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Block Printing: The making of our snowflake cards

What is Block Printing?
Block Printing is also known as Relief Printing. Typically printed by hand, the ink leaves a raised texture on the paper. Block printing is done by carving an image into linoleum, rubber or wood blocks, applying a thin, even layer of ink and then pressing the block evenly onto either paper, fabric, wood, or a flat surface of your choosing. I generally always print on some form of paper and for this project we are making holiday cards.

Materials:
Linoleum mounted block
Speedball water-based acrylic inks
#65 cover paper
Rubber ink brayer
Inking plate
Hand press
Assorted set of carving tools
Palette knife

Process:
First I sketched the design I wanted to use, keeping in mind my intended end result. I wanted a simple, but fun snowflake pattern that would work well bleeding off the edge of the paper. Once my preliminary sketch was ready I transferred it to a lino block. I hand sketched it, but carbon paper works great for this process. It's important to remember to trace the reverse image onto your block so it shows right side up once printed. Once my image was traced, I carved my block. I always start carving out the most detailed areas first, in this case I traced around the edge of the snowflake and cleaned out the smaller white spaces. Then I went back with a wider tool to clear out the background. Double check your work, its easy to miss small areas. A test print is always a good idea when you think you are done.

A side note to carving lino. I recommend wearing a heavy work glove to hold your block. The knives slip very easily and can gouge your fingers like they are butter. Keep band-aids on hand and by all means, be careful and take your time.

So now the stamp is carved, band-aids and apron on, I'm ready to start printing. I should also mention I cut down, scored and folded my paper beforehand. These cards are A2 size, meaning they are 4.25" x 5.5". I applied a small dollop of ink onto my inking plate and spread out with the brayer making sure that the roller was evenly covered. With some inks I find its necessary to mix an ink extender into my color. It can make a big difference between getting a blotchy, crusty print and a lovely, smooth, uniform print. I find I need to do this with my older inks. I don't create block prints on a regular basis so I don't go through my supplies that quickly. If you are noticing that your ink isn't applying evenly no matter what you do, its time to try the extender. Pick up a small bottle when you buy your other inks. You'll be glad you have it.

Once I had a thin, even ink coverage on the roller, I applied it to the carved block by rolling evenly over the surface. I like to apply the ink in all different directions to make sure the entire design is covered, while not pushing down on the roller too hard. You don't want ink spilling over the edge of the carving - it can make for messy prints. I did my test print and now I'm ready to start printing the cards. I laid down a sheet of scrap paper, then the card itself and gently set my block down where I wanted the print to be, ink side down. Its so important to apply even pressure to the whole block. Even Pressure = Even Print  I like to use my hand press to do this. Its much easier on my hands and wrists and I find that I can make many more prints at a time. Once I applied pressure to the block, I held down the card with one hand and gently peeled the block off the paper with the other hand. I stand my cards up on a flat surface to let them dry. Since I use a water-based acrylic ink they dry fairly quickly, usually within an hour or so. Clean the carved block and inking tools off right away after printing with a damp sponge. The water-based inks clean up quickly and easily. And there it is. A lovely, unique hand printed card. You can reuse your block thousands of times.

And on a side note, I learned something this morning that completely changed my world. If you are going to be doing any type of production printing, you can use your linoleum blocks to print using a letterpress machine. Now of course you would need a letterpress machine on hand and they are not easy to come by or cheap for that matter, however, since I have a small Sigwalt at home already, this really changes the game for me. Not sure why I never put the two ideas together, but oh boy I am excited now. Can you imagine the possibilities?