Fiona Horan

Beginning printmaking with lino: Carving tools

Here’s a quick look at what I’ve discovered so far by trial and error about carving tools, ink rollers (brayers, I think, for any Americans reading this?), and other useful bits and bobs that are useful for linocut printmakers. For my thoughts on lino, vinyl, inks and papers, see other recent articles.

Carving tools

lino cutter set with handle
This is the sort of cutter set I’m thinking of, though I’m not sure I’ve tried this brand

Unless you have a printmaking friend to lend you their tools, you are likely to make your first linocut prints using one of those lino cutter sets that comes with a plastic handle and several removable blades. Well, everyone has to start somewhere, and it’s only sensible not to invest too much money until you know that linocut printmaking is something you want to pursue. However, once you move on to something better, you’ll discover how much harder it is to do decent work with these tools (in my opinion). They also get blunt very quickly. To be fair, there are several brands of this type of cutter set out there, and some are apparently better than others. But once you are sure you enjoy this form of printmaking, even just one quality tool will make all the difference.

Once I moved on from the removable blade set, I invested first in a box of Japanese student wood-carving tools, and then some Pfeil tools.

JAPANESE STUDENT WOODCARVING SET
Japanese woodcarving tools

A tutor at a printmaking course let us try a set of woodcarving tools that she recommended, and these were the next set of tools I bought. They are a box of five pencil-shaped student quality woodcarving tools. They are available at Jackson’s, amongst other places, and come in a set of five with a sharpening stone.

For me, these were a huge improvement on the exchangeable blade cutter, and still quite affordable. I don’t know about anyone else, but I only use three of the five blades in the box. Despite this, they are well worth buying. I have additional carving tools now, but I still use these three all the time.

PFEIL TOOLS

In the last couple of years I have splashed out on a few Pfeil tools, and now have five. These carving tools are made in Switzerland in stainless steel, with a large range of blades. They have a mushroom-shaped handle, and it is best to try one first in case this doesn’t feel comfortable. I foolishly didn’t try one out before taking the plunge and buying a fine ‘v’-shaped gouge. Luckily I’m perfectly happy with the handles. Pfeil tools are very roughly around the £20 mark each at the moment, to give you an idea of cost. I think mine will last forever. I am particularly delighted to be able to make very thin lines with them.

Pfeil carving tool for linocutting

I would probably not recommend buying a boxed set from Pfeil, as it is bound to include one you don’t find useful. The Pfeil tools I use are the smallest ‘v’ (12/1), the smallest ‘u’-shaped gouge (11/1), a slightly wider ‘u’ (11/3), and then a moderately wide ‘u’ and a very wide and shallow ‘u’ which is useful for clearing larger areas. Larger ‘v’-shaped tools are fairly pointless, although I use the deeper, wider ‘v’ from my Japanese carving set as it adds a bit of vivacity (I like to think!).