Make Stuff For Christmas: Lino Block Prints

This year is going to be different. This year, I'm going to make All the Presents.

Every year I tell myself I’m going to get started making presents early enough that I can be thoughtful about the process. Every year, once it hits Halloween, I tell myself to get a move on with the crafting. And pretty much every year, the days get away from me until I’m up on Christmas Eve, frantically trying to finish whatever project I didn’t get done in time.

This year is going to be different. And, okay, yeah, sure, I meant to get started on stuff back in October, before Halloween. Making things with care takes time, and time isn’t something I have a surplus of, what with having a life and writing a novel and so on. At this point, I can’t make everything on my list, but there’s still time to get some of it done.

The first project that I’m tackling harkens back to my brief time as an art major. I was a lot of majors, y’all. Linoleum block printing is one of the easier ways to make prints at home. The short how to is this: Carve what you want to print into a linoleum block -- a lino block -- and then ink it and print it. But of course there’s a little bit more than that to making successful prints.

The first thing you’ll need is a lino block. Or a selection of lino blocks. They come in a variety of sizes, usually starting around 3 by 4 inches. You can buy mounted lino blocks -- which come literally glued to a block of particleboard. You can also buy unmounted lino in a couple of different forms, including a soft speedy carve rubber type block that is great for making stamps.

I’m terrible at stamping. But a friend of mine makes gorgeous organic floral and alphabet stamps. It’s awesome.

You’ll also need a selection of gouges, a brayer, ink(s), paper, and a good old pencil and eraser set. Most of this stuff is fairly easy to find -- 4 out of my 5 localish art/craft Meccas had everything I needed (Joann's fell down on the job, unforch, but Michaels, Hobby Lobby, and the two actual art supply stores did me right). And the basic supplies are fairly cheap as well. Small blocks won’t cost more than a dollar or two. Gouges can range from five bucks for a cheap set to forty for a much nicer collection.

Because I don’t believe in investing a lot of money until I’m sure I’m going to be spending a fair bit of time doing something, I bought the $5 set. And it’s holding up just fine.

First things first: pick a design. For my example, I’ve gone with a classic “Hello, my name is:” sticker design. I’m not a great artist (which is one reason why I changed my major), but I can just about manage to reproduce a sticker. And some block letters. I grabbed the xoJane logo to get a good look at the “xo” in question.

I traced the outline of my lino block onto a piece of paper, and then used that outline as my design area. I drew my design and added in the lettering.

But block printing works in reverse. In order for the words to make sense once the print was made, I needed to carve them in reverse. I used a handy grade school trick to make that happen -- I traced everything onto the back side of my piece of paper (using my iPad as a light box), then touched up my lines. On the front side of my paper, I scribbled and scribbled until there was a fairly dark layer of pencil lead over all over my lines. Then I trimmed the paper and taped it to my lino block.

I couldn’t find the masking tape but, hey, why own pink duct tape if you aren’t going to use it?

Once the paper was positioned on the lino block, I went over each reversed line (make sure you scribble on the correct side of the paper or you’ll have to do this all over again) with my pencil. I pressed pretty hard so that the soft pencil lead on the paper would transfer to the lino block.

It’s the same basic principle as carbon paper. (I mean, you’re kind of MAKING carbon paper.)

When you’ve gone over all of your lines, take your paper off the lino block. You should have a fully beautiful reverse image of your original design, whatever it might be.

Now is the time on Sprockets when we carve. Carefully, because going to the ER is not festive. I mean, there’s a lot of red involved but bleeding all over everything isn’t going to put you in the holiday spirit OR get your list of things to make out of the way. Linoleum is softer than wood, but these gouges are still sharp. Always cut away from yourself and, if you’re worried, get a frame to brace your block. I don’t have one, and I have cut myself before. Don’t be like me.

You don’t have to gouge very deep with your first pass; you’re just trying to take off the surface layer of linoleum. You can always go back over it if you need to make your cuts deeper.

The goal is to cut away anything you don’t want to print. The raised areas will be the color of your ink and the cut-away areas will be the color of your paper. It’s a lot like a rubber stamp that way.

Be careful that you don’t cut away lines that you want to print. If you DO cut away too much material, you might still be able to salvage your design. But you might also need to start again. If you’ve been careful with your piece of paper, you can reuse it to transfer your image to the new lino block.

Take your time carving. Fine detail is fiddly and, for your first attempt, is probably best avoided. Straight lines are easier than curves -- but if you’re cutting a curve, trying moving the block instead of the gouge. It’s a handy tip that can make a huge difference, especially when going around tight curves.

Once you’ve carved away all that extra material, it’s time to do a test print. Grab a fairly large piece of scrap paper and put a small dollop of ink on it. Spread that ink around on the paper with your brayer. If you’re printing on paper, water-soluble ink available at the craft store should be okay. But if you want to print on fabric, you’ll need to track down the oil-based ink.

The inks come out of the tube a little like toothpaste. This ain’t paint. You’re going to have to experiment with how much ink is the right amount of ink. You’ll know it’s right when it makes this moist sticky sound when you run the brayer over the inked-up paper. (Preferably, you’d be using a sheet of metal or acrylic but unless you’ve got one of those handy, a sheet of paper really is okay.) Use the brayer to apply a thin layer of ink to your lino block.

Remember, this is test print. It’s okay if it isn’t perfect. You might have too much ink; you might not have enough. You won’t know until you give it a try.

Place your inked block face down on your paper. Press it lightly. Block printing ink is kind of sticky, which is what is going to make your next step possible. That’s right, you’re going to turn the block over so the paper is resting on top of it. Grab a smallish thing with a circular bottom -- I use a pill bottle with a flat bottom. Be gentle but firm, like the best disciplinarians, and rub the pill bottle (or whatever) over your lino block. The goal is to apply even pressure over every part of your print.

This works better than just pressing your lino block onto your paper. Remember how I said carving a lino block was a little like carving a rubber stamp because of the subtractive process (that’s what it’s called when you take away the parts you don’t want to print)? Yes, remember that, but forget about it when it comes to the printing part of things. Linoleum is not as flexible as rubber, so just applying pressure isn’t going to ensure that every part of your block comes into contact with your paper. You don’t want bald spots in your print, so flip it over and give it a good rub down.

I’m refusing to make a dirty joke there about rubbing one out. If you make that joke, well, I’m not here to judge. Just to laugh.

Peel the paper up off of the block. Check your print. If the links are smudgy, you might be using too much ink; the block might also be shifting just a little when you press it down onto your paper. Be careful not to move your block around. If there are bald spots, you might not have applied enough ink.

That’s why we’re testing. Once you find an amount of ink that produces a print you’re happy with, you’re in business! Lino blocks will eventually degrade but you should get a good number of prints off of each one you carve.

Mat and frame your print -- then wrap it up. That’s at least one gift down. This holiday thing is underway!

What are you making for this year’s holiday gifts?

Marianne is tweeting pictures of her holiday gifts-in-progress and expecting people to act surprised @therotund.