’ve always loved the graphic quality that wood block prints and linocuts offer the artist, and lino printing seemed like the most accessible medium to get straight into. As a beginner to this, lino served the purpose I was looking for and I enjoyed working with it. HOWEVER, I nearly packed in lino printing before I had the chance to even give it a proper chance, so I wanted to write this post to save any beginners like me out there from the frustration I had. Take it from me, when you are properly equipped lino printing is such an enjoyable and satisfying pastime (I can’t believe more people aren’t doing it).
So why did I almost throw in the towel? As somebody looking to get into linocutting I would visit art shops and they mostly all had a very limited lino printing section in a dusty corner, really only offering starter kits. Being keen to try it out I eagerly bought my first kit and couldn’t wait to get home and try it.
I’m just going to say this, do not buy a starter kit like this one from a popular art store in London (or wherever you live) like I did. There are lots of starter kits out there from various suppliers, and most of them are not that fantastic. It’s largely down to the chisels that are in the packs, they are low quality plastic tools with fairly blunt interchangeable heads that you have to gauge rather than cut into the linoleum with. I wanted to scream out loud after trying to use my starter kit after five minutes, and I can’t recommend avoiding them enough.
So read on my linocutting friends, and I will share with you some very lovely tools and materials, as well as some splendid suppliers that you can visit to get the gear to get you started.
Pfeil – These are my current tools of choice. I love them! Pfeil are a swiss based tool manufacturer that really know how to create great carving tools. They are manufactured in two main types, U Shaped and V shaped tools, and the special bulbous handles of the tools I recommend give them the name Palm tools, because of the way they comfortably sit in the palm of your hand whilst you carve and allow you to exert precise amounts of pressure. The U and V names relate to the shape of the cutting profile of the tools, and for each shape there are a series of different sizes. These range from very fine tools – for finer detail; and larger tools – for clearing larger areas of lino or making bolder marks.
You can buy Pfeil tools individually or in packs of 6 or 8 – if you want to go for it I think you can even buy them in sets of 12 or more with fancy tool stands. However, I would say that you will probably find that you develop certain ‘go to’ favourites, and so you may end up with 7 or 8 that rarely get touched so maybe don’t rush in and start like I did with a kit of 6 tools.
I bought my first set from G&S Tools and Timber and have had no complaints. They arrived in a little box and were in perfect condition. The only sets of the palm tools I can find on their website now come in sets of eight, but the price from this supplier is still very competitive. At the time of writing you can order two different sets for around £120 + P&P from their website here.
Other suppliers I would recommend are Intaglio Printmakers who have literally everything you could ever need and is like an Aladdin’s cave for the printmakers out there. If you are lucky enough to live in London or maybe visiting the city you should go there.
If you want to buy the tools individually you can and they are usually around £12.50.
Japanese Tools – Firstly I should say that I have not tried these as much as I’d like, but I have had a little go with them and they are very good. They are made from a mixture of Japanese steel so they stay sharp and iron so that they are flexible and strong too. Basically they are like mini samurai swords and don’t mess about.
The blades and handles are different to the Swiss tools I have, and I think that I just prefer the way the Swiss tools feel in my hand when I’m working with them. It’s down to you what you prefer to use, and I’m still really keen to give these a try as I am confident that they are very, very good.
You can buy these from Intaglio Printmakers online here which is good for UK based artists like me, or I’ve found this shop called McClains Printmaking Supplies which looks pretty good for anyone based in North America.
There are a few different types of lino that you can use, and each type has a different quality which suits different types of people. Here I’ll give you a quick overview of the options I’ve encountered and tried, which are basically three types; a fibre/canvas backed grey type, a rubbery softcut grade vinyl and also another type of vinyl which is a bit tougher called Relief Printing Vinyl.
Lino – This is currently my preferred material. It is a 3.2mm thick fibre or canvas backed grey lino that you can pick up in most decent art shops. You can buy this in a variety of pre-cut sizes or in large rolls if you want to save some money. I like the quality and accuracy I get from this material, I’ve been told that it can eventually dry out and become brittle, but I’ve not run into any issues with this so far and have seen plenty of examples of people cutting designs into this material and being able to run off prints years later without running into any issues. I also really like the fact that I can draw my designs directly onto this lino before I get around to beginning carving out the lino.
You can also get the lino described above mounted onto 18mm thick block. I’ve not used this but some people prefer it, I think that they say it’s better because the mounted lino doesn’t curl up after it’s been cleaned post printing, but I’ve never found that the unmounted lino curls up, so there could be another reason I’m not aware of (such as a persons printing setup). You can buy this from Pullingers or Intaglio Printmakers online in the UK.
Softcut Vinyl – I’ve only tried this once and I personally found it too soft for my liking, although I think it could be better for some artists, particularly children or maybe even elderly people who need a material that offers less resistance against the cutting edge of the tools. The standard lino and vinyl are obviously a bit tougher to cut through and so the potential for your hand to slip and maybe cut your finger is a little higher (I’ll also do a mini blog one day on the best ways to use the tools so you avoid any unwanted cuts). This seems to print fine, but the softness of the material means that some of the sharper cut marks into the material that I like to make don’t feel as good to me as they do on the standard lino.
Again you can buy this from my favourite supplier Intaglio Printmakers or if you’re in the USA you can get it from an online store I found called Art Material Supplies.
Relief Printing Vinyl – This material is really good, and advocates of it swear that it provides a more accurate and sharper finish to a lot of the marks you can make. It is also commonly said that users of it find it softer and easier to cut than standard lino. It’s manufactured in Japan and has two cutting sides rather than one. It also looks and feels to me like it would stand up to the test of time and last a lot longer too. The reason I don’t use it that much is because the pieces I’ve bought are dark green or blue and this makes it difficult for me to see any pencil marks I’ve made when I’m sketching my designs onto the lino. You could pretty easily get around this by drawing your design onto paper first and then transferring it onto the block using a white carbon backed sheet of transfer paper if you wanted to.
I’d recommend giving it a try if you’re curious, and again it’s available at Intaglio Printmakers, Twenty Twenty Gallery or at Cauldfield Art Supplies for any USA based printers wanting to try it out.
If you are going to be printing your carefully cut lino then you’ll need a roller or two to add to your print makers toolkit. There are a variety of options out there, from cheap plastic handled options to really nice robust Japanese rollers. One thing to consider when buying your roller or rollers, is to consider the size of your lino prints that you will be rolling the ink onto. For example, if a lino print is 10cm wide and 15cm long, then you will want a roller that is at least 10cm wide and with a circumference of 15cm or more. This way you will be able to ensure that when you have coated your roller in a lovely even layer of ink you will be able to evenly transfer that onto your lino prior to running it through the press.
There are basically a few types and they all have rubber rollers of different hardness and different qualities in terms of their manufacture. The reason that the rollers are rubber is because a lino is never perfectly flat, so you want a softer surface that has some give to it to allow a good coverage of ink to be transferred to the lino.
Japanese Rollers – These are made of very high quality and come in a range of sizes. The quality of their manufacture is fantastic and this allows you to apply a good amount of pressure if required (Before I had a book press I used the rollers to press the paper onto the inked lino). Japanese rollers come with a thick rubber covering, and you can get them in soft or hard rubber.
You can buy these from Intagio Printmakers in the UK or McClains in the USA.
Red Handled Rollers – These are the most common type of roller that you can pick up in most art shops and places like Amazon. They are ok but not great in my view. The build quality isn’t fantastic and if you press down too hard ,then it feels like the roller will detach or loose its centre of balance with the handle.
To talk about inks really does require a blog on this subject all to itself. There are so many and they all have different qualities. To keep it simple I’ll describe two basic types. There are water based inks, which I don’t rate that much, and there are oil based inks that I do like very much. As you might expect, water based inks are easier to clean up after, but the oil based inks provide a much better consistency and final crisp print quality. I’d only use water based inks if I was printing with children as they are a bit safer.
Water Based Inks – These are not my favourite but some people prefer them, and in the spirit of fairness I’d say some of the best ones you can get are made by a company called Akua. They are slow drying inks and can also be used for painting and drawing. If you want to use these it is recommended that you use modifiers to adapt it for printing purposes.
Oil Based Relief Inks – These come in a variety of pigments, but to be honest all you really need is black, white, red, yellow and blue. If you have those you can basically mix any colour you like. The first relief ink I bought myself was Portland Intense Black made by Gamblin from a company called Lawrence Art Supplies. It comes in a tin and is really really good. The only criticism I have is that the ink does turn quite rubbery if it comes in contact with the air outside the tin even though they come with a rubber band that is meant to help keep them air tight. Intaglio Print Makers also offer a good range of oil based inks. I would personally recommend Caligo Inks, having tried them at Resort Studios I thought they were excellent, and because they come in a tube, the ink doesn’t risk going rubbery like the inks in a tin. You can buy Caligo inks at a variety of places online like Amazon or Intaglio Printmakers. Caligo inks can be washed off with hot soapy water, but some kind of cleaning fluid or oil is still recommended to clean this off lino.
Glass Plate Inking Slab
If you are going to rollout your ink, mix your colour pigments or blend a beautiful colour gradient you are going to need a glass plate. There is only so much you can say when talking about a glass plate so this is not going to take a very long time. I’d recommend getting a glass plate that has been strengthened and also to get one with rounded edges so you don’t cut yourself on any sharp edges.
I bought mine mail order from Laurence Art supplies.
You’ll need a palette knife to scoop out inks from a tin or mix pigments together to create the perfect colour or tone of pigment. You can buy these from specialist art suppliers or you can visit pretty much any DIY shop.
The paper stock you use really is down to you as the artist to select. It’s not for anyone to tell you what is best or what you should use in my opinion. You can use beautiful hand made fibrous papers that bring a quality and texture to your work or you could go for a super smooth and highly polished stock that interferes very little with the quality of the final print.
Japanese Paper is great, which you would expect from a culture that has centuries of experience in hand making paper. I really like the Shi Oji paper, which is made from 100% Mulberry pulp, is a slightly off-white colour. It’s a mid weight paper stock and prints on really, really nicely. Another good paper from Japan is the Hoshu, which you can buy in pads (280mm x 400mm) with 50 sheets. Intaglio Printmakers have a range of Japanese papers and so does Lawrence Art Supplies.
St Cuthberts Mill also make some absolutely fantastic paper stocks that are perfect for printmaking. The paper has just the right level of absorbency. It’s 100% cotton, acid free and perfect for archival print – which means that it won’t discolour over time like some cheaper paper stocks might. You can get their paper, normally referred to as Somerset Paper in all good art shops. In the UK you can get it from John Purcell or from Dick Blick in the USA.
I discovered your website by accident just two days ago and have visited it a dozen or so times since. There is such a wealth of great information especially for someone like me just starting lino printing. I liked the fact that you have even covered a bit about cleaning lino after you have finished printing with it. You should really consider putting all this information into, and publishing your own book. Please keep the info coming and keep up the good work which is greatly appreciated, and many thanks.
Kind regards Paul
I second this. I’m so glad to have found your website. There is so much quality information here, especially for beginners. I’m hooked!
Thank you for sharing, I did give up Lino cutting few months ago for same very reason – I bought $10 tools and was so disappointed! This will excite me try again. I am an Eco oriented artist and want to expand the range by offering hand printing my illustrations . Thank you muchly, it’s encouraging.
Thank you for the information, it was just what I was looking for as someone wanting to get started with linocutting!
I have been wondering for about 2 years why my prints weren’t any good. Now I know. Thank you!!!!
Thank you for writing this guide. I’m wondering what you use for the pressing stage, have you invested in some equipment for that part? Thanks, J
Well I’m hoping to get an etching press one day, and currently I hire a space at a local art studio with some presses that I use to achieve the best finish. However, you can use something as simple as a wooden spoon if you’re working from home! That’s what is another part of block printing that I find so great, its really accessible and anyone can do it from the kitchen table!
This is a superb description in every way, shall come back.
Your website is a joy to read and so informative. I’ve only just discovered it and I look forward to reading through ALL the archived pieces. Thank you!