Wood block printing

Libraries are fantastic things, really. Books, old buildings, and non-capitalist values. What’s not to love? Juliana and I are both vociferous readers, so when we moved downtown it didn’t take us long to pay our local library a visit.

When we were there, we learned that the basement of the library had a makerspace where you could go and hack around on all sorts of sweet machinery. I’ve been getting to know their laser engraver lately, and have started learning how to make wood block prints.

Using a laser engraver for these is much easier than traditional wood block carving. (Tried that once. Yikes.) The computer does all the hard carving work for you. You just have to manipulate an image into something that looks good.

This is Taco, one of the two kittens Juliana and I adopted in the fall. She’s so cute! Let’s immortalize her face on a chunk of MDF, medium-density fibreboard. MDF works better for laser engraving than traditional wood carving because the lasers don’t care about the huge amount of glue in MDF. They just burn it all away. Also, MDF is cheap.


Here’s the same picture, cropped, shrunk, and converted to black and white. Laser printers can support very high resolutions (600 dpi at my library’s machine), but I was going for a more pixelated look for this first project.

When I converted to black and white, I didn’t just turn the thing to gray scale. Using Paint.NET (my image editing software of choice), I used Adjustments -> Brightness / Contrast to achieve the desired effect. Slam contrast to the max, and play around with brightness until you are seeing something that looks good. This can take a little bit of playing around as well. I had to split the image into a top and bottom half and adjust the contrast / brightness separately so that you can see her face and ears distinctly.


Last thing to do is to invert the colors. On the laser printer, any black parts of the image will be carved away and only the white parts will remain. The black parts will stay negative space on the final print, while any white parts will be the parts with ink on them. Also remember that the final print will be mirrored left-to-right - important if you are doing any writing.

After we print out the wood block (forgot to take pictures here), you roll ink onto the stamp using a tool called a brayer, place paper on the stamp, then apply pressure using a tool called a baren. Some people use their hands or a wooden spoon for that last part, but I was feeling fancy and splurged on the baren. Repeat as often as you’d like.

I have five of these Taco faces arranged vertically on a piece of dental floss, like I’m some great Pop Art savant. Not bad for an introductory project. Not too expensive either. A starter pack of printing tools (ink, brayer, and baren) cost me $60 and will last for many printings to come.