How to Make Woodblock Prints


Japanese woodblock prints are beautiful with their subtle colors and haunting designs. The process is not complicated, although it takes practice to master. Follow the steps below to make your first woodblock prints. After a little practice, you too will be a master.

Things You'll Need

  • Wood blocks, one for each color in finished design
  • Tracing paper
  • Carving tools
  • Japanese "washi" paper
  • Household glue
  • Latex paint or artists' watercolor pigments
  • Paintbrush
  • Baren

Carve Woodblock

  • Draw a design on paper the same size as your finished block will be. Draw an outline showing the edge of the print. About 1/8 inch outside of this outline, draw 2 small lines to use as paper guides when making the color blocks. Make an L-shaped one at one corner and make the other a straight line at one of the corners at the end of the L.

  • Choose two or three colors for your print.

  • Place tracing paper over the master sketch and either pin or tape in place.

  • Make one tracing for each color in the finished print. Trace around the outline of the areas where that color will appear. Carefully trace the small lines you drew for paper guides in Step 1.

  • Spread a thin layer of ordinary paper glue over the surface of the wood. Position the tracing face down on the wood. Smooth out the tracing paper. Try not to stretch or otherwise distort the paper. Apply the remaining paper patterns to the other blocks the same way.

  • Cut the outlines. Use the main carving knife from a standard set of carvers. Hold the knife at an angle so you cut a beveled edge on the design lines. Cut about 1/16- to 1/8-inch deep into the wood to make the design printing lines.

  • Remove large areas of unwanted material with a round chisel. Remove only material within 1/4 inch of the design lines. Slope gently away from the design lines, leaving a small valley surrounding the design. Keep the chisel a short distance away from the actual lines.

  • Use a small flat chisel to trim waste close to the lines of the design (the printing areas). Guide the chisel with your fingers. Cut away the wood right up to the lines of the design.

  • Make paper guides. Carve out the paper guide lines you made in Step 1 and traced in Step 4 in the same manner as you carved the design.

  • Remove paper from woodblock and wipe with damp cloth to remove traces of paper and/or glue.

  • Repeat and make a woodblock carving for each color of the design, carving only the areas that you want to print in that particular color.

Make the Prints

  • Moisten Japanese washi paper. Either spray or brush on a small amount of water. Stack paper alternately with newspaper, put into plastic bag and weigh down with a heavy book. Allow to sit for several hours. When ready for printing, the paper should feel like a piece of clothing that just came out of the washing machine--slightly damp but not wet.

  • Dampen wood block about 10 minutes before you start the printing process.

  • Mix glue. Start with regular household glue and add water until it is thinned out slightly.

  • Mix paint. Use watercolor pigments or latex craft paints. Mix in a small dish. Add water until you reach desired consistency. Lots of water produces a light delicate color on the print. A small amount of water gives stronger and deeper hues.

  • Place a dab of color in the appropriate place on the woodblock. Then add about 1/2 tsp. of glue to the paint. Use a paintbrush to mix these together and spread out over the raised portions of the block. Avoid the areas outside of the carved "valleys" near the design lines. Add more paint and/or glue if necessary to obtain complete coverage. When the color is spread to the desired areas, lightly brush over them to smooth out the color.

  • Place paper on wood block. Carefully line up the edge of paper with the paper guides prepared in Step 1 of Section 1. Let the rest of the paper gently fall onto the block.

  • Transfer image to paper. Rub over paper with baren. Press rather hard using the heel of your hand. First rub in a side-to-side motion then in a circular one. Rub only in the areas where you have placed the color and only on the raised, carved lines.

  • Peel paper off woodblock. Place paper back between layers of damp newspaper while you prepare the next block for the next color.

  • Repeat for each color.

Tips & Warnings

  • If the color didn't transfer well to the paper, you waited too long to print after applying the paint.
  • If the color is smooth but watery, you used too much water in the paint or not enough glue.
  • If there are blobs of color near the edge of the carvings, you probably didn't carve the valleys surrounding the design lines deep enough.

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