My Favorite Tools and Materials for Block Printing on Fabric
The beauty of block printing on fabric is that it is an art form that it is relatively simple in its requirements of supplies and equipment in comparison to other art forms. That said, there are some items that are absolutely necessary. This post is about my favorite tools and materials as well as ways to substitute them if you are not quite ready to buy everything just yet. There are Amazon affiliate links included in this post which helps to pay me for the content I am creating for you. I only post about products I personally use and think are great. I do encourage people to shop at their local art supply store if they can. Let’s keep them in business!
Materials for Creating Your Design
Many people create their designs digitally. If this is you, skip to the next topic and use your favorite program or app. I design all of my patterns and imagery by hand. I have always loved to draw, it is therapeutic to me, therefore a pencil, ruler, compass and eraser are my go tos. I like to have a combination of different types of pencils at my disposal. A good quality mechanical pencil is essential for lining up my patterns precisely and I shade with a good quality number two pencil. The market is flooded with cheap pencils whose leads break when you try and sharpen them. Avoid those at all costs, they are truly maddening! CW Pencil Enterprise in New York City is an amazing resource for all things pencil nerdy. I like this Muji Low Center of Gravity Mechanical Pencil I picked up on a whim years ago. A widely available number two pencil that is good quality is a Dixon Ticonderoga. I love Mars Staedleter Plastic Erasers because they erase cleanly and thoroughly without shredding your paper. I work in a Moleskine Art Sketchbook. I also make hand-printed Moleskine Journals and Sketchbooks because I love them that much. When buying a compass, it is important to select one that has a screw mechanism to adjust the width and use a ruler to measure it. The cheap compasses that just use a hinge and provide “measurements” are not worth the metal they are stamped out of. Vintage compass sets are relatively inexpensive on the used market as drafting has gone the way of the dodo. A good quality steel cork-backed ruler like this one from Fairgate is necessary to measure accurately without slipping.
Once your design has been created you will need to carve it into something. There are an endless variety of matrices on the market and each have their strengths and weaknesses. These are my favorites for printing on fabric:
Speedball Speedy Carve – this is by no means a budget option, but in this case you get what you pay for. Speedy Carve is easy to carve, but yields fine details. Its softness makes it a great choice to print on fabric with by hand, but it is not recommended for use in a printing press. It is my absolute favorite, especially because you can transfer onto it using a fresh printout from an ink or laser jet printer and a low iron absolutely perfectly, with no smudging. It is great for my complex designs.
Blick Soft Kut – A soft carving matrix suitable for beginners and those seeking a budget option. Springy in texture, it is easy to carve, but better for simple designs.
Speedball Unmounted Linoleum or Blick Battleship Grey Linoleum – Traditional linoleum is a bit more difficult to carve, but yields superb detail. You cannot immerse it in water to clean and it does break down over time. If you are planning to print on fabric using a press, this is your best choice. Linoleum is also another budget-friendly option for those just starting out.
Gomuban Japanese Vinyl – A bit firmer than Speedy Carve, it yields fine detail and is very durable, another good choice for hand or press printing.
Carving tools are very much a matter of personal preference and there are not many opportunities to try out the higher-end ones before buying them. If you hire me for a Custom Block Printing Class you can request that I bring a variety of different tools for you to experiment with.
Speedball Linoleum Cutter – This is hands-down the best cutter for beginners. It is inexpensive, compact and offers a variety of different blades. There are many knockoffs of this tool. I don't recommend them.
Flexcut Carving Tools – Flexcut offers fairly-priced, excellent quality tools for a more advanced carver. They are kind enough to include band-aids in their Palm Carving Sets. I mostly use the tools from the 1.5mm Micro Set for my fine, detailed work. They also manufacture the Flexcut SlipStrop which is a honing tool to help keep your knives sharp.
Pfeil Swiss Made –These are the top-tier carving tools. They are super sharp, beautifully honed and polished, fit in your hand nicely and have some absolutely tiny blades for fine detailed work. It is probably best to buy them individually, rather than in a big set. You can see them in person at Woodcraft.
Niji Yatsumoto Wood and Linoleum Cutting Set – Nothing fancy, but a perfectly serviceable and sharp set at an economical price.
You need to roll your ink out with one, and I have only ever used one kind – the Speedball Soft Rubber Brayer and since it works well and meets my needs, I have never strayed from it.
Something to Roll Ink Out On
No affiliate links here. I use sheets of plexiglass to roll out ink onto, but sheet glass is even better. You can even take a sheet of glass from an old frame, tape the edges and use that. An entire table topped with glass is ideal. A paint scraper or palette knife is helpful to mix inks and for cleanup.
A Padded Surface
A padded surface to print on is incredibly helpful in obtaining good results. I have a table layered with about 15 sheets of fabric. That is great because you can pin your fabrics to it, which helps with alignment and registration and generally keeps things from shifting around during printing. You could also cover a table in a layer of carpet padding and then top with a layer of smooth cloth. Velour type upholstery fabric also works well, that's what I bring to my workshops so students can experience the joy of printing on a padded surface. If you are just starting a towel without texture could be used. Remember that any seam, fold, texture, or irregularity underneath the printing area will show when printed. A padded surface is not absolutely necessary, especially if you use soft blocks, but it will definitely help you achieve better prints.
Something to Apply Pressure With
If you are not using a press, you will need something to help you apply pressure to your block with. My personal preference is a Speedball Hard Rubber Brayer, I feel like it mimics a press, but in miniature. Some people prefer a Baren, but an old glass paperweight or doorknob will also do the trick.
I only use one type of inks on fabric which are Speedball Fabric Block Printing Inks. They are great because they come in a wide range of colors, dry to the touch overnight and cure to permanence in a week with no heat setting required.
I hope this helped you find the tools and materials you need. If you have any questions please don't hesitate to reach out via email.