Experimenting With Woodcut

I’ve mentioned it a few times in my Try Every Day posts, but woodcut printing is something I’ve always been fascinated with. Woodcut is a type of relief printing where the block medium is… well… wood. There are dozens of other mediums you can use for relief printing, but the traditional woodcut designs of the middle ages have always captivated me.

V0031876 Saint Christopher. Woodcut. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Saint Christopher. Woodcut. Published: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Stylistically, I love the simple line art of medieval prints. I love the lack of perspective and intentional emphasis of importance through size and positioning in the composition. Prints like the one shown above were very popular in their time, and perhaps this style may have been a product of that popularity. As paper became more readily available, less artistically-inclined carvers were able to take up the craft and produce pieces with more mass appeal. While I can certainly appreciate more artistic works, it’s the simplicity of these mass-produced images that caught my imagination when I was young.

Artistically, I love the imperfection of the woodcut. The act of carving wood is a skill that requires a great deal of patience and understanding of the grain of the wood… and none of this is precise or perfect. It leads to wavy lines and sometimes blotchy prints. Failure to remove the background of the image completely may result in “chatter” where the chisel doesn’t remove all of the background.

I haven’t been drawing much lately, so I thought it was time to give this medium a try. Traditional Japanese printers used cherry wood for their carvings, and I happen to have a bunch lying around from various furniture projects. I settled on a drawing, transferred it to my wood, and started carving.

I transferred the art by rubbing the back of the paper with pencil graphite, then tracing over it on the wood. I filled in the dark areas with sharpie, then washed the whole thing with some grey stain. The stain helps visualize what parts have been cut. The black areas will print black, the wood areas will stay white.

For this first carving, I bought an inexpensive set of tools from a local art store. Turns out, I wouldn’t recommend this if you are going to use real hardwood. The tools were not sharp and I spent many hours working on them to get them to cut reliably. At first, I tried to strop them, thinking I could get them sharp enough with just some polishing compound, but they needed much more attention with sharpening stones. My first actual attempt at using these tools was a disaster.

My first lesson here was just how much sharpness matters. Dull tools are obvious once you’ve tried to use them. I had to push pretty hard on the tools (which is dangerous for any cutting tool!) and the wood was more likely to tear than be cut. Before starting on the bird carving, I spent about an hour or so sharpening and polishing the cutting edges. As I was carving, I would stop every 5-10 minutes and strop the edges some more. With properly sharpened tools, the cutting went much better.

I don’t have a printing press, so I had to hand-rub these prints. I made a simple baren out of a piece of scrapwood and press these by hand. I used black Speedball Water Soluable ink. I have a lot to learn about this process. The ink seemed to dry super fast on the glass which meant that I wasn’t getting great transfer after the first print. I had to keep using more ink. I’ve since recieved some SpeedBall Oil Based Ink. I haven’t printed with it yet. I’ll try it next.

Speaking of next, a kind viewer sent me a new set of carving chisels from FlexCut and I’m working on a second print. These chisels are all the difference. They are simply amazing. They came out of the package with a razor-sharp polish and glide through the wood with very little effort.

I don’t know where this new hobby will take me… I don’t even know if I’ll continue experimenting with it beyond these two prints… but I’m enjoying it now. If you are interested in these prints, I might look at a way of selling them for a few dollars in the near future. Let me know!

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