Block printing t-shirts

My experience printing on fabric using a linoleum block. This over-looked medium is awesome!


As an interactive designer, I spend most of my day designing on the computer and dealing with arduous technology constraints. So, I am constantly craving opportunities to get away from the monitor, get in touch with my fine art background and make some “real” art.

I was recently inspired to try block printing for the first time, and it was awesome! I was amazed at the results I was able to get from such a crude medium. I haven’t seen much online about this process, so I wanted to share my experience and provide some tips for those looking to try it.

Block printing isn’t just for mom!

Most designers jump straight to screen printing and overlook the option of block printing. I had never realized its potential until I saw the work of Derrick Castle. When I stumbled across his portfolio I was fascinated with what he could achieve with a simple linoleum block. His work changed my perspective of the medium — no longer was block printing just for crafty mom’s who like to flower stamp their aprons.


Cheap and easy — you can do it

Unlike screen printing, block printing is much cheaper and relatively easy to do. Screen printing requires hundreds of dollars in supplies and the process can be quite technical for a beginner. Block printing is cheap and you don’t need a lab or big space to do it.

If you can draw, you can block print. Some people are intimidated by the carving process, but you don’t need to be a professional carpenter to do it. The linoleum is very smooth and easy to carve into. In first grade you learned to color inside the lines — that’s about as much talent as you need to carve a block.


What you need to start

Like anything, there is an initial investment in tools you need. Once you have the tools, all you need are the materials (which vary in price based on your project). I started with nothing, and by the time I had printed 15 shirts, I had only spent $140. Not bad — that’s under ten dollars per shirt! And now that I have the tools, my next project will be even cheaper.

Tool Investment

My Project Materials


My Process

Like I said, this was my first time block printing. Originally I wanted to design a poster, but I was hosting a bachelor party and thought making some t-shirts would be the perfect excuse to give this medium a try.


Designing with the block in mind

With any medium, there is always a maximum level of detail you can reach. For example, your average printer will produce images that contain 300 dots per inch (dpi). With block printing, the detail is limited by the width of the cutter. So your thinest line will be about one millimeter wide.

My design had an old wooden boat, so my illustration started pretty detailed with the old wood texture. But before I traced the design to my block, I went back and simplified some of the more detailed areas. Below is a closeup of the finished block. This is about as detailed as I could get on a 8x10 block.

Max level of detail I could achieve in my design

Preparing the block for carving

Once you have your design there are a few things you need to do before carving begins…

  1. Mirror your design. Make sure you reverse your design so that it prints correctly when you stamp the shirt.
  2. Print and trace. Print your design out on regular printer paper. Then take your graphite paper and put it between your printed design and the block. Use a ballpoint pin and trace over the design. The graphite will transfer your design to the block.
  3. Fill the positive space. Use a sharpie and completely fill in the space you DON’T want to cut. This is important, because its easy to forget which part to carve.

Carve that block!

You are basically creating one big stamp. The objective is to carve out all the negative space, so that only the positive space (your design) can accept the ink. The cutters have different size tips. I started with the detailed areas and worked my way out, but there is no right or wrong strategy.

How deep do I cut?? If you are printing on paper, you honestly don’t need to cut very deep at all. For fabric, I leaned toward deeper because I was worried the fabric fibers would get into the grooves. But, turns out that even the shallow cuts worked great.

Use the bench hook! The inking plate doubles as a bench hook. This thing definitely comes in handy because it keeps your block from sliding away from you as you push to carve. You also want to carve away from your body to protect yourself from getting cut.


Finally… lets print!

Printing is actually the easiest part of the whole process. The sketching, tracing and carving is the more tedious part, but printing is actually pretty strait-forward.


Preparing to print

Block printing doesn’t require a lab or a lot of space. I printed all 15 shirts in my tiny apartment using only a few feet of kitchen counter top. Before applying any ink, I setup all the tools and materials I would need. On the counter you should lay down some paper to catch any ink spills. Then make sure you have your block, soft rubber brayer and inking plate ready to go.

If you are printing on fabric like I was, make sure you iron the front of the shirt to reduce any wrinkles. Also find a thin board to put between the two layers. That way, when you press, the ink wont soak through to the back of your shirt.

Printing

Once all of your materials are ready and laid out on the counter, its time to print. Below is a video I found very helpful. It will walk you through the steps of block printing on fabric and how to use the transparent base.

Helpful video on how to block print on fabric with the right kind of ink.

The results will vary from shirt to shirt depending on how much ink you applied, but thats what’s so cool about the medium. It has a nice textured look and each shirt is unique.

What if ink gets inside the grooves? A few times I applied a lot of ink to the block and accidentally got some inside the grooves (the negative space). I thought for sure that ink would get on the shirt. Surprisingly, the ink stayed in the groove and the print came out fine. So don’t worry if ink accidentally gets in the grooves, it will likely be ok.

Linocut for the win!

Overall I had a blast doing this project. The results were great and the guys loved the shirts. Hopefully this post is helpful for anyone thinking about giving block printing a try.

I plan to do more of these in the future. Follow me on Dribbble for updates!