Woodblock printing developed in ancient China, and was originally used to print cloth and paper. The prints are astonishingly detailed and use dozens of layers of ink to achieve the richest colours. Because of the care and precision that goes into carving each woodblock, they are often considered works of art in themselves.
Woodblock printing was made famous in the 19th century by Japanese artists such as Hokusai. Above is ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ by Hokusai, 19th century (image courtesy of Wikipedia, cc)
As technology marched on, woodblock printing was replaced by roller printing. William Morris (1834 – 1896), often hailed as the father of modern interior design, notably resurrected the traditional technique to produce his famous textile prints.
To the right is ‘Tulip and Willow’ by William Morris, 1873
Recently, crafty individuals have started to re-explore the half-forgotten technique, bringing woodblock printing back into vogue!
This tutorial will explain how to create your own woodblocks. For those of you who are handy with a craft knife, they are fairly simple to carve, though it might take a little practice!
You will need:
- Small (approx. 2×3 inch) block of tightly-grained wood
- Craft knife
- Small chisel
- Oil- or water-based ink
- Sheet of glass
- Material to print (paper, textiles or clothing)
Start with your block of wood. The Japanese often used cherry wood, and beech wood was popular in Europe. Boxwood, lemon wood and maple wood are other good options.
Draw your design in pencil. Keep the designs simple with plenty of space between the lines.
Shade out the areas you want to remove – these will form the uncoloured spaces in your pattern.
Use a craft knife and chisel to remove the shaded areas, working across the grain. The best way to do this is to keep your hand still and move the wood around as you cut and chip away.
For your inkpad, take an oil- or water-based ink and use a roller to spread it onto a sheet of glass.
Use the same roller to transfer the ink to your woodblock, which will ensure smoother results than pressing directly into the ink.
Now you are ready to print!
There are two main printing methods you can use:
Simply stamp your chosen material with the inked woodblock. Use a light, even pressure to ensure crisp edges.
‘Rubbing’ requires more skill and precision that stamping. In fact, the Japanese developed a number of devices to hold the fabric perfectly in place.
Lay the inked stamp face up, and place your chosen material on top. With quick, smooth movements, rub a second piece of wood over the material to transfer the pattern.
Note: If you intend to stamp letters or words, be aware that the characters on your stamp will be reversed on the page! Reverse printing is a skill mastered by Buddhist monks who painstakingly copy religious scriptures using woodblocks.
It is really worth the time and effort spent hand-crafting and printing your own unique designs. Why not use them to decorate textiles such as scarves, T-shirts or greetings cards?