Skip to main content

Experiments in Block Printing

I have become intrigued by old film and photography logos. They represent for me often a more interesting graphic design than what is on offer today with the emphasis on stripped-back modern design. Don't get me wrong I really like the modern design look as exhibit by my sister blog MORSE BROS STUDIOS look. But this older aesthetic holds visual appeal and some nostalgia for me.

For instance there is the Gevaert company. A Flemish maker of film paper and cameras eventually acquired my the German maker Agfa. I like their old logo for instance...

This has lead me to think about several projects; however the one I want focus on is a mashup of this interest and my discovery of RazorLab in London. RazorLab makes laser cut sheet materials. The great thing is you can submit your own designs and have them made for you from a variety of materials all online. The design is submitted in vector form and created on one of their supported drawing package, in my case Inkscape a free open source program. The materials are in the range from 1.4 - 3 mm thickness and include Cardboard, Mount board, Acrylic, Felt, Plywood, and MDF.

I came up with an idea that I could use this to make a block-cut pattern and print it using traditional block printing methods. I started out with the the triangle portion of the logo above as a trial. The problem I have is to translate this to the vector file require by RazorLab. I took my scanned image and cleaned up the raster version in Photoshop removing little stains and artifacts. I then took the cropped portion of the triangle and imported it into Inkscape.

There I used a clever little function called trace bitmap. This detects edges and creates a path for the edges that have nodes with bezier handles on them. There are lots of different 'layers' that have to be moved, selected and removed until I had the desired outlines.

Because the raster lines have lots of bumps on them there are lots of vectors. Fortunately there is a simplify function which attempts to remove redundant nodes. This works very well and the shape is retained. However there was the need to tweak the bezier handles on some of the nodes to straighten out and smooth unwanted kinks.

Next I deleted any extraneous materiel until I had just the desired outline. I copied and pasted this in to supplied template from RazorLabs. I used P1 which is the smallest piece of material at 181 mm x 181 mm (7.1" x 7.1"). I then followed there directions to make sure the cut path was colored pure blue, and had a line thickness of .01 mm. Blue test the machine to cut through. Other colors indicate different amounts of etching strength that can be used to mark the material.

Finished vector drawing in template

With this done I uploaded to my 'Factory' account. It checked to see it was Ok and then I had to wait. I could check up on progress and it was done in about 5 days and shipped back to me. I ordered this made on white mount-board 1.4mm thick. It should not be surprising but the white edges show signs of the burning and smoke stains from the laser. It also smells of burnt paper.

My next step was to make the printing block. I cut a 7.1 x 7.1" piece of 1/4" thick MDF for the substrate. It is important to make sure the whole logo was still in one piece like a jigsaw puzzle.

The laser cut logo as a jigsaw puzzle. (Note burn and smoke marks)
 I next removed each piece I intended to glue down to the substrate and taped down the remaining 'frame' to the substrate. I then carefully applied the waterproof wood glue to each piece being care to not use much and avoiding the edges. These glued pieces are then put back in their holes in the 'frame'. If glue were to bleed over the edges of the piece the outside 'frame' the piece would be glued to it which would be a disaster. Once the pieces were all in place I then clamped the whole thing under some weight until the glue dried.

With the glue dried I removed the tape and the frame to reveal the printing block. The design is reversed as it will be correct once printed. I next used some clear polyurethane carefully applied over the MDF and mount-board pieces. The goal is to make it waterproof. I had already determined through my reading on print making to use water-based ink.  This would make clean-up easy so I had to protect all this wood fiber. I used one coat but experience now says 2 coats or more.

The glued pieces freed from the frame on their substrate making the printing block.
Next come inking and printing. I don't know what I am doing here. I read a little online. I bought the best quality water-based inks from Schminke based on one excellent website's recommendation. (BoardingAllRows) I also bought a brayer and a small pan to roll out the ink. I also bought a small (too small) tablet of heavy watercolor paper.

The inking setup. 
I mixed a small dab of cyan and magenta to get a nice deep blue. I rolled this out on the printing block. Next I took my paper and taped it to another piece of MDF like the substrate. I then pressed this down onto the inked printing block and even stood on it. This did not work very well and left the lightest impression. Next I used just the bare paper on the block and a teaspoon to rub down the paper to get a good impression. This worked marginally better.

Spoon applied impression
Next my wife came in to see what I was up to. She did lino-cuts in elementary school and immediately said I did not use enough ink. So I upped the ink and mixed and spread it. Much better results now.

More ink!
Next I cleaned up. The printing block, brayer, and tablet all cleaned up easily under water. This is when I could see I needed another coat of polyurethane.
Clean-up with water marks. 

Later I purchased some good archival paper from J. Hewit and Sons in Scotland. They are my go-to shop for bookbinding  supplies. Affordable and good reliable service. I made a series of prints with the Fabriano Ingress machine made paper with good result and example below. I mixed the cyan and magenta ink in a different ratio to attempt to get a purple/eggplant color.

After the printing session I washed the ink off but destroyed the block as enough water penetrated the laser cut card that it de-laminated. Another round of waterproofing was clearly necessary.

Just for grins I had also tried some latex emulsion house paint and got this predictably poor result.