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Linocuts 101

Hack up a block of linoleum and ink some lino block prints of your own making.

Linocuts 101

Linoleum printing is a form of relief printing, one of the easiest and most direct of all the printmaking methods. Linocuts can be simplistic and graphic, or as intricately detailed as you want. It’s a subtractive process, meaning you cut away, or subtract, the areas you do not want to print. They can be printed onto almost any type of paper or fabric. You can print on top of painted or silk-screened backgrounds, or you can use watercolor paints or colored pencils to hand-color the print after it has dried.

When printing with a soft block of linoleum the edges will round a bit, giving a softer look to your image. Softer linoleums also reduce the number of prints you can pull before the block starts to deteriorate. The harder linoleums allow a lot of detail, but they are more difficult to cut. They also hold up to a longer print run. I like to use battleship linoleum because it is firm enough to allow for good detail but soft enough that it won’t strain my hand to carve it. You can soften it slightly by using a heating pad underneath it while carving.

There are several different types of linoleum you can use for linocuts, each with its own characteristics. Linoleum is typically 1" thick and comes either unmounted with a canvas backing or mounted onto a block of wood. You can buy it from art supply companies or your local arts and crafts store. The softer varieties are easier to carve but they won’t hold as much detail as the harder blocks.

Steps

Step #1: Transfer design onto the plate.

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  • Plan out your design and get it onto the linoleum block in preparation for carving. Keep in mind that your image will print in reverse, so if you use any type in your design you’ll need to reverse it on the plate.
  • You can draw directly onto the linoleum or you can use a transfer method. If you decide to draw right onto the linoleum, start by sketching with pencil and then use a permanent marker to go over your lines and fill in the areas that will print.
  • Carbon Method: To transfer a design, sketch it onto a piece of drawing paper, cut it down to the final size and tape it, hinge style, to one side of the linoleum. Slide a sheet of carbon paper underneath your drawing, face down, and then use a ballpoint pen or hard pencil to trace over your drawing. Be careful not to press too hard; if you’re using very soft linoleum you could inadvertently leave indents where you don’t want them. Once you have the outlines transferred, remove the carbon paper and the drawing and use a permanent marker to fill in the areas that will print.
  • Toner Method: You can also use a toner transfer method if you want to print your design from your computer. This will not work with an inkjet print, only a laser print. Place the laser-printed design facedown onto the linoleum, and using a cotton ball, wet the back of the paper with acetone or Bestine solvent. Lightly burnish the back of the paper for a few seconds and then gently peel it back from the block. Keep in mind that you need to work in a well-ventilated area if you use this method.

Step #2: Carve the design.

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  • This is my favorite part — carving the block! Using a Speedball handle and the accompanying blades, you can now carve out any part of the design that will not print, thereby showing white, or the color of the paper.
  • There are many different types of blades available depending on the look you want, but I generally use only two blades, the #1 and the #3. The #1 is good for detail work and the #3 is good for clearing out large white areas. Crosshatching or varying the thickness of your lines can create gray areas.
  • As you’re carving, be mindful of the direction of your strokes. Some edges will inevitably be sticking up, which will create interesting line effects in the white areas. These carving lines are part of your design, so you’ll get a better look by working them in coherent directions.
  • You can also make interesting marks and patterns on the linoleum by sanding the surface or marring it with various tools. After you’ve finished carving the plate, be sure to thoroughly clean off any stray pieces of linoleum. These little bits and pieces can stick to your brayer or your printable areas and leave unwanted white spots when you print.
  • Note: Always cut away from yourself when carving and don’t put your opposite hand in front of the blade when you’re holding the linoleum in place. A good device to help with safe carving is a bench hook, which gives you leverage by providing an edge to hook onto the table and an edge against which to brace the linoleum.
  • Holding the tool is usually a matter of personal preference, and after some time spent carving you’ll discover what works best for you with the least amount of strain on your hand. I recommend that you start by holding the carving tool as you would a pencil. This will give you more control when cutting, especially for flowing curvy lines. You may want to switch to an overhand grip when clearing out large areas or cutting very deeply.
  • You don’t have to carve very deeply at all. The linoleum will hold very light delicate lines just barely incised into the surface. You can use the deeper cuts for thicker, more expressive lines, or when you are clearing out an area that does not print.

Step #3: Prepare the paper.

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  • Next you’ll want to prepare your paper before getting the ink ready. You can print on any type of paper, but for this example we’re going to use BFK Rives archival printmaking paper because it has a smooth absorbent surface that holds the ink well. It’s also heavy enough to hold up to any additional work you want to do on the print afterwards, such as adding color with pencils or watercolors.
  • Measure the size of your design and add at least 4" to the height and width to give yourself a 2" border on all sides. You can cut the edges with an X-Acto knife and a metal straightedge, or hand-deckle the edges by tearing the paper to the correct size.

Step #4: Roll out the ink.

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  • You can print multicolor linocuts by using separate plates for each color, or by using a gradated ink roll. For this project, however, we’ll print with one color. You’ll need a piece of glass or acrylic on which to roll out your ink.
  • You can use either water-based or oil-based inks. The advantage to water-based inks is that they clean up easily without the use of solvents, but they do tend to dry faster, which can be bad if you’re doing a longer print run. I prefer Daniel Smith oil-based relief ink because it provides better coverage and won’t dissolve if I decide to use watercolors on the print afterwards. Baby oil is a safe, nontoxic way to clean up oil-based inks.
  • Use a putty knife to spread 2 or 3 lines of ink onto the palette at a width slightly wider than your brayer. This is what you’ll use to charge or ink your brayer. Use your brayer to roll out the ink into an evenly coated rectangle. You don’t need to apply pressure when doing this. Just let the weight of the brayer do the work.
  • Keep rolling it out until you get an orange-peel effect in the surface of the ink. If you have too much ink on your palette, you’ll get smears when you’re rolling and you’ll see globs of ink on the brayer instead of a nice even coating.

Step #5: Ink the plate.

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  • Once the brayer is fully charged with ink you can roll it onto the linoleum. It will take several passes to get the linoleum plate fully covered. You’ll need to charge the brayer several times during this initial inking. You want to find that happy medium of good coverage, but not too much ink.
  • You can try a test print on newsprint or another inexpensive paper if you’d like to test your ink coverage.
  • A really hard brayer will roll the ink right on top of the surface of the plate. A softer brayer will squish down slightly into some of the carved out areas and will deposit ink on more than one level. I use a softer brayer because I like some of the line work in the white areas to get inked.

Step #6: Pull a print.

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  • Hopefully your hands are still ink-free at this point, but if not, be sure to wipe them off before grabbing a sheet of paper. Use an L-shaped piece of mat board to align your paper correctly.
  • Once the paper is in place on top of the linoleum, carefully burnish it up to all the edges of the plate. The paper will be lightly held in place by the ink. You can use a printmaker’s baren, a spoon, or even just your hand for burnishing. You just need something that will slide smoothly and evenly across the surface of the paper without catching, tearing, or denting your paper. If you’re having problems getting the spoon or baren to slide properly, use a thin sheet of Mylar or acetate on top of the paper.

Step #7: Check the print.

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  • Once you’ve finished burnishing, carefully peel back the paper from the plate. At this point you can evaluate your image and decide if it needs more carving. If this is the case, simply clean off the ink, cut the areas that need work, and repeat the printing process to get another proof.
  • If you are happy with the outcome, you can continue to pull prints by re-inking the plate for each new print. You don’t need to clean the plate off in between prints. Lay out the prints to dry on clean newsprint, being careful not to let them overlap. If you’re using the oil-based ink, it could take 2 days or more for the print to dry completely. If you don’t have room to leave them sitting out, let them dry for an hour or so and then stack them with sheets of plain newsprint in between each print for the remainder of the drying time. You’re done!

Conclusion

This project first appeared in CRAFT Volume 02 pages 134-140.


Comments

  1. Kiko says:

    Hi! Is there a way to make my carving smooth? My relief design tends to become rough especially in parts involving curves. Thanks! Cool tips. Very helpful.

    1. Lenny says:

      Hi Kiko,

      A tried and tested method for smooth carving is simply to heat the lino a little prior to carving. I use a small hotplate on the top of a portable oven/grill to help me. One thing that isn’t covered in so many tutorials is that Lino printing is unique in that any ‘rough’ parts is an inherant and unique quality.

      I also use a registration board that enables be to do my multi-coloured prints (reduction technique). However this is also a good idea for black and white prints too …you never know when the print has to be re-inked for whatever reason (paper, pressure, ink issues).

  2. Hi, I’m interested in making really large prints. Is that feasible with linoleum? and tips?

    1. Lennye says:

      Caroline,

      How big is BIG? Lino comes in very large rolls (like carpet). So you’ll have to find a supplier that has it cut to your size.

      Before you do that you’ll have to know how you’re printing – what are your press limitations (sizes), are you using hand tools (a lot of work for large pieces!), are you printing in colour – and do you require a registration board?

      Once you have all this answered you’ll know what’s possible.

      I know someone who created a 4ft by 3ft Lino on a grand old Columbian press …but that piece was done in two parts and mounted together as one finished print. Not easy at all.

      Good luck!

      1. Thanks – didn’t know it came that big. Someone told me you could put a big piece in your driveway and roll the car over it – is that crazy?

  3. K king says:

    thanks for the helpful info. Im having difficultires with printing multi-coloured lino prints; the inks aren’t sticking to each other. I used speedball oil block printing ink. I printing a yellow background, let completely dry, then printed black over but I can still see the yellow through black. Can you help me with this problem?

    1. Lenny says:

      Hello K,

      It sounds like there is an opacity issue with the Speed Ball (oil) inks. However I haven’t used them. I normally use Daniel Smith or TN Lawrence (London, UK) and never have this problem. For the sake of this reply, let’s assume the Speed Ball ink opacity is fine….

      I’m not sure of your level of expertise, so firgive me if this advice sounds obvious.
      Just a thought – you MUST always remember, once you’ve taken an impression, place a sheet of newsprint over the wet ink and using the flat area of your hand, rub the newsprint over the inked area to remove excess ink. Multiple layers of ink build up. Over the course there are different levels of surface area …which can lead to uneven surfaces for the next colour.

      A couple of things to ask yourself and think about are;
      1. Is the surface of your lino smooth?
      2. Is the ink being applied the correct consistancy?
      3. Are you using enough ‘packing’ paper between the roller (or platen) and the surface of the paper/block? Its important to have that cushion just right.
      4. Is the yellow coming through the black as small ‘holes’ or as a ‘brightening undertone’ to the black? If it’s just in patches and not an ‘even’ spread, you can use a burnisher such as the back of an old spoon, or dab some black onto your finger and gentle (and carefully) tap the spots that have no black until they are covered.

      What I’d like to know is the press your using – is it a roller type (as for etching) or a book press type?
      Are you using a registration board for your multi-colour printing?
      Have you tried re-inking the block and printing the black twice? I specialize in multi-colour prints (23 colours once!) and generally speaking certain Reds and Greens have an opacity problem. But never black.

      Let me know how you get on, and please, I’d love to see what your finished print looks like!

      Cheers!
      Lenny

      1. Shame K king chose not to reply. I’d like to know your answers too. Having said that, I’m working the other way, in wanting some of my undercolours (but not the key black) to show through in an additive way. So far I’ve been printing with the back of a spoon, but am about to get myself a cheap press – the £40 lever press from Jackson’s. On such a press, how important is the make-ready?

        1. Lenny says:

          Hi Martyn,

          Good luck with that press. I regret that I haven’t used this Jackson press you mentioned. Let me know the mechanisms of it if you can. As always, it takes some trial and error to get the balance of pressure versus ink just right on the paper. To make the impression task easier I often use Bristol board (smooth) to minimize the amount odspoon and burnishing required after the impression is taken.

          As for opacity – I used to use a transparent medium mixed into my colour to allow the under colour to come through (just a small amount). Sadly (at least here), there’s precious little of alternative Lino mediums available. Check out on line. Another consideration is to see what the permanence of the colors your using are. Obviously the less permanent/ more transparent the better. Daniel Smith inks have a chart that illustrates that for you.

          I hope this helps. Let me know how you get on.
          Cheers!

  4. Thanks, Lenny. That’s good advice. And I’ll let you know how the press works out.

  5. Caron says:

    Thanks a lot for that article! I just started linocutting and you answered many questions!

    1. Lenny says:

      Hi Caron,
      Nice to hear that someone else is taking a venture into lino printing. It can be a lot of fun. The tutorial gives a good example if what to expect, however I find that no two prints give the exact same satisfaction – there are always new lessons to learn through different cutting styles, ink uses, various papers and of course your own drawing.

      Start with something simple, a black and white for example. Then perhaps a single colour plus black in your second lino design. Multuple-colour work takes patience and time (and planning in the design stages). Not everyone enjoys the slow pace that this entails.

      So, good luck and I hope you enjoy Lino printing as much as I do.

  6. Kathleen says:

    Hi, thanks for the tips. I just got the unmounted battleship linoleum and I’m working on my first linocut – I’m having a lot of fun but I’m wondering, roughly how many prints can you get from one board?

    1. Lenny says:

      Hi Kathleen,

      Let the fun begin! There are no rules governing how many prints from one board. I find the battleship grey lino to be quite hardy (as opposed the brown cork version), so you should be able to do as many as you want.

      The only considerations I’d keep in mind are;
      1. The more you print, the less each will sell for (if applicable)
      2. Black prints will take much less time to complete than coloured. Or rather, the more you print, the longer it’ll take to complete the edition.
      3. Consider the size of your prints – again, larger ones with large volumes will take much longer than smaller boards or fewer impressions.

      As a rule of thumb, I’ve known some well known lino printers to have a print edition (in black only) of 100 and others to have as few as 5, or even 1. It’s really up to you with what you’re comfortable with. If you’re just starting off, I’d try a dozen plus a couple of extras for artists proofs (not numbered – experimental pieces, with differnt cuts from the numbered pieces.) This should get you into the feel of the whole process. Its always a new and different learning experience for each and every printmaker.

      Good luck and have fun!

  7. Carole says:

    CAN YOU relate the process of coloured printing. I have only done black and white so far,

    1. lenny lane says:

      Hi Carole,

      Lino printing in colour can use different approaches depending on the actual design requirements. It also depends on whether your using lino ‘reduction’ techniques (single block) or multiple blocks (one block for each colour).

      I’ve looked on You Tube for a simple way to explain this but didn’t find a demo of how I’d do it (an opportunity for me perhaps).

      For the purpose of this reply I’m going to describe how to do it, step-by-step using a ‘lino reduction’ technique using a single lino block. Let’s assume you’re doing a two-colour print using yellow and black (but remember white paper can be your first ‘colour’)

      Before begining – you will need a Registration Board to ensure that the colours fall into the exact place of your design on the paper. A registration board is the most difficult aspect of colour lino printing – but it’s not difficult to master. Once you’ve ‘got it’, you’ll quickly understand why it’s so important. Without it, you will have no end of trouble getting you colours to ‘fall into the right place’ of your design.

      Registration board (typically 5mm hardboard will do)

      1. Size the board so that it can not only accommodate the size of paper, but also can fit on your press.
      2, On one corner of your board you will create and ‘L’ shape with strips of cardboard. Consider the width of this ‘L’. Typically 1″ wide will do (ensure it runs along the full length of each edge of your board.) Add another ‘L’ shape on top of this – but narrower (e.g. 1/2″). This will give you a ‘ledge’ to cradle your paper.
      3. The other opposing corner of your board will house a counter ‘L’ shape to cradle your lino. (Imagine you’re framing a picture with your hands for painting – you use your index finger and thumb on each hand, but one hand is turned upside down so your index fingers are pointing at one another – THAT is how your ‘L’ shapes should look on your board – (your second one will be mirror images of the first – horizontally and vertically so they ‘face’ each other)
      4. Ensure that they are squarely positioned on the board and secure them down with double-sided tape.
      For accuracy… but not 100% necessary (depending on your skill level)
      5. On the ‘L’ that your paper fits into – apply some masking tape to the back AND very edge bottom of each sheet of paper. Apply a similar piece of masking tape to the top ‘edge’ of this ‘L’ shape too – but allow that piece to overlap onto the masking tape on the paper sheet (place the paper into the ‘L’ to position correctly. Basically the two masking tape pieces should meet. Where this overlap meets, draw a cross hair line from the ‘L’ shaped tape AND ACROSS the paper placed tape. This line is your ‘registration’. If the lines don’t meet, then the paper is ‘off register’ – check your paper fitting into the ‘L’. Repeat this for every sheet you intend to print …and add a few more sheets (for any accidental mis-registrations).

      OK. You’re set to go.

      Printing.
      1. Draw your design. Designate areas to be paper (no ink), yellow, and black (this lesson uses two colours, remember? But you have the advantage of white also if using white paper – just remember to cut that first before printing yellow)
      2. Ink your whole lino Yellow. (you can also just print the areas that will be Yellow – as you’ll be covering everything in Black next.) Do not worry about areas that are not to be Yellow – ink away!! If you’ve already cut areas to appear white (paper) – great – you’ll have a ‘three-colour’ print at the end of it.
      3. Place your paper in the appropriate registration ‘L’. Use the masking tape and ensure the cross-hairs are aligned.
      4. Lift your paper and place your inked up lino into the opposing ‘L’. (place an ‘x’ in the corner of your lino that fits snuggly into the corner of this ‘L’ – make sure THIS corner of lino always goes in this corner of the ‘L’).
      5. Everything fitting nicely? Good. Now gently lay the paper over the inked lino.
      6. Take an impression.
      7. Gently peel off the paper and ensure that the ink has transferred correctly. (reapply ink to lino if necessary – the beauty of having a registration board is in being able to do this)
      8. Do this for all sheets in your print run.
      9. Once completed – clean up before cutting.
      10. Ready? OK, now you will cut the areas of your lino that you WANT to be yellow( it’s already printed – you’re just going to cover up the bits that are not remaining yellow)
      11. Once you’re satisfied that you’ve cut just the right areas from your lino that you want to remain yellow…
      12. Ink your ENTIRE block in Black.
      13. Take an impression – but it’s crucial to ensure your cross hairs are aligned perfectly – this’ll ensure the yellow appears under the black exactly where your design dictates.

      Done!

      If you want to do more colours that\n this …easy, just repeat points from 2 to 11. Black should always go last as no colour will be visible when printed on top of black.

      It sounds complicated (in writing). But take it one step at a time and you’ll master it in no time at all!

      Good luck.

  8. Scott R says:

    Massively helpful tutorial. Id love some information about the clean-up- Is it ok to wash water soluble block ink down the sink, or is there a more environmentally friendly alternative? And also, have you heard of mixing acrylic paint with block ink? eg. to achieve a grey ink colour from black ink with white acrylic. Or is this not possible.

    Thanks,
    Scott

    1. Lenny Lane says:

      Hi Scott,

      Glad you found this informative.

      Regarding your questions…
      If your inks are non-toxic I can’t see why this would present a problem for disposing in a household sink. However, acrylic based mediums tend to congeal when they become cold. So, if your local area bylaws are OK with this disposal then you’ll be fine. But for the sake of your home maintenance be sure to clean your drain (I use Draino) with some basic cleaning fluid every six months just to be sure.

      Mixing block ink with acrylic paint is an interesting question. My guess is to try it and see. If both are water-based then I think it should work. If the properties of each medium
      are not compatible for some reason then you’ll find out only by trying. I tried using a acrylic paint medium once and found that it was too sticky and dried to quickly in my lino, and I needed to clean the Lino, ink, roller and start again. It may have been the brand (if acrylic paint) I used that caused the problem. So, experiment with a small amount before undertaking a printing project. If you encounter problems (stickiness, poor opacity, mixing problems or anything else) then it’s best you stuck to the one medium (printing inks) designed for the process.

      Good luck!

  9. Paige says:

    Excited to see a post still in progress. I was given 20 square foot pieces of very hard linoleum for a high school class to try. How would you recommend I cut it into smaller pieces? Also, I know heating it will make it easier, but how can I keep it soft for the entire class? How long do the blades last before they become dull?

    1. Lenny Lane says:

      Hi Paige,

      Seems I have an audience! Nobody else has responded to these questions – but in ok with that!

      20 pieces of Lino? Cutting will take some time. Obviously the softer the better for cutting. A box cutter will be necessary …with extra blades. One blade may easily do that task. However, be sure to cut the Lino with a runner or at least cardboard underneath. You don’t want to blunt the blade prematurely in a hard surface. As for keeping the Lino warm, the best bet is to have a hotplate with a bunsen burner keeping the plate top hot available (like they have in some science labs. Failing that I use a small portable oven. It will keep your students lino soft enough – but don’t keep it in the oven too long – or have the oven too hot. If your class has a radiator of some sort then you could try placing the Lino on its surface if that works. A large window taking in the suns rays might also help if all else fails.

      And good luck!!
      Lenny

  10. […] Materials: Pen, Marker, Pencil Linoleum block (linoleum glued to a block of … A design is cut into the linoleum surface with a sharp knife, V-shaped chisel or … Linocuts 101 | MAKE […]

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