Thursday, March 7, 2013

Wood primer for printmakers

Wood is a magical and wonderful material. Seemingly mysterious at first, once you begin working with wood an addiction takes over. You will want to carve it and stain it and sand it and plane it and collect different species. Here is a brief wood primer for the woodcut printmaker.

A couple of reference books on wood species and suitability of wood for various crafts (I have added these and others to my BookStore page on this blog):
 The Encyclopedia Of Wood: A Tree-By-Tree Guide To The World's Most Versatile Resource
 Understanding Wood: A Craftsman's Guide to Wood Technology

About Wood Sources and Resources 

You can get wood for printmakers from:

The expensive but tried and true, most printmaking suppliers will have some sort of wood designed and milled specifically for woodcuts. You can get wood that is ready to cut out of the box but I still go through my ritual outlined below.
Check the Links Page on this blog for these and other resources.

The less expensive for the adventurous, your friendly local home-supply store and, of course any lumberyard or building supplies warehouse in your town. The best woods for printmakers can be found in their Hobby or Woodcraft sections.

Dedicated wood suppliers on the web make up the third bunch. They usually supply cabinet makers, wood carving enthusiasts and other assorted wood hobbiers. Others are simply online lumberyards that retail sell and ship small quantities of wood.

Search the web for "lumber." This by far is the cheapest way to go if you can buy quantities. On any of the three above, remember that wood is heavy and sometimes the shipping will be quite expensive so I always buy bulk and store in my desert studio at a comfy 6% humidity or less.

How I prepare wood for woodcuts

Regardless of what wood I'm about to lay my hands on, I follow pretty much the same procedures. Caring and preparing the blocks helps me get to know that particular block ahead of time, and helps me in the thinking process for that particular print. For woodcuts:

I start by cleaning the block, many times they come dirty from the lumberyard. A dusting with a soft nylon brush does the trick.

Inspection follows, I am particularly looking for out of plane blocks, warped blocks, low spots, cracks and knots. I've never met a piece of wood I couldn't use, just takes adjusting the print sometimes.

A good sanding helps irregularities and fills in the grain of birch and pine. I begin with 220 grit wet/dry sandpaper (100 if the block shows saw marks or is very irregular). I use a sanding block, the hard rubber kind and change my paper often, keeping a graphics brush handy to get rid of the surface dust.

320, 400, 600 and sometimes 1200 follow in sequence. Skim on a grit and you get nasty marks. By the time you get to the finest grits, your woodblock is shining and slick like glass. Most times I stop at 400 to allow some of the grain to show in the print.

If I will draw right on the block, I usually coat the block with walnut colored ink (sometimes medium gray). Otherwise, it is ready to accept a tracing.

For wood engravings the process is easier because the blocks come nearly ready from the supplier. I place a piece of 400 grit sandpaper on my inking slab, grit up. Then I rub the block on the sandpaper in circles. To know when enough is enough, I draw lightly on the block with a pencil. When the pencil lines are gone, the block is ready to engrave!

I coat all my engraving blocks with walnut or gray ink (diluted sumi) to make my carving easier to see as it progresses.

Wood for woodcuts

Birch plywood

I started with birch plywood due to its availability at any home supply store. Similar to Shina, the best qualities of birch plywood are that it is readily available and inexpensive, comes in as many sizes and thicknesses as you would wish. It is a soft and light colored wood with tight grain that can be sanded to a glass-smooth surface. I finish with 1200 grit. Very soft and easy to cut. Must have sharp knives or you will end up with splintering which can ruin a design. I don't seal mine with varnish but it is probably advised to do so to firm up the surface. Tough to get grain print with birch, although a wire brush brings the grain out.


By far in my experience, the best choice for woodcuts, either moku-hanga or oil. Sometimes tough to get especially in large sizes, which is a drag for people like me who think large! It is a rich colored wood, picture shows a mixture of two kinds, darker and lighter. I've heard it say the darker is the best for detail. Very tight grain, but surprisingly easy to print, if grain is what you're after. I have successfully joined boards tightly enough without leaving a gap. Comes in various thicknesses and if you sand it fine enough (or plane it for the purists) you can ice-skate on it. Cherry holds a very fine detail, be sure to get finer quality cherry and don't let it dry out too much, although it must season for a while. It is harder to cut so sharp tools and a handy strop nearby are an absolute must. Clearing larger areas is hard work. Cherry is truly magic wood, don't know exactly why.

End Grain Maple

This is the easier wood for wood engravers (as opposed to boxwood). As you can see from the picture, it is made up of small blocks joined together. Only place to get it from is printmaking suppliers, even then you better sit your credit card down because it will get scared (5" x 7" block = $16.00; 12" x 9" block = $100). It is light colored and extremely tight grain, very hard wood. Wood engraving requires special tools like your metal engraving burins and similar. If you use your woodcut tools with this stuff, you will surely ruin the blades. It is useful for inserts to achieve a high degree of fine detail.

Plank Maple

Maple is a light colored hard wood available in hobby/craft sections of your corner lumberyard. Very tight grained and available up to 12" widths, which is a plus. More expensive than birch and pine, comes in various widths. Boards join very well without gaps. Frankly, I'm sold on maple. It is harder to cut than cherry and working through the occasional knot is like engraving metal. Clearing larger areas takes patience, a very large very sharp knife with a mallet and frequent resharpening. It holds a very fine detail and does not splinter.


A hardwood, readily available with very open and pronounced grain. Readily available as plywood, somewhat expensive, especially in its plank form. Very hard and dense. Not really the choice for woodcuts, although some successful and very interesting prints have come from those wonderful grain patterns. It splinters very easily, and you probably shouldn't wipe the wood shavings with the back of your hand unless you have tweezers nearby. 
You can't fill the grain nor sand it smooth, so don't try; the grain is there to stay. Check out some Edvard Munch woodcuts for a wonderful usage of this grain. It can also be inlaid in smoother woods to achieve very exciting prints. Needless to say, I love oak prints.


Okay, okay, I picked a piece for the picture that has been sitting out a while. Pine is soft wood, easily available, cheap, very easy to cut. I call pine "practice wood" although some of the finer quality pine yields very nice work. I would say that it is not suitable for detail if I had not seen the work of James Mundie, who cuts pine blocks with a single edge razor blade to achieve astounding effects. 
For the rest of us, pine splinters under the attack of woodcut knives and chisels and yields similar results as birch. Grain is more open than birch and gets fuzzy with time, so wood-like effects are possible. Seal it with varnish.

Shina Plywood

This is a popular wood with hanga printmakers, also good for oil-based ink printmaking. Shina is a plywood, comes in several grades and thicknesses and it is precut to your particular taste. The all-plywood type is more expensive but assures that there are less gaps and knots lying in wait under the top layers.

Most printmakers I know that use shina have to seal it with varnish or similar to prevent it from splintering. It is a soft wood, very easy to cut but, in my opinion, is not as suitable for very fine detail as cherry. For quick prints and for prints that require many blocks, it is the choice.


Hey, no piece of wood is safe around me. Walnut is available in plank form at hobby/craft/lumber stores. It is a rich, dark...walnut! colored wood and becoming rare. Very hard, dense and tight grained wood but with unexpected pores, cracks and other wonderful features. Doubtful for hanga work, pores fill easily with oil ink. A friend of mine put together a block of end-grain walnut and I found it very nice to engrave on. I cut a small plank and seems to cut very nicely, similar to cherry, not quite as hard as maple. The grain is also similar to cherry but tends to show more, so that tells me that it is probably more open grained.

Other Species

I confess I have printed from purple heart, cocobolo, curly maple, bubinga and some unknown found woods. Experimenting with wood is part of the process and how I got to know what works, what doesn't and the effects possible with alternate materials. 
Also favored by printmakers are the various types of MDF (medium density fiberboard) due to its availability and affordability. Cork adds nice effects to some prints, as a stand-alone or in conjunction with other woods.

Go for it, get to know wood, don't discount anything you find for cheap and jot down all the qualities of different species for future use.

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