I’m asked more and more about linocut carving tips, particularly for sharpening lino cutting tools, and this was something that I myself wondered quite a lot about when I started creating linocut artwork. I love the process of carving away at a piece of lino, I find it really relaxing but it’s definitely most satisfying when my tools cut through the linoleum like a hot knife through butter! Contrary to some ideas about heating up the lino before starting, all you really need is to keep your tools sharp and well cared for. To show you the way to having a long and happy life with your tools I’ll write a two part blog about stropping (part 01) and honing (part 02).
This advise applies to all brands and types of carving tools that artists use for linocuts or woodcuts. So it doesn’t matter if you prefer the Swiss Pfeil linocut tools or the Japanese linocut tools available. The techniques described here can be applied to all.
You should have a strop beside you as you work, and this will act as your regular go-to piece of equipment for keeping your tools sharp. If you use a tool for 30 minutes to 1 hour then you should quickly strop it to keep the cutting edges in peak condition. If you maintain this mini ritual then you’ll reduce the number of times you need to get the whetstone out to hone your tools. Sharpening lino cutting tools is pretty quick, and once you’ve got the hang of it you’ll be able to keep the cutting edges sharpe with a few swift strokes.
Strop – This is an odd word that basically describes a piece of leather, one side of which has the soft suede that you often get from a proper leather belt. This has a coating of a soft abrasive, usually buffing rouge polish that jewellers use, which lightly coats the suede side of the strop. The strop essentially allows you to maintain a sharp, straight cutting edge on your tools.
You can buy a stop online from a variety of places like amazon, I bought the Tiranti Buff Hide Strop that comes absolutely caked in buffing rouge – way too much rouge to be honest, so much so that I had to scrape a load of it off before I started using it. I also picked up some of the Buffing Rouge in case I need to reapply some to the leather strop in the future.
If you don’t want to be a flash git like me I’d recommend saving your pennies and getting an old leather belt from a charity shop, cutting a 6-10 inch length of it off and nailing it to a small block of wood with the suede side facing upwards. Then rub on a light coating of the buffing rouge & ‘badda-bing’ you have a strop!
Using the strop to sharpen the edge of your tools
The key here is to remember that you want to always slide the cutting edge backwards along the surface of the strop. What I mean here is that if you push your tool through lino to create marks in the surface for you linocut design, you want to pull the tool backwards along the surface of the strop to create a sharpened edge.
Typically there is always a wedge shape to the blade that narrows to the cutting edge. You want to position the tool so that the flat edge of the blade faces the strop. Maintaining that angle then pull the tool back along the strop. By repeating this process several times will ensure the edge remains nice and sharpe.
For V shaped tools you will need to alternate the sides of the V that you strop. Just remember to keep things balanced, so if you sharpen one edge 5 times, do the other edge 5 times as well, otherwise you may end up with one side of the tool sharper than the other.
U shaped tools are a little harder to do. The fact that the shape of the cutting edge is curved means that you can’t sharpen all points of the blade at the same time. I find that there are a few ways around this. You can either just position the tool one way, hold it and draw the blade back a few times across the surface of the strop, and when that section is done rotate the tool to do the next section and so on. This is normally ok and the softness of the suede means that you don’t end up with an uneven U shaped cutting edge. However, if you are a bit of a master you can pull the tool backwards and twist the tool sideways back and forth at the same time, thus evenly sharpening the edge.
So there you have it. That’s pretty much how you can use a Strop to keep your tools tip-top! If you have any ideas of techniques you want to share with everyone let me know and I can always update the post to include your pearls of wisdom!