How I Make My Woodblock Prints in Five Steps (2020 Update)
Five years ago I wrote this post about how I make my woodblock prints. The basic idea is the same but a lot of the details of my process have changed since then so I thought it would be fun to share how I do things now.
I used to do all my drawing on bond paper with pencils. I've always used my computer to set the type so there was a lot of scanning involved at the beginning (very time consuming!). My drawing has improved leaps and bounds since I bought my Wacom Intuos Pro tablet. I still draw freehand but using a stylus to draw directly in Photoshop means that I can easily make draft after draft, changing the composition and colors until I come up with a design I'm happy with. I use scans of blank woodblocks to simulate the texture of the woodgrain and get an idea of how colors will look in layers. Each color in a design will be carved from a separate woodblock.
Here's a video of my screen as I was working on the drawing for the letterpress art print Your Courage. Some designs take a lot longer than others and go through more or less dramatic transformations, but this gives you an idea of what my drawing process is like.
The next step is to transfer the design for each color onto woodblocks for carving. I use Shina plywood, a soft (for easy carving) but strong (for durability and holding fine detail) material grown and harvested specifically for printmaking in Japan. I buy it from McClain's Printmaking Supplies, a wonderful company in Oregon. I use a laser printer to print out the carving guides for each color (inkjet won't work).
I put the laser print facedown on the block (the carving needs to be reversed in order to print correctly) and use a blender pen to transfer the toner from the laser print onto the wood.
Blender pens are expensive and the active agent for transferring is a chemical called xylene, so I use a mason jar with a little xylene in it and dip the pen into it as I go. This is the only part of my process I haven't been able to find a non-toxic alternative for so I wear a mask and gloves.
I like to use blue painter's tape to secure the guide in place, a bone folder to do the rubbing (though the back of a metal or wood spoon would also work) and a micro spatula comes in handy to lift the page and check my work.
Carving is the most meditative part of my process. Since I've already made most of the decisions about composition and design, I'm free to let my mind wander and use my hands to realize the image. I have a carving bench that I made myself and have been fine-tuning over the years. It started life as a jig for printing by hand (rubbing the ink from block to paper with the back of a wooden spoon!). I added hinges and used a discarded piece of wooden shelving I found to position it upright in order to help with my posture while carving. I've slowly tricked it out with a light, bits of rubber flooring for padding/stability and various guides and ledges at different levels so I can turn the block every which way while I'm carving. I also love using rubber shelf liner to keep things from sliding around while I'm handling sharp tools.
I carve my blocks using Japanese woodcarving tools called Moku Hanga To. I have collected tools from different sources over the years but I mostly buy them from McClain's (they have great resources on their site about what to buy and how to use and maintain them). There are many different shapes and sizes of tools. I usually start with a knife and do all the smallest details first (especially the text). I use smaller v-gauge and u-gauge tools to clear away smaller areas and larger versions of those tools as well as bull-nosed chisels to clear away the large areas that I don't want to pick up ink when we print.
Here's a time-lapse video of me carving the yellow block for my You Are My Sunshine letterpress art print.
Sometimes the proofing process is straightforward and the only changes that need to be made are cleaning up a little "noise" or unwanted marks where the block is picking up ink and needs to be carved a little bit more. But since it is never an exact science predicting how colors will layer together or how a design will translate to the carved print, sometimes I decide at this stage to make other changes. For our One Day at a Time art print, I added detail to the foliage below the window because I decided at this stage that I wanted a little more texture and interest in that part of the composition. I have a little trick I use in order to make sure the changes will work when we layer the finished colors.
In 2017 I hired our first dedicated printer to help with production at Heartell. Since then we've had someone on our team whose job it is to do the heavy lifting of printing our letterpress cards and prints. Our current printer Erin does an incredible job keeping the quality consistent while turning out cards and prints in the higher volumes we need to keep up with demand these days. Here's a video of Erin printing on our Chandler & Price New Style floor model platen press.
So that's how we make the magic happen! Thanks for reading friends. :)