Equipment Guide: Inks and rollers
My first forays into linocutting were made with an Essdee kit I bought at Cass Art for £20. The kits comes with a cutting tool handle and interchangeable blades, a few pieces of easy carve and some 'real' lino. It also has one tube of water based ink, a hard roller and a tray for rolling the ink out on. In short everything you could need to make some basic cards or small prints.
That was back in 2018 and I've progressed a little since then in my equipment tastes. I used to work with waterbased ink and bought quite a collection of the linoldruck range by Schmincke. I printed cards and even wrapping paper with these as well as one A3 commissioned print.
Whilst they work well for cards and the wrapping paper (and are recycling friendly), water based inks dry very quickly (a matter of minutes in hot conditions) so would be hard to use for a large edition of prints, especially if you are using a mixed colour rather than colour straight from the tube. I do like the linoldruck ones for the sheer range of colours available and the fact that they're very easy to get hold of. You can add a little water to them when they start drying out to keep them going that little bit longer.
You can see in the mountain print above there are two tones of the blue and the purple. This was achieved by using extender. This is available for use with both water and oil based inks and is like adding water to watercolour paint, it dilutes the colour making it more transparent. It's very useful when you want a thinner layer of colour but don't want a lighter shade which would be achieved by adding white.
I had resisted oil based inks as I was worried about needing chemicals to clean up since I print in my kitchen and have young children. I was introduced to 'safe wash' oil based inks at West Dean. These are oil based but it's vegetable oil so they clean up with soap and water. I also discovered zest-it, a much nicer alternative to white spirit. I now have rather a exciting collection of Caligo safewash inks by Cranfield Colours. I clean them up easily by spraying watered down washing up liquid over the rollers and ink plates. If any ink is being stubborn I use a hint of zest-it just to ensure the equipment is properly clean.
The immediate difference I noticed with the oil based inks is that they dry very slowly. This means that you can work for a few hours and you don't have to worry about the ink drying out (handy when you don't finish on time and the school run looms!). There are various things you can add to speed up the drying time, I like wax driers as it's a similar consistency to the ink and seems to work well without affecting the colour at all. I tried cobalt driers which are very runny so need a dropper these also work well, I prefer the convenience of the wax driers. When printing my large linocuts onto printmaking paper they're always dry and ready for the next layer the following day with the wax driers. The only drying issue I've had was with a very thick application of neat red ink onto card. This took weeks to dry (even with the driers). I was advised that red is particularly renowned for being slow to dry and that ink dries more slowly on card than paper due to the thickness. Start your valentines hearts in December to ensure they're dry and ready for February!
In order to use printmaking ink you need something to roll it out with. I have come a long way since that first roller in the kit.
I own one Essdee roller, the blue handled one. This is very cheap at less than £7 but works rather well. The blue handled ones are soft rubber, the original red handled I got with the kit is very hard and I don't like it at all (read on for explanation). The bottom row of the picture are the cheaper rollers. I have a skinny one for inking up narrow parts and one which is more of a wheel which I use for monoprints. The red ones are Abig ones which cost less that £5 each and are great when you're adding multiple colours and just need more rollers. I bought all of the bottom row online at Handprinted, their packages are very exciting because you get a mini packet of love hearts with every order!
The top row is where the money is. The biggest one is my newest. I bought it at Intaglio printmakers. It's 10 inches long and weighs a ton, it's on the cusp of needing two handles which makes using it a very good excuse not to bother with gym membership. I bought it so that I could do rainbow rolls across A3 pieces of lino. The other three on the top row are from Lawrence Art Supplies in Hove. I received two of them as (big) birthday presents, these are the green durathene ones; durathene is super smooth and very soft. This means you have to take care because when you roll the ink over the surface of the lino a very soft roller will sink into the areas that you have cut away and deposit ink on areas you don't want it. A careful check and wipe solves the problem. I bought myself the black rubber roller from Lawrence as I liked their rollers so much.
The reason I splash out and use expensive rollers is that the hard one I started with pushes the ink about and picks it up in blobs, it's really hard to roll out a nice, even layer of ink. The more expensive, very smooth ones roll the ink out to a thin even layer that gives far better results when printed. The durathene ones are also capable of picking up the imprint of something and then transferring the texture/image to either a plate to be printed from or directly onto paper.
Overall if you just want to play with printmaking and not spend a fortune I recommend the blue handled soft Essdee roller as perfectly satisfactory. With some water based inks and one of those you could have a lot of fun and make some lovely cards and prints. If you're serious about getting into printmaking put your money into a decent roller and you won't regret it. Most specialist printmaking shops will be able to talk you through the products and many, such as Handprinted, have blogs offering advice so you can narrow down the options to suit your exact requirements.
To end here's a little video of me using three different rollers to ink up the last layer of 'Spring Mist in Green'. You can see where the larger roller catches the cut away parts of the lino and needs cleaning and then how the different sizes of roller help to do some slightly unorthodox, painterly inking up. You can also see how extender has been used in the greens to achieve a more translucent effect while the very pale colour has lots of very opaque white added to make it much more solid. This is another benefit of oil based inks - it is possible to get a light colour to sit over a darker one, I'm not sure this would work with water based inks, or at least not so easily.