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Block Printing

Updated on April 23, 2010

Block printing is a process of transferring an inked image from a surface cut in relief to paper, fabric, or other material. The printing block is often of wood (sometimes of linoleum or a similar substance), and the ink is a paste or liquid carrying pigment or dye. The image transfer is made by pressure, applied by any one of several methods. The process varies in technical details, in both fine arts and craft applications.

History of Block Printing

As an art, block printing (with wood engraving as a later development) has been important in many nations, beginning in Asia about 750 A.D., and in Europe about 1350. The block book was the immediate antecedent of the development of printing from movable types in Europe.

While the simple principle of block printing was known in almost every culture, two traditions have had outstanding influence—the European and the Japanese. German and Dutch engravers who preceded the development of typographic printing, about 1450, strongly aided its growth and rapid spread. Perhaps some of their prints reached the Japanese, whose print making, from about 1660 to 1860, has profoundly influenced modern artists in Europe and America.

Methods of Block Printing

Block printing as a medium for pictorial expression is used today as a variation of such other graphic arts as etching, lithography, and wood engraving. While a wood engraving is actually a block for printing purposes, modern terminology differentiates between engraving and block printing. The block is cut with knife and chisel, a technique more rugged than engraving, which is done with finer tools on end-grain wood. Together with the productions of the other graphic processes mentioned, the pictorial results of block printing are classified in the art world as prints.

The Japanese method of block printing uses side-grain planks, usually of hard cherry. Lines and textures are knife-cut, with large open areas removed from the block by gouges. For printing, the Japanese use soft, absorbent papers, with water-soluble inks held in rice-flour paste as a medium. Each color normally requires an individual block. The ink is applied with wide brushes, thus permitting subtle gradations by partial dilution of the color. The paper, slightly dampened, is laid against register notches on the block, and the printing impression is made by rubbing.

American print makers use both the Japanese method, with water inks, and the typographic style of printing blocks with oil inks.

In craft applications, block printing is used for textile decoration and in the production of fine wallpapers. But in these and similar fields, photomechanical methods and the silk-screen process are superseding hand blocking. For block printing on textiles, the design is usually cut on heavy linoleum, which is mounted on wood to make it about "type high" (roughly 0.9 inch). The inked block is impressed on the fabric with a printer's platen proof press, exactly as type is printed. Some block printers literally stamp the impression by jumping upon the inked block, laid face down on the fabric spread over a hard surface. Block prints in oil inks, printed typographically, use commercial printing inks rolled out on a slab and applied with a composition roller. For textile printing, special inks are made to be resistant to washing or dry cleaning.

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