Transferring a Design to a Wood Engraving Block

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Wood engraving is a very unforgiving process. There’s no (easy) way to erase mistakes. We don’t have an undo function like you digital nerds with your iPads. Planning and preparatory drawings are the key to fixing mistakes before they are permanently cut into your block.

Good. You’ve done the work and have that perfectly composed drawing that’s going to put you in all the art history books. Mr. Picasso, the Louvre-er-rah is on live four. The problem now becomes: how do you get that drawing on to your end-grain engraving block?

The simplest method is to trace your design to the block placing some transfer paper between the drawing and the block. The biggest drawback to this is that it is repetitive and time-consuming. Welcome to the world of printmaking! I also find that the transferred lines will eventually rub off if you don’t spray them with fixatif. This problem doubles if you are using any sort of slippery plastic engraving material like resingrave or corian. Transfer paper is usually best if you want to get a general layout of your design without too much detail, allowing the detail to emerge through the engraving process.

If you want a very accurate transfer of your drawing I have found that the best method is to use heat to transfer a LASER printed scan of your drawing.

Let’s take a moment to ruminate on fact that LASER is an acronym for “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation.” What this has to do with the such-named printers and this post in general is beyond my understanding. All I know is that I, like the grammar pro that I am, am going to all-caps LASER whenever I use it.

Many sources on the ‘net will advise you to use acetone to transfer toner-based images. This sorta works, but in my experience it has a 70% failure rate. The key to getting a good toner transfer is heat. The source of that heat is a Wall Lenk L16TT Transfer Tool. It’s like a soldering iron with a disc attached to the end.

Print out your drawing (or photocopy it) and attach it, face-down, to your block. You want to be able to peek at the surface as you work, but it should be secure enough that it doesn’t shift around as you work. Heat up your transfer tool and then meticulously apply heat to the back of the printout. I drew a grid on the back of mine so that I could keep track of the areas I had worked on. You can lift the paper and peek at the results as you move across the block. It will take time and a lot more heat than you think. I was always hesitant to use this method on resingrave because I feared melting the epoxy.

Once you’ve covered the entire surface with burnished heat, you can start peeling back the paper. It will adhere more than you want and this is where acetone comes in handy. Don’t just rip the paper off, dab some acetone on the trouble spots and slowly work the paper off. If you are too hasty, paper scraps will be glued to your block. You will find that large areas of black adhere the most. For that reason, you should probably edit out large black areas on your image scan before attempting to transfer.

If all has gone well, your drawing will now appear in reverse on your block. Note that the toner will have a slight, raised texture. You can wash off the excess before printing with an acetone dampened swab if you want. Don’t let too much liquid get on the wood. You don’t want to raise the grain.

So here’s a quick video I made documenting the process:

Remember, the best wood engravings aren’t just mechanical reproductions of drawings. Let your tools and cutting guide the final appearance of your print. Get hip kids! Formschneider (cutting around a completed line drawing) is for losers and 16th century renaissance masters only!

If you have any questions, leave a comment and I will try to answer the best I can.

End-Grain Engraving Blocks

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It’s been quite a while since I have engraved in proper end-grain wood blocks. Up until now I have been very happy using resingrave but, alas, that material is not being manufactured anymore. I’ve spent the past year or so trying to find a suitable alternative. Corian countertop material allows for very fine lines but is chalky and gross to cut into. Boxwood or lemonwood would be great, but they are not available here in the good old U.S.A. and can get very expensive to have them imported from England. I even started to consider making my own maple blocks but I fear table saws and really wouldn’t know what I was doing. Then, a few months ago, I found out that there has been a block maker right here in the Midwest for years. So, here we are, with a fresh stack of large end-grain maple blocks ready to go. I have a couple of ideas and will hopefully have something to show in a month or so. Stay tuned.