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Block printing: History, techniques, supplies, and more

Block printing on fabric India

Printmaking remains a popular hobby and profession for countless artists around the globe, but did you know that woodblock printing has origins dating back thousands of years?

Whether you’re thinking of making your first block print at home or just want to learn more about the ancient craft, this handy guide covers everything you need to know about block printing!

Looking for some inspiration? Here on Tiny Workshops there are tons of interviews with great contemporary linocut and woodcut artists. Browse the full list here.

Want to get right to carving your first block print? Grab one of the block printing kits for beginners listed below.

Affiliate disclosure: Articles on Tiny Workshops may contain affiliate links.

Best block printing kits: Quick picks

Essdee lino cutting printing kit

Essdee lino cutting and printing set

  • 23-piece kit with all essential tools
  • Several lino blocks included
  • Inexpensive

Speedball Deluxe block printing kit

Speedball Deluxe Block Printing Kit

  • 15-piece kit with all essential tools
  • Includes softcut lino for beginners
  • Experiment with four ink colors
  • Inexpensive

What is block printing?

Block printing is a relief printing technique that uses a carved material (typically wood, linoleum, or rubber) to transfer ink onto fabric or paper. The block serves as a kind of stamp, with the final product a mirror image of the carving.

Woodblock prints can range from small images intended to be repeated in a pattern to large works of art that require a large printing press to print. In the past they were also used to print entire books, too.

Depending on the size of the knife and quality of the material, it’s possible to capture a fine degree of detail in each print. However, since the process is generally done by hand, no two prints are ever the same.

A brief history of block printing

Chinese woodblock printing text
Chinese block printing text. Photo credit Vmenkov

The earliest known examples of block prints come from China, dating back to the third century AD. These very early blocks were used to print on fabric, as paper was invented around the same time or later.

Yes, block printing probably predates paper. (There are no known examples of printmaking on papyrus).

The process was later picked up in the rest of Asia, the Middle East, and Europe centuries later. It served as both an art form and a way to print text before the invention of moveable type.

However, due to the complexity of written Chinese with 40,000+ unique characters, block printing remained a convenient way to print books for centuries.

Types of block printing

There are several different techniques and materials used for block printing around the world. A few of the most popular types are:

  • Woodcut printing
  • Block printing on fabric
  • Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock printing
  • Linocut printing
  • Reduction printing
  • Rubber stamps

Here’s a quick description of each and a bit of history about each one.

Block printing on wood (woodcut)

Davide Schileo incisa woodcut
Photo credit: Davide Schileo

This is the oldest type of block printing, with the images carved out of a solid piece of wood. This is a broad category that includes many specific techniques. In Europe these are frequently called woodcut prints.

The trick when working with wood is using a hard, tight-grained material. Porous woods like oak and soft woods like pine and cedar are less suitable, as they won’t retain such fine detail. Fruit woods like pear and cherry are common historical choices, but many more types are viable when mounted on a plywood base.

Using wood as a material for printmaking remains popular today, with certain synthetic materials like medium-density fiberboard (MDF) making an excellent and inexpensive substitute. For modern examples with MDF check out the work of Brian Reedy and Davide Schileo.

Block printing on fabric (India)

Block printing on fabric India

When it comes to block printing on fabric, India is one of the most famous sources for fine artisan patterns. The technique is largely the same, but due to a long history and specialization in different types of dyes and fabrics the Indian subcontinent is where the craft truly shines.

One of the most famous areas for this is around Jaipur, where there are countless communities dedicated to this ancient art. Nowadays many are being driven out of business by screen printers and digital methods, but the technique still survives today.

Patterns are first drawn on wood, then carved and mounted on handles. The blocks are dipped in non-toxic ink then stamped by hand on a large piece of fabric.

There are typically several pattern blocks used, and since it’s done by hand the images never line up perfectly. This is one of the main ways to tell hand block printed fabric from screen or digitally printed alternatives.

Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints

The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai
The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai

Block printing was popular in Japan centuries before ukiyo-e first emerged, but these striking pieces of artwork reached their height during the Edo period in Japan (late 17th to late 19th century). They were printed using a series of woodblocks carved by professionals and designed by artists.

Each block was used for a different color, and inks were weak pigments mixed with oil on the block. This gave the final prints a kind of transparency that almost looks like a watercolor painting.

Odds are you’ve seen many of these prints before. Following Japan’s reopening in the mid-19th century, they were imported to Europe and had a heavy influence on early impressionists like Manet and Van Gogh. This lead to somewhat of a revival of block printing in Europe after centuries of declining interest.

To learn more, check out the work of Tokyo-based Dave Bull at Mokuhankan. He has dedicated the last 30+ years to keeping Japanese-style woodblock prints alive and thriving. He frequently uploads videos to his YouTube and streams on Twitch several times a week.

Block printing on linoleum (linocut)

Maarit Hanninen Autumn Blossoms linocut print
“Autumn Blossoms” Photo credit: Maarit Hänninen

Linocut prints use the same process as woodcut prints, but use linoleum blocks as a base. It’s a relatively modern technique of block printing originating in Europe in the mid-1800s.

Read also: Best lino cutting tools: Essential printmaking tools for block prints

Linoleum is a great material for printmaking because it’s softer than wood, resists splitting, and retains fine detail. These qualities make it ideal for beginners and professional artists alike.

There are countless excellent contemporary artists today, with a variety of styles and techniques on display. Check out this list of the best linocut artists on Instagram to find a few you like!

Reduction block printing

Reduction printing, popularized by Pablo Picasso in the 1950s and 60s, is one of the most punishing types of block printing.

The technique uses a single block (typically linoleum) for a series of prints, with more material removed between each inking. This separates it from other printing techniques, which use many different blocks to produce a similar effect.

Once the first layer has been printed, the same block is carved again, then a new color printed over the first print. The process is continued until the final print is achieved.

Since it’s impossible to un-carve the block, the finished prints are always a limited series. Mistakes are also very difficult to correct, so this isn’t a technique for beginners.

Rubber stamps

Types of block printing - rubber stamp

Like linoleum, rubber is a soft and easily carved surface for block prints. Typically they are small and mounted on wooden blocks or handles.

Most people associate rubber stamps with office work or children’s toys, but they are capable of fine detail. Still, linoleum or wood is the preferred medium for most professional printmakers.

Block printing process

Linocut featured image

Although the specifics differ slightly for each technique, the basic block printing process has remained the same for thousands of years. There are tons of in-depth tutorials and classes available online, but ultimately nothing compares to first-hand experience.

Here’s a brief outline of the process, followed by some of the basic printmaking supplies you’ll need for your first print.

  1. Design the print — Before you take the knife to your wood or linoleum block, first take the time to draw out your design on the block itself. Digital tools like Photoshop or Illustrator can be useful, but you can absolutely get by with an old fashioned pencil or pen. Just make sure to keep in mind that it will print the mirror image of your design!
  2. Carve the block — Using a gouge or knife, slowly start to carve away material. The parts that you remove will not be printed, so be careful with thin lines. These blades are sharp, so always carve away from yourself. This process is time consuming, but it’s vital that you take your time to get it right.
  3. Ink the block — We’re almost to the exciting part. Apply some printing ink to a flat surface (glass works well) and roll a brayer (ink roller) over it until you get a fine layer. Then, roll the brayer directly over your block until an even coat is applied.
  4. Print the image — Now you are ready to print the image by hand or with a press. If you don’t have a press available (they’re large and expensive), you can also use the back of a spoon. Place the paper over the inked block and press firmly with the spoon until the ink is evenly applied. Remove the paper and voila!
  5. Retouch or keep printing — It’s often the case that there are mistakes in the first printing of a block, but you can always go back and carve a bit more material to fix it. Sometimes you’ll have to modify the design to mask any errors. Once you’re happy with the results, you can use the same block to print countless copies!

In the case of reduction prints, once you finish your series of prints you would carve the next layer out of the same block. Be brave!

Block printing supplies

The supplies you need for block printing partially depend on what type of printmaking you want to do, but there are a few basic tools that you will always need:

  • Blocks — These can be wood (plywood or MDF is the easiest) or linoleum. Softcut rubber blocks are also great for beginners.
  • Carving tools — You can use a cheap set from Speedball to carve softcut materials, but specialty carving tools from Pfeil or Flexcut are a worthwhile investment.
  • Brayer — Also known as an ink roller, these are inexpensive to buy. Note that more expensive brayers will be easier to use, but they’re not essential for beginners.
  • Ink — I’d recommend going for a non-toxic ink from Cranfield’s Caligo line of inks. They wash up with soap and water, so you won’t need any chemical solvents. Speedball and Akua also make good quality inks.
  • Paper — Unless you’re printing on fabric, paper is an obvious requirement. Normal printer paper is ok for testing prints, but if you want to display your prints get a decent printing paper like the Strathmore 400.
  • Baren — You can use the back of a spoon to print, but a dedicated baren will work much better. I like this inexpensive Japanese bamboo baren. A full printing press is the next step up, but that will cost a pretty penny.

That’s it for this guide to block printing! Hopefully you now know a bit more about the history and techniques used in this ancient craft, but feel free to drop any questions or comments below.

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