Each year at Jackson’s we like to start our festive season by encouraging our customers to print their own linocut Christmas cards. This brings a nice, personal touch to your Christmas greetings, and can also be an enjoyable family activity. This article sets out what you will need before describing, step by step, the process we used to make our small edition of cards.
What you will need to make Linocut Christmas cards
Making your own linocut Christmas cards is not particularly expensive when you consider the going rate for mass produced cards. You might easily pay £5 for five cards at any of the major high street stationers, or more at an independent or high-end retailer. That wouldn’t even be enough cards for my immediate family.
Unlike shop-bought cards, homemade cards get less expensive the more you produce. If you are planning to send forty Christmas cards this year, you might save a small amount by making your own, especially if you already own a roller or a suitable relief ink. If your address book is really large, you would probably save a significant amount, especially if you bought your Fabriano Medioevalis blank cards with envelopes by the hundred.
To print your own cards you will need the following tools and supplies:
- A suitable piece of lino. It’s probably best to get at least a couple of small blocks, just in case you make a mistake. As well as traditional lino, you can now get softer, rubbery blocks such as JAS Softcut Linoleum or Speedball Speedy Carve Blocks. These blocks take less time and effort to carve, though they’re probably not quite so good for fine detail and they can be a little difficult to print from (as we’ll see below). The trade-off is between time and effort on the one hand and image quality on the other. If you’re planning to print your cards by hand, there’s no need to get a mounted block, though a mounted surface will also be easier to print from.
- Some lino tools. We used the Flexcut Mini Palm Set of four tools, which were really well suited to the soft surface of the Speedy Carve block, and the Essdee Lino Carving Tool Set of Five Blades. These aren’t the easiest tools to use because the set only includes one handle and you have to keep switching the blades round, but they are perfectly serviceable. They’re very reasonably priced.
- A roller. Unless you’re planning to make a really large card, a small roller such as this Essdee 2 inch lino roller will be fine.
- A surface to roll ink on. We used a square-foot perspex slab, but glass is equally suitable. Essdee do an ink tray which provides a good surface to roll on and clean up. I have even used the back covers of magazines before, but they do need to be white (so you can see the ink), semi-gloss (so the ink stays on the surface), and semi-hardbound or reasonably rigid (so they don’t flip up or bend as you roll out tacky ink). The advantage of the magazine technique is that you only have to clean the roller.
- Some relief ink. Oil-based relief and letterpress inks are suitable for printing from blocks of lino, but they can take a long time to dry and the cleanup operation often involves white spirit. I’d advise you to go for an ink that’s easily cleaned up. There are now a number of relief inks which can be cleaned up with just soap and water, including Caligo Safe Wash Relief Ink and Akua Intaglio (great for relief work, despite its name, as we found in a recent blog post). At first I’d say just go for a small tube or pot of each colour (<100ml), as a little ink goes a very long way. We used a small pot of Akua Intaglio Phthalo Green, a small pot of the Red Oxide from the same range, and some Akua Lamp Black Liquid Pigment (which we used to darken the Phthalo Green slightly into the colour of a holly leaf).
- Suitable paper. Fabriano Medioevalis card blanks are ideal for printing your own Christmas cards. At 120gsm, they have a really pleasing robustness to them. The surface of the paper is slightly textured and each card has four deckle edges. They come in packs of ten or a hundred, and can be bought with envelopes or without.
In addition to these specialist supplies, you will probably also need a fineliner or black felt tip pen, some ink and some white paper for proofing, though none of these things cost much and many people will have them lying around the house already.
Just for the record, I used cutters from the Flexcut Mini Palm Set on a couple of Speedball Speedy Carve Blocks. I then printed with Akua Intaglio Ink (rolled with an old brayer we had lying around the office) onto ten Fabriano Medioevalis card blanks. I printed my cards by hand, burnishing them with the back of a tablespoon.
How to make a small edition of Linocut Christmas Cards
1) Choose your design.
I decided I wanted my cards to feature a robin sat amongst holly leaves. This isn’t the most original design for a linocut Christmas card, but it was quick to do and presented a number of design advantages.
There are a number of things to consider when choosing your design. First, obviously, is the size of the block and the card; you can’t be too ambitious. The second is the colour of your inks. The robin and holly fitted the inks we had in the office, a dark green and a bright red. I decided to carve a couple of Speedy Carve Blocks; one for the dark green, and one for the bright red of the bird’s chest and the holly berries.
It’s important to think ahead about the way you are going to cut the block. If you are attempting a figurative piece, remember that it is useful to have a mix of solid colour, shaded areas (that have been stippled, hatched or crosshatched) and solid white. The robin in the holly was suitable because it had darker areas (the bird’s wings, the holly leaves), light areas (the bird’s chest, the areas between the twigs and leaves) and medium tone areas (on the top of the twigs, the bird’s flank).
The last thing to consider is how you will roll the ink onto the block. It’s really hard to roll ink onto a design made up of disparate dots, because the roller is likely to touch areas of the block which you are intending not to ink. You want enough uncut (‘black’) space to support the roller as it passes over the surface of the block. In terms of the photo below, the block with the robin on will be much easier to roll up than the irregular block with the robin’s breast and berries.
2) Darken the block
Cover the surface of the block in an ink which is darker than the linoleum. This will allow you to see your cuts (which will print white, if you’re using white paper) as you make them. It’s best not to use black, as you will need to draw your design onto the block after the ink has dried, and your fineliner or felt tip won’t show up on undiluted black ink.
If you are willing to wait for it to dry, you can use coloured relief ink (applied with a roller), but it’s not necessary to do this. Waterbased inks will darken most lino blocks without any problems. I used a light coat of Liquitex Acrylic Ink in a similar colour to the Phthalo Green relief ink I was planning to use.
3) Draw the design and transfer it onto the block.
Once you have a design in mind, place your lino block onto some cartridge paper and draw round it, so that you can practice your sketch within the confines of the block. Always keep in mind the fact that your design will print in reverse (vital when you’re carving words, but also important when you’re depicting cars driving on the left or people shaking hands etc.)
It’s not necessarily worthwhile producing a really detailed sketch at this point; just pick out the outlines and indicate the areas of dark shadow and medium tone. The design doesn’t have to fill the space, and indeed it can be more pleasing if the image has irregular edges.
I drew my robin onto multiple sheets of acetate so that I could layer the two colours and flip the design over to see how it would print. Tracing paper also works for this.
Once you have settled on an image, there a number of ways to transfer the image onto your block. The simplest is just to copy the design straight onto the block in fineliner. You can also draw through your original drawing, having first covered the back of the drawing in soft graphite. Carbon paper also works really nicely for this.
4) Cut the design out
It’s now time to assemble your tools. Once you’ve made a cut you can’t go back, so it’s best to be cautious at first. Even if you are aiming for a bold line, it’s best to score a thin line and then thicken it by going over it again with more pressure. The main drawing tools you will need will be U or V gouges. The former is good for stippling (as on the twig in my robin print) and for lines of a fixed width; the latter is good for lines of varying width (as on the robin’s plumage).
If you are using a lino block (rather than a Speedy Carve Block or a piece of Softcut) you might want to warm the lino slightly by placing it on a radiator, which will make it slightly easier to cut. I was rushing at this point, and was very grateful for how easily the Flexcut tools cut my Speedy Carve Block – like a hot knife through cold butter.
Please supervise children at all times and don’t cut towards your hand unless you are using a safety guard. Lino tools are very sharp.
5) Take a proof
Once you’re happy with the appearance of your block, it’s time to roll up some ink. Remember this is nothing like drenching a roller in watery paint when you’re painting a wall. Relief inks are tacky, and the roller should be lightly covered.
Smear a small amount of ink onto the rolling surface. Roll back and forth a couple of times to transfer some of the ink to the roller, then start to roll the ink out in one direction, lifting the roller up at the end of the stroke and placing it back at the start. This spreads the ink out over the surface more effectively by ensuring that the inky bits of the roller aren’t coming into contact with the same inky areas of the slab over and over again, as they do if you simply roll back and forth without lifting.
Roll the ink in a couple of directions until it is thinly and evenly spread over the block. The ink should be catching the roller and hissing slightly as the roller passes over it. Each stroke of the roller should be lifting a visible trail in the ink (as in the photo below).
Once the roller is lightly covered in ink, carefully ink up the block, rolling in a couple of different directions. Normally you wouldn’t need to press down at all; the weight of the roller would be enough to transfer the ink onto the surface of the lino. However, unmounted blocks (especially softer blocks like Speedy Carve Blocks or Softcut) can be slightly irregular at the edges. With my robin, I found that the surface of the block sloped off along its longer edges. This meant that these areas weren’t getting inked properly. The purpose of the proof is to find this type of thing out, so that you can work round it. In my case, this involved inking up the Speedy Carve Block with a little more pressure than usual, concentrating on these areas.
Now carefully place a piece of plain cartridge paper onto the surface of the block, making sure you don’t drag it over the surface and smudge the ink. Pressing down with a few fingers to keep the paper pinned to the block, rub the paper with the back of a spoon, as shown in the photo below, concentrating on the raised areas of the block which are covered in ink. Be firm, but don’t put your whole weight into it. You need to go over each piece of the block more than once to make sure there aren’t any areas which have half-printed.
Once you’ve thoroughly ‘burnished’ the paper, peel it back to reveal your first proof. At this point you may want to make alterations with your tools again. If there are large areas around the edges of the block which are lowered so that they shouldn’t be printing at all, it may be worth cutting them away completely with a craft knife. This will stop you inking them by accident and printing random splotches around the edge of your intended design.
6) Print your cards!
Once you’re happy with your proofs, it’s time to print your edition of linocut Christmas cards. Print them in the same way you printed the proof, but remember that you will have to ink the block up again (lightly!) between each print. Stand them up to dry; they should be dry within 24 hours, but there’s no harm in leaving them for a couple of days.
The initial print of the robin and holly in Phthalo Green came out quite nicely. I printed an edition of ten, and was intending to add another layer of Red Oxide on the berries and on the robin’s breast, but the red turned out to be rather overpowering. Instead I experimented with adding watercolour over the top of the print, as shown below.
If you used a water-washable ink, the cleanup process should be pretty simple; just put a little liquid soap on some paper or a scouring pad or rag, then give the block, the ink slab and the roller a wipe and a couple of washes with wet tissue paper. Remember to keep your block for next year, and try to store the roller upright in a jar or rested on the back of its handle, with the rolling surface in the air, to stop the rubber deforming.
All of the materials discussed in this article are available at Jackson’s, including Akua and Caligo inks, Essdee rollers, Fabriano Medioevalis card blanks and a wide selection of lino tools. If you have a question about the process of making linocut Christmas cards, or about any of the materials described in this post, do leave a comment and we will get back to you as soon as possible.