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Make It : Woodblock Print Tutorial

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When I first saw Tugboat Printshop at a crafts sale, I was blown away by the caliber of its work. Paul and Valerie create such beautiful imagery, and the fact that each woodblock is carved completely by hand is astounding. They are definitely top-notch (pun intended) in my books:

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America the Beautiful

1 America the Beautiful


2 Valerie


3 Paul

details, details, details

4 details, details, details

Patience really is a virtue!

5 Patience really is a virtue!

"Today, we are going to show you how we, Tugboat Printshop, make our woodcut prints. This is a process that you can use to make notecards, on textiles, and with other paper projects also!

Making Woodcuts (or 'Relief Prints') is like making 'big fancy stamps.' The surface of the wood block WILL print ink and the cuts that you carve into the wood will NOT print ink, so planning your image is important. It is very difficult to cut around an image that you cannot see!

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1.  First, we start with a lightly sanded 3/4 inch thick piece of Birch plywood.  You can also use linoleum or E-Z stamp material--a visit to the art supply store will probably be in order if you don't have these things. Don't be afraid to ask for help or advice.  Today, we'll be using a piece that is 5 1/2" x 3 3/4".

2.  Next, we start drawing on the block, first in pencil, then in sharpie.   Drawing this way allows us to refine our image so that when we cut it out later, "We don't make decisions with the knife" (one of our mottos!)  It also makes it easier for us to work together and have input on each others' ideas--since we often work collaboratively.

3.  When the drawing in sharpie is finished, we start to cut out the block.  We use E.C. Lyons woodcutting tools, and keep them honed on a piece of leather, so that they stay sharp and can cut the hard wood.  If you're using linoleum or another softer material, you can use 'speedball' brand cutters that are very readily available.

4.  When you cut the block, it is important to keep a few simple rules of thumb in mind:

  • Don't force the tool--if the block isn't cooperating, simply back the tool out and try a different angle or approach.
  • Never cut towards yourself. This is as much about safety as it is about efficiency. It is hard to have control over your tool when using it awkwardly.
  • Always keep your hands and fingers behind the blade. Pay special attention to this rule when carving around the edges.
  • Make cuts across the grain first (if you are using wood), then make the cuts with the grain. This helps reduce 'chipping' (when a little bit of extra wood comes out at the end of the cut).
  • Work from the smallest detail to the larger areas.
  • Work from the center out.
  • Patience and Practice!

5.  Now, we should be ready to print!  Get out a small amount of ink (just use a little--you can always get more, but putting it back can be tricky!). For our print, we started with about a quarter-sized glob of ink.

6.  Using an ink knife (or putty knife, or flexible scraper--all the same thing), lay a 'swath' of ink out nicely and uniformly.  Now, roll the brayer just into the pile of ink, rolling back and forth to even the ink out along and around the entire surface of the roller.  The trick is to pick up the roller and start at the base of the 'slab' each time, this spreads the ink around, rather than simply rolling the same amount of ink over and over itself.
Apply the ink in not-too-thick coats to the surface of the block, We 'charged' the roller (put more ink on) one time during the printing of this print.

If the ink slab makes a loud noise--youve got too much ink.

7.  Lay the paper onto the block, and press lightly with your fingers--this wont make your print, but will help the paper not slide around on the block during printing. It 'locks' the paper to the sticky ink.

8.  If you have a press, you probably know what you're doing!

If you don't (whaddya mean, you don't own a printing press?!), you can use a wooden spoon or something similarly round (we use an old dresser knob sometimes) and thinner paper to make the prints.  Work from the middle in concentric circles, peeking to see that its working.

(Another handy tool is called a baren--its what is used to print traditional Japanese prints.)

9.  When the print looks good, pull it up!


If you are using wood, the first few prints will probably be light, dont be tempted to add too much ink, it needs to slowly soak into the block.  If your first print looks saturated, it probably actually has too much ink on it.

We hope you have fun learning woodcut printing! You can view our woodcut prints and more process photos of how we make our prints on our website ."

Comments (9)

  • Fascinating. Thank you. What modifications have to be made to print textiles?

  • impressive work, so beautifuly done but the best technick is the japanese ukiyoe......they must study it because they have so much to learn from this old form of art......

  • Printing textiles is easy but you need to use fabric ink. It is thinner than inks you roll our for woodblock so it is best applied to the block with a sponge, dabbing it until the block is covered and looks smooth. You should pad the fabric you are printing on, wrap it around a piece of cardboard with something soft like felt between the fabric and cardboard. Be sure to wash it to remove the sizing, Then you can stamp the block onto the fabric.. Most inks need to be heat set before washing.

  • Interesting work indeed. The challenge is even greater when waterbase pigments are use, which is in keeping with the traditional Ukiyo-e method of Moku Hanga. The colour variation was the inking and rolling out the different colours across the one plate image, which is also knows as a spit fountain. I use separate plates for each colour and the blending is achieve with a technique called Bokashi. My web site has examples of the technique... most are on average of 15 to 18 colours some requiring 25 to 40 colours. All great fun.

  • Incredible block in your front piece, and bravo on the tutorial. The folks at Tugboat Printshop do some wonderful work, on both wood and fabric... I found them on Etsy a few years ago. So glad they are getting a little kudos here. Great post!

  • Gush! Tugboat Printshop is easily one of my favorite sites to check out amaaaazing woodblock printing and just drool over the prints! Thanks for the tutorial!

  • Great tutorial! You guys at Tugboat do some wonderful work! It's nice to see you sharing some woodcut 'secrets'! Keep up the nice carving!

  • I see you are printing more than one color. How do you get registration with this method of printing?

  • [...] by woodcuts and whales, I carved a rubber block with a linoleum cutter: Back Next 1 of [...]

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