Linocut vs woodcut. So what’s the difference between linocut and woodcut? I’ve been excited by relief printmaking since I first saw some great artists work using the various mediums available – Hokusai’s beautiful woodcut prints of Mount Fuji, Picasso’s linocut prints and loads and loads of other stunning and impressive artists work. As a person with no idea what I was doing, I just went to my local art shop intent on having a go and found that the materials they had available were all focussed towards linocut printmaking. This was where my love affair with lino-cutting began, and I really do love it. It has so many amazing qualities that make it a great choice for anyone looking to get into block printing. As I’ve got more interested in the art and craft of block printing (intaglio, relief printing… whatever you want to call it) I really started to wonder about the other options for materials out there. So I decided to buy some woodblocks recently to try it out. Here are my thoughts on the differences (and similarities) of working on lino and wood block for printmaking.
Woodcut and Lino Materials – What are they (literally)…
For woodcut printmaking, the material I started with seemed to have multiple names to describe it. The most common being Sidegrain, as it describes the way that the slice of wood is down along the side of the grain rather than as a cross-section (across the grain). Since starting to use it I’ve also heard it referred to as soft grain wood, tulip (tulipwood), magnolia or birch.
Endgrain is essentially the alternative to side-grain where the wood is cut across the grain. So you can see all the growth rings of the tree that it was taken from. Endgrain is typically from very dense hardwood like Boxwood or Lemonwood (not a lemon tree – it just smells citrusy when cutting). Whereas there are several varieties of trees that can be used for side grain, with endgrain there are only a few types used because of the required quality of the material – extremely dense, consistent hardness between the annular growth rings. Boxwood is more expensive because it’s less commonly available, but lemonwood appears to be a very well respected and slightly more affordable alternative.
There are a few different versions you can buy that range in depth of the sheet (4mm, 6mm & 9mm) and also in terms of the quality of the plywood. Plywood is essentially thin veneers (paper-thin sheets) of wood glued on top of each other, each one rotated 90 degrees in order to create a strong material. You can get your hands on bog standard plywood or you can opt for more professional Japanese Plywood which (like all things Japanese) is ridiculously high quality with effectively no grain meaning you can easily carve in any direction really easily.
Laura Boswell has a great list of suppliers who stock artists woodblocks on her blog here.
My long lasting material of choice. Lino was used because it provided artists with a material of consistent quality where they didn’t need to fight against the grain of traditional wood materials. Sheets of lino are also mass manufactured which means that artists can create linocuts that are massive (I have seen more and more people getting a steam roller to press their enormous designs that won’t fit on an etching press). What is it? Well it’s effectively oxidised linseed oil, cork dust and pine resin on a hessian layer that acts as the backing. The lino I use is 3.2mm thick and you can get it in lots of different pre-cut sizes which are all comprehensively listed here on the Intaglio website.
If any readers happen to know any interesting facts about the differences that I may be missing please let me know so I can update this blog and make it more accurate.
Carving on Woodblock Vs Lino
Personally I like Sidegrain woodblocks. I’ve found that the material is pretty easy to carve into with a variety of sharp U and V shaped tools and I can achieve a level of detail that I like. I would recommend that you ensure you are using really sharp tools on wood, you can get away with being a bit lazy on Lino but wood is less forgiving.
I have found that side grain blocks are easy to cut when going across the grain, but not surprisingly even better marks can be made when working along the grain.
Be careful though, if you are not paying attention you can potentially cut too deep and cause a larger area to flake off than you have intended and this will be a bit frustrating for you.
Overall though I think this is the best material for most print makers wanting to give woodcut a try.
I’ve experimented with box-wood, and due to the nature of this materials extremely slow growing conditions and subsequent density it is great for achieving a high level of detail on your prints.
You can carve across the grain any way you like and this material will allow you to work with it and achieve quite a nice variety of marks.
However, you really need to exert some pressure to cut into it and I think that this is where the one downside to it may lie. By having to force the tools into the material to cut it it can be easy to slip and make a cut you did not intend. You could also cut your finger if you slip so be careful and pay extra attention to how you are holding the tools when working with them.
I think an experienced artist who enjoys being able to work on a smaller scale whilst still achieving an extremely high level of fine detail would love endgrain materials like box wood, and no doubt this is my it is the material of choice for many. I think that with a steady hand you would achieve finer detail on this material than with lino if working on a smaller scale print.
Notes on tools from reader Martyn (thanks Martyn)
There’s usually a distinction made between Woodcuts (cut on the side grain) and Wood Engravings (cut on the end grain). And traditionally, different tools are used. While for Wood Engraving the Pfeil tools you have will do, Woodcuts are mostly done with edged blades, which work better with the wood’s grain structure.
I said above that the Pfeil tools will do. This is not to denigrate them, but usually Wood Engraving tools (scorpers, gravers etc.) have a curved shaft. I believe this allows you to get a bit more lateral force to cut through the hard end grain of boxwood.
Plywood is also used frequently for woodcut prints by artists. I’ve not tried it a great deal and I find that the softness of the material is too great for me and I prefer to carve into something with a little more resistance (just my personal preference).
I do not find that ply is great for achieving finer details, and when working on certain areas of my ply wood block the fine lines I wanted actually flaked off (annoying). Working fine details into a print across the grain requires patience and experience working with the material to get the results you desire, and even when working along the grain it can be difficult to build up finer lines.
Plywood is a cheaper option and I think it would work better for some printmakers – especially those looking to achieve bolder prints with simpler forms and less fine detail or perhaps artists who might find it harder to exert the pressure required for carving into more solid materials. That said I’ve not used it a lot so am happy to be challenged.
I am a huge fan of lino. I think that the fact you are not having to consider the direction of wood grain is enormously advantageous as you can freely make a variety of marks in any direction you like.
The resistance of the material against the cutting edge of your tool is enough to provide you with control without slipping easily and making an error.
Lino is great for achieving both fine details as well as big bold block prints.
Linocut vs woodcut. Concluding thoughts…
The next part of this blog will look at printing with the different materials to see how that affects the way your final print looks, but at this stage I would have to say that lino is still in a winning position overall. It’s a really accessible material to start using for any printmaker out there. It’s also easy to find in your local art shop and won’t cost an arm and a leg either.
If you do want to start playing with wood (which I would recommend trying out anyway) then I would start with the sidegrain. It’s great to apply your design onto, carve into and work with.
Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll be printing with the different materials and sharing the results.