Block Printing – The Basics

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So you want to try block printing, but you’re not really sure where to start?  Well, this post is for you!  I thought it would be fun to do a run down of what is involved in creating a block print so that you might be inspired to try your own after you see how simple it can be.  It can seem time consuming, but it really goes pretty quick.  I’m self taught, so I’m sure I do things differently than others, but this is what works well for me and maybe you, too.

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The first thing you need is some basic tools and supplies.  The most important things that you will probably need to go purchase are a carving set and carving material (linoleum). I buy mine at a local art store (Art Media).  While I’ve seen the carving set at Michaels and Joann’s, I have not seen the linoleum there – but it should be easy enough to find online if not locally at a specialty art store.  I like to buy the big 12×12” sheet and then use just the amount I need.  I’ve gotten 4 carvings from a sheet that size and still have some left over.  So it goes a long way for me.

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The carving set I use is for linoleum and is made by Speedball.  I like how the blades all store into the tool itself so I never loose a piece.  The set comes with 5 blades and they all serve a purpose.  The rest of what you need will depend upon your next steps and what you have available, and I’ll explain as we go.

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After you’ve gathered your supplies, you’ll need to decide on what you want to carve.  You can either draw something freehand or create it on the computer (which is what I like to do).  When block printing you want to make sure your design isn’t too intricate or delicate because it’s hard to get too precise in your carving.  Block prints are better with bigger and bulkier designs.  After you have your design you will need to transfer it to your carving block – I like to scribble on the back of my design and then lay it on the block and trace around the front size with the pencil to transfer it (or you can draw your design right on the block if you’d like).  Once I have it traced on the block I like to trim it down to a smaller size so it’s easier to work with and less wasteful.  Usually I use scissors or the scalpel like  carving blade to cut away at the shape – an X-acto or box cutting knife would work, too.

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Now comes the carving part.  First I start off with the scalpel-like blade (blade #6).  I trace around my design on the outside of my pencil line.  I like to do this so that the next part of carving is a little easier.  (If you click on the second photo, you should be able to see how I’ve cut around the design.)

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For the next part of carving I move to blade #1.  It’s a small blade with a slight ‘V’ shape to it.  I start it along the lines I cut with the previous blade.  Having outlined my shape, blade #1 follows along the design easily and I have less of a chance to mess it up by accidentally carving out too much.  It really helps.  On this particular design I had some sharp corners, so I actually started my blade at sharp corner and carved outwards.  This is probably a good time to make sure to let you know to carve away from your body and hands – you wouldn’t want to slip up and cut yourself!  This part of the carving is only meant to carve a little away from your shape.  You aren’t meant to carve large chunks out, it’s just one step in a few to get where you need to get.

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Once I have the basic design carved out a little I move to the next ‘V’ shaped blade (#2) that is a little bit deeper of a ‘V’.  I use this to carve around my design a little more.  It’s basically just making my initial cuts a little deeper.

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I repeat the last step again with the next ‘V’ shaped blade, #3.  Again, it’s a little deeper of a ‘V’ and can get around my design more.  All of this carving out with the ‘V’ blades is to make it easier to carve with the last blade, which really removes the extra material.

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Now that the design is good and defined with all of my carvings with the various ‘V’ shaped blades I move to the ‘U’ shaped blade (#5) to begin removing everything else that I don’t want to show up when I stamp.  This blade is great for carving away everything around the edges and in large spaces.  If it’s a smaller space with lots to remove, I go back to using the ‘V’ blade as they are a little more precise.

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I usually go back and fine tunes some of my carving at the end, but once I’m happy with the carving I take my scissors and cut away the excess linoleum so that I don’t run the risk of getting ink on it and ruining my print later.  Once that’s all done, I give it a quick scrub under lukewarm water to remove all the excess shavings and pat it dry.  Now it’s time to print!

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So, now that the stamp is carved, now I can ink it up.  I have to grab a few more things for this step – ink, brayer, fabric, plate (for putting the ink on) and paper.  I always lay down paper where I’m going to stamp as the ink will go through the looser weave of the linen when I stamp.  I also have some scrap computer paper on hand to lay down when stamping.  I have several pieces so I can use a new one when I stamp a new scrap of fabric.

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I like to use the dinner plate because it’s big and the inks are water-soluble and will wash right off of it.  The ink will dry out, so you need to be sure and only pour a small amount at a time and get all your stamping done before taking a break.  It all goes pretty quickly.

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I roll my brayer in the ink and then roll it on my stamp in an even layer.  Before I stamp on fabric I give a quick stamp on paper to make sure I got everything carved out correctly.  Sometimes I’ll have a spot that needs a little more carved away.  But you do want to be careful and not carve too much away.  As you can see the ink splatters around a little on the stamp, but since it’s carved away enough it doesn’t  cause a problem when stamping.

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Then I stamp on fabric.  And I get something that looks like this.  Once i’m all done stamping I take everything over to the sink and rinse it out and let it dry.  At this point you’ll want to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for drying and heat setting.  I happened to use Jacquard ink on this print and the instructions were to let it dry for 24 hours and then heat set for 3 minutes.  After that it should be good to go – although I find that it still does fade slightly in the washing machine.  So I usually recommend spot cleaning.  Still have questions?  Ask away and I’ll try and remember to respond in the comments with my answers.

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