Sunday, 17 February 2013

Linocutting: Got All The Gear

Ok, so it was a silly title, but it tickled me when I typed it out and realised it sounded just like the hackneyed ventriloguist's test to say 'bottle of beer'. Ahem. :)

In a new series of posts I will chat about the world of printmaking, exploring, over time, different techniques, handy tips, the tools and other pertinent stuff. The first of these looks at the tools and equipment needed for linocutting.

Many people tell me that they were lucky enough to try out linocutting at school - we didn't but our art teacher was an amazing sculptor so I'll cope - and I think one of the wonderful things about linocutting is just how accessible it is for all levels of ability - you can make something striking and appealing with some straight forward cutting and some inking up all on the kitchen table.

The Kitchen Table List:
1. Lino or soft cut/similar
2. Economy linocutting tools (red-handled)
3. Spare nibs for economy cutter
4. Roller (and Ink)
5. Glass chopping board (see, it really is a kitchen list)
6. Vegetable oil....or baby oil
7. Kitchen paper towel/old rags
8. Paper
9.Wooden spoon
10.String and pegs

Right, now for a bit more about all that:

1. Lino v Soft Cut:
I have said lino or soft cut because I know that a lot of people recommend the soft cut to start with (or similar - there are versions available in many art stores) .....I don't. It's not that I hate it. I've used it in the past...but I just find that it's harder to get good clean lines. Easy to carve but wobbly and prone to raggedy tails....might just be me but I honestly think lino is the way to go.

TIP: to soften lino just warm it up a little. Leave it on the radiator/a sunny window sill for half an hour before you start carving. Works a treat. I don't always bother but on cold days I do, cold lino is harder to carve.

2/3. Cutters and Nibs:
Economy cutters are great. One red handle comes with interchangeable nibs. They will do the job just fine for many and most linocutting needs especially if you make sure to change the nibs often so that you are working with sharp blades. Get an assortment of the nibs and just see what you like - a simple guide is that the V gouges give deeply sloped furrows while the U give you a straighter side, good for more detailed work. A shallow gouge will clear unwanted ridges created while carving the main lines.I included my scalpel in the picture because it comes in handy so often that it's earned its place in any list.

4/5 etc Rollers - inking slab:
Again, the basic economy or student rollers are fine. Standard ones are made from a pretty firm black rubber. It takes a little bit of practice to use these to get a nice even coverage of ink, but practice is all it takes. I think it's worth spending the money on good inks - I now choose Caligo Safe Wash for my linocuts but really, it's only one kind of quite a few excellent inks. Roll out inks on a glass slab or similar - I started with a glass chopping board! Preferably painted white underneath to help see ink colour. Vegetable oil (or baby oil) is great for clean up with just a wipe over after...and a drop of very diluted detergent goes a long way on a dampened cloth for a final wipe over.

8/9 Paper Spoon:
If you are hand burnishing (rubbing over/pressing) then thinner lighter paper is MUCH easier - the Japanese papers are need to dampen. If you use heavier papers I would recommend dampening if printing without a press. I don't dampen anything except for intaglio plates, but I am using a press these days.

A wooden spoon is held bowl up, press down into the bowl and hey presto you have one of the favourite barens (proper term for tool to press down/rub over the paper) of many printmakers around the world. Also widely available are the sort I have shown in the top with a handle and one that's a bit like a doorknob with felt. Both great barens for hand burnishing.

10 String and pegs:
Easy and budget friendly drying system. Drill holes in peg tops (or use bull dog clips), hang on length of string suspended in safe place - charming and effective print drying which can accommodate many prints if you have the prints face front to back. Side by side (just peg onto string) also works well but you won't get as many on a line.

TIP: If you go for front to back, then cardboard spacers will stop the prints swinging into each other. Scraps of paper between peg and print also protect the print.

The Studio/Add-Ons List:

1)Individual cutting tools
2)Sharpening stone and honing leather/paste
4)Ink slab
6)Drying racks

1) Tools:
 I love mine. Yes I do still use my economy cutters as well - but not for fine work. Or the clearing. There I've said it. I have palm handled swiss made tools and it's a growing collection. There are different makes and styles...I can't comment on them as I've only used mine. Expensive if bought en masse but it's easy enough to buy one every so often, the great thing about individual tools is that you can switch between tools readily and sharpen them properly - for this you will need...
2) Sharpening stones:
..and honing leather (with honing paste)....I will cover this more at a later date, but it's worth it, a sharp tool is a safer tool - and carving is much easier. Mine is a diamond sharpening card - size of a credit card. Works a treat and it's compact!

I have just treated myself to a couple of higher end rollers - durathene (the shiny green style) - and I LOVE THEM. Ink coverage is excellent, rolling out is superb and it's all so much easier on wrist and arm. Can't see me going back now. These are pricey - they just are, but worth saving for if you print a lot.

There are much more expensive rollers out there - and one day I plan to get one of the really large durathene rollers for large linocuts and relief collagraphs, but am as happy as a night elf with my recent acquisitions, so that can wait.

4)Ink slab:
 I have yet to meet a printmaker who hasn't been thrifty here. I've heard of fridge shelves being adapted. Local glaziers being roped in. And then there's the Ikea bunch (me included) ...there is a certain cupboard top that is glass and white underneath and just the perfect size and price. You can see mine in the press and inking shot.

5) Presses:
I have a baby etching press and these can be used for both relief and intaglio printmaking - perfect for me. Presses are expensive and you need to a)get a bargain or b) be sure you really want one before splashing out - although they do hold their price well. Buy as big as you can afford/fit in because I guarantee that you'll be wanting a bigger one before long...:)

Relief presses (the screw down sandwich style) are also wonderful to use - but again, it'll set you back a bit though I have seen more of these on ebay etc than etching presses. If you are the engineering kind then a bit of online research will also throw up plans for making your own and I have seen fantastic examples of both bottle jack presses and mangles converted to etching style presses. Lots of hard work but rewarding.

6) Drying racks:
I have two free standing racks now and can print journal covers to my heart's content and then a bit more. Not pretty, but effective. Pretty studio racks do exist though, and the cream of all these has to be the wooden rack with glass balls...a thing of beauty. Still, mine work and cost a lot less!! ;p

There's more. There is always more. But these are some of my staples. If you have any other essentials you can't linocut without then I'd love to hear them - I love studio talk! I will be looking at all sorts of things over the course of studio chats like this one and some mini-tutorials - inking up, registering a print, sharpening tools - and these are just a few off the tip of my tongue.

Next up will be inking tips!


  1. Very interesting post Fiona I love seeing how people work.
    Looking forward to seeing more and how to sharpen lino tools.
    Jacqui x

    1. Thanks Jacqui, that means a lot coming from you. Sharpening tools will be in the first batch so shouldn't be too long! x

  2. Lovely introduction, I love printing just don't get time to do much anymore, I have the tools just no more space as its all taken up with clay now.
    Lovely work and great tools!

  3. Just hang on to the tools then one day you can....I'd like to start doing some clay work again to combine the two disciplines but I'll need to use the local arts' centre facilities (we are lucky to have them). Need more time first, so it'll be a while yet! Thank you for popping by. x

  4. Your lino cutting setup looks just like mine. My inking slab is the glass front of an old TV cabinet. I hadn't thought of Ikea, I'll have to go now and buy one of those.

    1. Hehe, TV cabinet front, I love hearing how people repurpose everyday stuff for their studios. These couldn't be better designed for the job, I hope you like it as much as I do.

  5. Hi,
    Love your setup :) im having to make do with my spare room, would eventually like to get a studio shed in the garden!
    Have you ever tried using traditional relief inks? Im having a nightmare trying to get mine to print an nice even block colour, i keep getting fuzzy patches where ink is missing :( Ive tried different papers, different rollers I even bought a Relief press but its still happening!!
    I cant seem to find anyone else having the same issues either. Tearing my hair out as i type....

  6. Hi - I was just wondering where you got the free standing racks? I've only ever seen huge ones, but these don't seem too big and I sure could use something like this to dry my prints. At the moment I'm limited by how many I can print in one go because I don't have any drying space!

    Thanks for sharing all this info...I've learned a lot today.