How to transfer a design to a woodblock?
February 8, 2009 6:50 PM   Subscribe

Printmaking question. I'm hoping to print some wedding invitations using a woodblock print. I have text and a design ready, but I don't know the best way to transfer them to the block. There are some small details in the design, so the transfer method needs to be pretty precise. So what do I do and what materials do I need? Some kind of transfer paper? Bonus: do you know where in NYC could I find exactly what I need?
posted by otolith to Media & Arts (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
In my printmaking classes, we used any old transfer paper available at an art store. Fine detail is transferred by using a hard lead pencil with a very sharp point, meaning it's not the transfer paper's fault, there's just always a bit of loss in the retracing. Expect to check the transferred image and correct any detail that didn't go clearly.
posted by fatbird at 6:58 PM on February 8, 2009

Briar Press may have someone in their listings that could help you.

(sorry, can't find the quickie linky thing)
posted by peagood at 7:20 PM on February 8, 2009

I don't know much about woodblock printing but you should try messaging the resident expert, woodblock100. I'm sure he'd be able to explain the entire process or at least point you to some resources.
posted by junesix at 7:44 PM on February 8, 2009

If you're into the whole overkill thing, use the densest hardwood you can find and find a shop with a CNC mill (preparation will involve converting your design into a CAD-style file.) This has the advantages of being very precise and completely repeatable.
posted by quarantine at 8:02 PM on February 8, 2009

Best answer: reverse the image on a photocopier and rub wintergreen oil (available at gourmet shops, art stores and some pharmacies) on the back of the photocopy. The image will transfer from the paper on to the wood. I have done this many times in printmaking.

Here are some instructions I found online for doing the same thing with a blending marker.
posted by abirae at 8:19 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do you want to hand carve the block, or are you just after the block-printed look, regardless of origin? If you can live without carving it yourself, I second the CNC approach. Signmaking shops everywhere have CNC routers for just this kind of raised text engraving of wood, although usually on a larger scale. But the technology can easily meet your requirements for a hand block.

Also, any image can be converted to the vector art needed to program the cutter path. Most shops will do this for you for a small fee.

I'll bet you can find someone out your way. If not, here's a guy I'd recommend highly for great precision CNC routing work, who might work with you long distance: Rob Bell at Zomadic in SF.
posted by buzzv at 8:51 PM on February 8, 2009

I think woodblock100 might have the time to help you out here.
posted by troy at 9:21 PM on February 8, 2009

Best answer: Wow, at last! An AskMe question about woodblock printmaking! My big chance! :-)

So what do I do and what materials do I need? Some kind of transfer paper?

You say you want fine details and precision, so a variation of the old traditional Japanese method might be a good way to go here. I'll just try and concisely describe how I do it, and hopefully some variation on that might do the trick for you ..

1) I prepare a double-layer 'transfer paper'. Base layer is just normal copy paper, top layer is the thinnest stuff I can find. (For me that's tissue-thin gampi paper, but perhaps more practical for you would be some kind of thin tracing paper. (Avoid the thin 'plasticky' kind of tracing paper that buckles up when it gets wet)). The two layers are glued together with a very thin touch of spray glue; I use 3M '55' brand.

2) Is your master in digital form? If so, then use a laser printer to print it onto your transfer paper. An ink-jet might be suitable, but only if the particular pigments are a type that don't turn into a smeared mess when moistened. Don't reverse your design - print it out in normal orientation.

3) Prepare your block nice and flat, and glue the transfer face down onto it. In my world, I'm using hard cherry, and images with (usually) very fine lines, so I use a slightly thinned white wood glue. Don't put too much on the wood - just a very thin layer. Rub firmly on the back of the pasted-down papers to get good adhesion. Because you paste face down, after carving and printing, the design will be in normal orientation in the finished prints.

4) Peel off the backing sheet, of course being careful not pull up the thin sheet with the design.

5) In the case of the gampi paper I mentioned, I would now use a slightly moistened finger to rub fibres away, exposing the design clearly. That doesn't work with paper with no clear fibres, but a very slight rubbing with a light oil will turn the paper transparent so that you can see the lines.

I don't have a webpage specifically illustrating this, but these pages show part of it.

I've used this method to prepare transfers that are so fine, they are kind of beyond belief - stuff on the order of 4~5 lines per millimeter.

Double-layer transfer paper is available commercially. If you have time, it can be ordered from here (item #22). (disclaimer: I'm a volunteer with that group)
posted by woodblock100 at 10:51 PM on February 8, 2009 [7 favorites]

Hah! Found it! (I knew there was an illustration of this process on my site somewhere, but it took me around 20 minutes to find it ...)

This sequence shows the use of the double-layer tracing that I tried to describe above. In this case, I didn't have the design in digital form, so photocopied it into place.
posted by woodblock100 at 11:16 PM on February 8, 2009 [1 favorite]

I will preface this saying that I don't know wood block cutting, but I have a butt load of printing experience. Transferring an image from one source to another is printing, so I'm going to think about it from that point of view.

If you're in a hurry, you should do laser etching.

According to this site (which I was looking into for another task entirely), you can cut with a resolution of 0.01 inches, or .25 mm which matches the low end of woodblock101's 4-5 lines/mm. They will do raster work, but are happier with vector art, which will probably look better in the final piece. They also profess to be willing to try most anything, so you never know. Since they charge on line length, you might be better off having them etch the outlines and you carve out the rest.

From a computer point of view, this is very low resolution. 1/100 of an inch is 100 dpi, which is approximately a typical PC screen resolution (96 dpi), but only in black and white - no gradations. A typical FAX is 200 dpi (but fax scanners are usually crap).

As for other transfer methods, one thing you can try is to print with a laser printer (this is very important) and then iron it onto the wood block. Toner is plastic - it gets melted onto the paper. You can remelt it onto other things. This is quick and dirty and loses some resolution in the process.

You can also try making decals and transfer the design that way (depending on size).

Finally, are you wedded (ha, ha) to wood block? I've done silk screen and intaglio with some pretty excellent results.
posted by plinth at 7:18 AM on February 9, 2009

Response by poster: Well this is just fantastic. Thanks everyone! What a range of methods; one from a professional woodblock printer, no less. The laser etching idea is interesting but, for a number of reasons, I'd like to go the hand-carved route for this project. I have a fair amount of time to work on it, so I should be able to spend the time to carefully carve it out. I'll probably give woodblock100's method a try, but I may also use the wintergreen oil idea for another related project. Thanks again, all! This is incredibly helpful.
posted by otolith at 9:37 AM on February 9, 2009

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