• Racking Up A Fair Clip

    Forgive the title. At least it proves that, with sufficient effort, any two figures of speech can be nail-gunned together to form a meaningless headline…

    Although I don’t print much or often, it’s nice to have somewhere to dry the results. Since Poppy was born a lot of stuff has migrated to the garage and eaten into my working space. I thought about installing an overhead drying rack. It should be easier to accommodate than one of those wire-mesh kinetic sculptures, and a lot less expensive. The online stores sell the usual variety (made of wood, wire and king-size marbles) for a crazy price: around £100 for something that might cost £15-20 to fabricate on a bad day.

    Print rack close-upSo what about making my own? There were a few targets to consider. It would have to be quick to make. If I took a day building it, I might as well put in a day’s freelancing and earn enough for two shop-bought racks. It should be made from everyday materials and easy to duplicate anywhere.

    An evening’s rummage on eBay later, I had bought half a gross of bulldog clips and 200 large wooden beads (folksy bracelets, for the making of). Add to that some heavyweight printer paper and a few yards of genuine NATO-grade nylon cord (!) from the army surplus store.

    Bulldog clips will spot with rust over time and that could stain prints. So I designed a PDF template for a paper cover for the clip jaws: print, cut, fold and slot into place. Repeat 36 times per rack. Mail me or leave a comment if you want the template.

    Printrack installedI used needle files to bore out the beads until the cord would fit. For this you need a small needle file and something really, really interesting on TV for the next few hours.

    Then thread on three or four beads, a clip, some more beads, a clip… you get the idea. Be sure to tie a good hefty knot at each end of the cord when you’re done, or you’ll have little round things all over the floor, just where you can slip on them. It’s a good idea to tie the some intermediate knots in the cord so that if one end-knot works loose, the whole lot of beads and clips doesn’t cover your studio.

    After that, hanging is the easy part. A heavy-duty hook screwed into rafters on either side of the garage, and it was ready to go up. It works a treat. The beads keep the clips a couple of inches apart, to keep printed sheets from touching and to give your fingers room to grab a single clip. If you hit the assembly, even really hard, everything just drops back into place. If a paper cover gets dirty, replace it. Simple! Two racks cost around £12-£15 and an evening watching crummy movies on satellite TV.

  • More Joy of Scraps

    Engraving toolScrap stores are our friends. Our local one, Orinoco Scrapstore, is a fine place to rummage for useful bits and pieces. Yesterday I visited and for once didn’t find what I was looking for, but as usual turned up something else. In a rusty old toolbox I found this engraving tool: 50p at Orinoco’s going rate. When I got home I scrubbed off the gunk and rust and checked for maker’s marks. It claims to be a Glardon and Vallorbe #19 oval tool.

    Tool pointI think these tools are sold for engraving metals, but it might be fine for wood engravings. It certainly left some nifty marks on a small piece of endgrain wood I had lying around. The tool sells for around £8.00 new so this was quite a bargain! I wonder if they have a burin lying around somewhere…

  • Door Ornament: The King of the Jungle

    Lion doorknocker photoAges ago I saw a nice lion door knocker in a village in darkest Gloucestershire. I didn’t recall seeing one quite like it before so I took a picture. Since then I’ve seen half a dozen newer and shinier clones, each with the all-important knocky bits still attached. But I kept the picture because of this feller’s expression: unashamed to be surly, suspicious and nailed to a door by his forehead.

    I finally decided to do something with the picture this weekend. Fishing out a quick, late-night sketch from last year, I scanned it and upped the contrast. Then I printed it at the right size for a small block and transferred the laser print using a Chartpak blender marker. Stuffed full of deadly poisonous xylene, allegedly, so I opened the garage doors and windows to the winds and thought clean thoughts.

    Lion doorknocker sketchConventional wisdom says to burnish the transfer. But conventional wisdom doesn’t own a hydraulic press, so there! One minute and six tonnes later I had a perfect transfer. I’d already darkened the surface of the block with a mid-grey Copic Sketch Marker. The alcohol-based ink doesn’t fluff up the wood like water-based highlighters can, so it’s perfect for the job. The theory is that when you cut through the grey surface the pale wood will make a strong contrast, so you’ll find it easy to see where you cut. And the theory is pretty good! Even on fine, shallow cuts I could see exactly where I’d been.

    Lion woodblock before inkingThe woodblock decided not to co-operate. It’s light stuff that may or may not be basswood, bought from Intaglio Printmaker. To be fair to them I must say that the block was fine when they shipped it. I brought it inside before winter so it wouldn’t warp and crack in the garage, so instead it dried to tinder from the central heating! One flick of a gouge and I could clear a strip clear to the end of the block. Great for clearing the design, but scary when cutting details. It was entirely possible that even a little 1mm gouge would split the design in the worst way. But it survived as well as my tool skills permitted.

    Maria Arango and others from the Baren Forum have good advice about wiping blocks with linseed or mineral oil just before cutting. In retrospect, this would have been the ideal time to make use of their wisdom.

    I have mixed feelings about the results. It was great fun to cut, but I could have done far more with the source material. Then there’s the printing. I’m bad at inking blocks, and I don’t want to fill in all the small, shallow cuts by mistake. Maybe it needs stiff ink or the loan of a larger diameter roller? Only a tiny dab of ink at a time on the inking slab? If you reading this and have a suggestion, please leave a comment!

    If it prints successfully I’ll post it. If not I’ll put it down as a learning experience.

  • Little prints for little people

    happy_poppy_small.jpgYou might know that my daughter Poppy (a.k.a. Kalliope Ann Rose) was born last December. Here is a picture of her, looking all sweet and relaxed. Don’t believe it for a moment…

    One fact that that survived the fog of new-parenthood was about Poppy’s visual development. For the first weeks she could barely see any distance, and couldn’t differentiate one colour from the next. Apparently a lot of this isn’t to do with the eye, but with neurology — visual processing takes a while to perfect. Little ones like pictures full of sharp edges and high contrast. We noticed that she’s taken quite a shine to a wood engraving we have on the wall. She can stare at it for minutes at a time and seems fascinated. This was food for thought.

    a2z.jpgAll Poppy’s baby books are full of bright primaries or pastels. There’s very little with strong, monochrome images that might appeal to her. So I thought about making some very simple designs and binding them into a little concertina book. I’ll start with letter and number shapes, musical notes, domino and dice spots, spirals, zigzags and meanders, and so on. Will she come to understand any designs? I doubt the cognitive tools are there just yet. But who knows? Maybe when she encounters writing and other symbols elsewhere she’ll recognize something. And we’ll have a book to preserve, drool and all, as a keepsake.

    Here is a stab at letter shapes. As usual I struggled to ink evenly, but then it’s a first proof. I’ll post later — and hopefully more interesting — designs when they’re ready.

  • Catch them while they’re hot…

    Chinese Prints

    The Ashmolean — a great museum even when it’s not exhibiting prints — will soon close the doors to its exhibition of Chinese Prints, 1950–2006. If you are anywhere near Oxford before 2 March 2008, please go and see it! Actually this is the second of two parts. The first was late last year, but I didn’t even notice as the little one was on her way. I caught this half with only a week to go.

    It didn’t matter that the artists were unfamiliar to me. Or that there were obvious propaganda elements in many exhibits, putting forward political messages that I’d be uncomfortable to endorse. The execution of many pieces was perfection. My favourites include Zhao Yannian, Protest, 1956; Li Huanmin, Reading Hard, and Grazing, both 1962; Yu Qihui, Comrades-in-arms — Lu Xun and Qu Quibai, 1998; Zhang Chaoyang, Heroes and Heroines are all around, 1970; Wang Jieyin, We Are The Force Criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius, 1973; and Xu Kuang, The Master, 1978. You may get some idea of the way the content leans from the titles! All the pieces I name here are printed with oil-based ink and some wouldn’t look out of place in a Western-tradition collection. But there’s a vigour to them that I can only envy.

    I bought the accompanying book. It’s worth obtaining if you’re interested. You can order it from the museum shop or from Amazon. No, they’re not paying me for the plug!

    Dürer and friends

    Just across the centre of Oxford from the Ashmolean, there is an exhibit of German Masters at the Christ Church Picture Gallery. The full title is Holbein, Dürer and beyond – German drawings and prints from the Christ Church Collection. It runs until 30 March. There is no shortage of interesting items. But for anyone who loves early European prints, there are examples of Dürer’s Small Passion series, and some of his other woodcuts and engravings. Peerless. I’m going back to see it again at least once before the close.

  • Enter the Blue Meanie

    Warning: contains long, explicit discussion of printing press modding!

    Some time ago I decided that I wanted a Real Press (TM). There are some lovely products out there. Unfortunately ‘out there’ includes the price. So I saved, and waited. And waited…


    Two people came to my rescue. The first was Charles Morgan. He’s well-known on the Baren mailing list for sound technical advice. He mailed me plans for a hydraulic press — basically a wood and angle-iron frame, a wood platen, and a bottle jack to impart pressure. Here is a link.

    Then my brother, an engineer, saw the plans and suggested making the frame and platen from steel. He designed the basic frame and the box structure for the platen, and e-mailed the plans to a friendly steel fabrication company. They make such large structures that the press could be created from their offcuts. A month or so later they sent it to me, dolled up in a cheery blue marine paint. And what a beauty it was!

    The whole ensemble, frame and platen, came to around 60kg (~120lbs). No light-weight! My brother had designed a robust ‘push-up’ press, where the jack raises the platen and presses it against a top plate. I was a little nervous of putting my hands in the press in case the heavy box-shaped platen should slip off the jack head and crush fingers.


    I decided to remove the platen, up-end the frame, and try for a chunky example of Charles’s ‘push-down’ pattern. So I drew rough plans for a thick plywood platen, a top structure to hold the bungee ropes in place, and a socket of some sort to keep the jack central.

    The wooden bits

    Platen and pad-eyesThe plans refined themselves as I went. The platen first: two layers of 18mm (3/4″) plywood, cut to fit between the uprights, with pad-eyes screwed and glued in to hold the bungee ropes. I used resin glue — supposed to be stronger than the wood itself — to join the two layers of ply.

    To decide where to put the pad-eyes, I had to first design the superstructure. In the end I settled on yet another sheet of ply, slotted into the top of the frame. It has rope-guides made from lengths of quadrant-section wood glued together, sanded smooth at the joins, mitred and fixed to the plate. A hole either side of the guide would give me a smooth run for the bungee cord at the top of the press — this should help prevent fraying. Everything was carefully sanded smooth just in case. Now I knew where the cord would run, I could fix the pad-eyes to the platen below. Easy!

    Then I took a heavy piece of scrap flooring wood to use for a jack-head socket. It would need clamping to the top plate of the press. I bodged the whole thing with scraps of MDF, some M6 bolts and wing-nuts. A wide-bore hole underneath made an adequate socket.

    The eagle-eyed reader will notice that all these pieces are removable. Should I decide to improve a part, I just remove it from the frame and build afresh. The frame itself hasn’t been touched since I turned it upside-down.

    Twangy bits

    I bought a few different bungee cord fittings to see which was best. Straight ‘octopus’ ropes — the ones you secure a tarpaulin with — can be dodgy. If they work loose you risk a metal hook flailing at your face. After seeing pictures of eye surgery following such accidents, I chickened out and made cord loops with plastic connectors. Even if these break there won’t be a metal hook zinging around! You can adjust the plastic connectors without removing the cord. And there’s another bonus. The black cord and matt black connectors look way cooler.

    Finishing touches

    Finishing took a few more days. I glued thin plates of MDF above and below the platen to protect the ply from denting under pressure.

    Then it was varnish time. Three brushes’ worth! Method: dip least-ruined brush in tin. Apply varnish. Pick brush hairs out from sticky goo. Cuss and repeat.


    All that remained was waiting for a couple of weeks until I was in a tidy mood to clean a sackful of sawdust and cuttings from the floor, dust every surface in the garage, and cough myself raw when the dust-mask clogged up.

    Since then I spent a few more weeks racking my brains for the next woodblock design. Funny how ideas always flourish when I have other things to do, and evaporate the instant I’m free.


    Every arrival needs a moniker. Some choices, however obvious, might offend. So ‘Compact-A-Pet’ and ‘I Can’t Believe I Had Fingers’ were out. I fell back on the classics and chose the much gentler ‘Blue Meanie’.


    In the end I used a couple of old blocks — the mushroom and the beetle from earlier posts — and tried them out. They both printed a treat. The beetle filled in a little because of shallow gouge-cuts and tons of pressure.

    How is the press to use? Easy! The jack fits and stays put. A dozen or so cranks are enough to bring the platen down onto the print sandwich. Another couple of cranks and you can hear the compression creaks. (At least I assume that is what’s going on, as nothing seems to bend). Then you hit the release valve on the jack and the bungee cords pull everything back off the sandwich.

    All my previous attempts at printing have been very blotchy — partly from trying to ink and press slightly uneven blocks, partly through my own sloppiness.

    I used the same Lawrence ‘GB’ washable oil-based ink and cheapish paper as before. But the results from the press were far cleaner than anything I’d achieved to date. The ink transferred far more evenly. Now I have to work out an acceptable compromise between quantity of ink applied, pressure, thickness of packing (with felt the paper embosses like crazy under this load!), choice of paper, and so on.

    I don’t care if it takes a lot of practice get the mix right. The press is a versatile tool and a joy to use. One day I’ll be its match.

  • Kept in the dark and fed on ink

    MushroomsThis weekend I had my first pop at using a maple block. My, but it was dense! After lino and light plywood, maple felt like carving sheet granite. Tools blunted, excessive force was used, and the borders chipped off when I was clumsy. Impolite language was heard. But I settled down to work on a startlingly hot April day with the radio to one side and the cat snoozing on the other. Not bad after all.

    Last year my uncle and cousin visited from the States. During their visit we went to Belas Knap. On leaving Oxford, aim your car at Winchcombe and follow the back roads. You will follow a deep, twisting valley that heads west until the land unfolds. Along the way is a sign that points you left, walking through woods and up a steep incline onto the ridge. There is Belas Knap — an ancient barrow and the perfect place to sit and watch the sky.

    Just one mushroomWe took many photos. I completely failed to capture some small mushrooms in the crook of a tree. This design is an attempt to recreate them from memory. The only bit that works for me is the leftmost mushroom. The block was one of the largest I’ve cut (at a measly 8″x6″), and I became impatient trying to model the tree. It came out looking like a hacked-up linocut. But the mushroom remains, and I’m happy with that.

  • Becalmed in a teacup

    Ship in a cupOver the last few years I’ve taken a shine to the early European woodcuts shown in books about medieval travellers, merchants and technology. The other evening I had the idea of mixing these images: ships, cranes, towers, and so on, with a rather dull still life I was sketching at the time. Easier said than done. So I started out with this: one ship, one cup, planning and cutting in about half an hour. The haste shows, of course. But I might carry this on and do something a bit larger and better executed. I think a few bowls and cups with ships, a busy port city, and the odd mad mendicant or two, might do the trick. More as and when I get anything done.

    And many thanks to Bareners who gave advice on how to get a denser result print from ply. This one used my nipping press and a sandwich of heavy MDF board plus a little soft backing cardboard to even things out. Getting there…

  • The Joy of Scraps

    This weekend was fruitful. On Saturday morning I drove down to Oxford Wood Recycling, which isn’t in Oxford at all, but nearby Abingdon. They don’t keep much that’s good for printmaking, unless you’re into carving pier timbers or 8’x4′ ply sheets, but they have a little tub of hardwood offcuts. I’m not sure what wood my choices are but for a couple of pounds they were worth a shot.

    Steel tableJust before I left I joked about how handy the nice metal table would be — just right for propping up my press! “Yours for a tenner,” said the woman in charge. “Done,” said I. Without anything to secure the table in the back of the car, I drove home very slowly and carefully — the A34 isn’t the safest road at the best of times, and I didn’t fancy braking sharply and having to extract steel furniture from the back of my head. But as you can see, the table looks just fine under the nipping press.

    From there it was on to the Oxford Orinoco Scrapstore in sunny Headington, on the east side of the city. This place is another small, green triumph. Local companies donate things they might otherwise dump — disks, books, materials, old tools, and so on — and we get the chance to buy them for peanuts. For a princely two pounds I bought an old brace-type drill and bit, two seriously battered chisels, an awl, some foam and neoprene mousemats, some leather scraps and a book on the Aenid. All but the drill and book are handy for printing.

    Wood offcutsOld chiselsThe chisels responded to a couple of hours on sharpening stones — tips like fjord-heavy coastlines gradually smoothed out into flattish sharp edges. Great for clearing the ‘big white bits’ on blocks! I used a Dremel to polish off most of the old paint and rusty bits until they looked like real chisels again. The hand drill will take a lot more work: perhaps it’s time to play with electrolytic rust conversion. The leather scraps are perfect for homemade strops: just add rubbing compound. The foam and neoprene are to try out a Baren guru’s suggestion about flexible registration blocks for relief presses.

    On Sunday we forgot all about printmaking and went for a walk along the Ridgeway. The stretch near West Isley was wet, cold and windy, and as beautiful as you could wish for. We saw the huge donut-shape of the new Diamond synchotron in the valley below. The sky changed every few minutes, from tatty black clouds to rainbows to pristine blue. Roll on Spring.

  • One step forward, five back

    Last week I finally decided to cut a wood block. OK, a small piece of shina. The design was based on a close-up photo of a beetle that somehow ended up on the net curtains of my office last summer. I sketched out a design and left a thick border to about 6″x8″.

    Cutting shina was quite a change after playing ‘hunt the knife mark’ with lino. I could see (more or less) how the design was coming along. To make life a little harder I decided to cut all the outlines with a knife rather than gouges. This lasted until the shaded part of the abdomen when I caved in and used a small v-gouge to finish off.

    First attempt on sketching paperSo far, so good. Things went to pieces a little come the printing. I used some fairly heavy, toothed drawing paper for proofing, plus some Lawrence ‘GB’ oil-based washable ink, burnishing using a spoon on some prints and a Speedball baren on others. Humbug. The ink had a couple of hard bits which you can see on the first proof. That wasn’t what bothered me, however. The grain showed everywhere and I couldn’t seem to get any solid blacks even using the spoon.

    Time to ask the astounding Baren Forum people for advice… They recommended all sorts of things including burnishing out from the centre, trying thinner Japanese paper, dampening the paper, and so on. The local art store and stationers were out of blotting paper so I’m stuck with dry paper prints until the delivery gets here. Japanese paper I had.

    Proof on Japanese paperThis evening I tried a few more proofs on the Japanese paper (no idea what type — the label fell off!) and had a little more luck. Most of the black solids were just that, except the lousy border! I don’t know. It’s probably my slapdash inking and burnishing, but it’s worse than ever — every little tool-mark caught the ink and printed fuzzily, and the border was patchy as hell.

    I’d like to put this through a cylinder press (will shina take the strain?) just to see what might be possible. That’ll have to wait for another day. In the meantime I’ll try another block and start all over again. While keeping on eye on course listings or trying to find some one-on-one coaching from a real printmaker!

    Until next time…