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Equipment Guide: Lino and cutting tools

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.

When I started out I preferred easy carve, this is the top block in the picture. It is very soft and rubbery and you have to cut into and out of it. As I grew more confident, and had better cutting tools I tried Japanese vinyl (the blue block) before eventually settling on 'grey lino' as my surface of choice (the bottom block). This is hessian backed and made from linseed oil mixed with wood and cork flour so seems the most eco-friendly, I think all the others are entirely plastic or contain a lot of plastic.

The beauty of grey or traditional lino is that it snaps when you cut into it so you only have to cut 'in', you don't have to cut 'out'. You need sharp tools and if it is cold it may need warming on a radiator to soften it a little in winter. Grey lino is perishable, if it's dry, hard and crumbly it is no good and needs returning to the shop or binning. I store it in the coolest room in the house, wrapped in a plastic bag to keep it moist and stop the linseed oil from evaporating. I believe it should last a couple of years if properly stored.

One of the wonderful things about grey lino is the huge array of things you can use to put your design onto it. You can paint it, draw on it, use carbon paper to transfer a design and even do something amazing with a laser printer where you transfer the ink from the paper to the lino (search YouTube for numerous tutorials). This means you can create some fantastic shapes and marks on the lino to cut around. I sometimes like drawing a design or part of a design directly onto lino rather than using a drawing and then tracing it. Chinagraph and water soluble pencils are very useful for this as they're softer than lead pencils so don't damage the surface, but are easily removed for corrections. Laura Boswell is a huge inspiration to me and I follow where she leads experimenting with watercolour and dip pen marks which I cut around.

The easy carve and rubbery blocks are very useful if you want to make something that needs to last. For example I carved myself several stamps in both pink 'speedy carve' and the green and white Japanese stamp carving block available from Handprinted. The Japanese rubber had the advantage of a green surface and white inner so it's really easy to see what you've carved. It also seemed thicker to hold. I think the surface damages more easily than the speedy carve though. I found pink speedy carve really hard to work with as it moves and bends a lot as you cut it. Neither seem as easy to me to work with as lino but lino wouldn't survive long as a stamp so I saw them as necessary evils and soldiered on. Part of my problem was that I was cutting very fine details, to do something less precise than thin lettering would probably be far easier!

Having carved a couple of these I asked someone who's good with wood (my Dad) to make me a handle so the stamp was easy to use. I use superglue to stick the rubber to the handle and I now have a little collection of home made stamps which are great fun.

Japanese vinyl made a good halfway house for me moving onto lino from easy carve. It is harder to carve and I found it very slippery. I have also learned that sanding the surface as I do my traditional lino is a good idea to give it a 'key' which helps hold the ink. It starts off being almost too smooth! It is blue on one side and green on the other with a black centre that shows you where you've cut. The green and blue sides are the same except in colour. As with the stamp rubber it is easier to see where you have carved due to the colour contrast. The thing I dislike about all rubbery/plastic surfaces is that you have to cut out of them otherwise they tear giving a really nasty effect.

Traditional lino needs the surface preparing with a light sanding using fine sandpaper before you carve. There are numerous tutorial videos about this online, some people do it with a block, some add water. I just use fine sandpaper, key the whole surface, wipe the dust off with a damp cloth and start carving (I am impatient!). Some people also stain the surface of grey lino to make it easier to see where they've cut. Again, I have tried this but the stain kept either transferring onto my prints or washing off so much it was pointless so I dispensed with this too. I just cut in good light or use a strong lamp so I can see what I'm doing (rechargeable work lights work well as they have a very bright setting).

The next thing you need to know about is tools. As you can see from the video different sized tools are handy for cutting different sized areas. Really good, sharp tools are about the most important thing you can buy in my opinion. If you invest in nothing else invest in these! I started with a plastic set with interchangeable heads. I found having to change the blades infuriating. When I used the Pfeil tools I was given for my birthday it was a bit life changing. They have a 'mushroom' handle designed to sit in the palm of your hand and are a joy to use, they're just so ergonomic. I was given the 'C' set of 6.

Gauges for lino come in two shapes: U and V which literally are those shapes. Pfeil have a way of naming the sizes which I can't understand at all but has something to do with shape/size (warning: technical numbering bit coming up). My set which includes a very small U (11/0.5) and three further U gauges (9/2, 8/3, 8/7; basically small, medium and large) and two V gauges (15/2 and 12/4; medium and big). I treated myself to a tiny V gauge which is a 12/1 and the 10.5mm flat chisel type tool from Handprinted for clearing large areas out so they're as flat as possible and therefore don't accidentally catch the roller.

If I had to narrow down a selection to two, I would keep my tiny V and a mid sized U. You can use the V on it's side and get a slightly thicker cut depending on how deep you go but you can also do some seriously fine work with it. The U gauge is a must for clearing away what you don't want. If you do large reduction linocuts where you end up clearing away most of the lino by the last layer the flat tool is very helpful! All my tools are available from Handprinted and there are diagrams of the shape so you can check you're ordering what you want.

Keeping tools sharp sounds really scary but is relatively simple. You can send them away to be professionally sharpened (Lawrence offer this service). There are also numerous videos online telling you how to sharpen tools, I tentatively follow advice with an Arkansas sharpening stone and oil to lubricate it. I only do this about once every 6 months or so. The real secret to properly sharp tools is using a strop. You should do this BEFORE you use your tools for the first time. The easiest thing to use is the Flexcut SlipStrop which comes with full instructions and is really simple. You're advised to use it about every half an hour when cutting and I really do notice the difference as soon as I polish a blade.

Here's one final little video of me cutting a piece of lino which I've marked up using a dip pen with some black calligraphy ink my Mum gave me when I was in my teens and some very cheap, chalky watercolour from one of my children's many sets. I've used a really manky, stiff separated brush to apply the paint and been careful not to get it too wet otherwise you just end up with lots of watercolour and no edges to cut. Having drawn a design that I'm happy with I then cut around the marks I've made, I do allow myself the freedom to follow my gut instincts and add further cuts or ignore marks though.

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