My appreciation for Instagram as a platform to disseminate digestible ‘how to’ videos in the print making process is constantly upheld. A few months ago I used their Stories function to explore some of the tools in my collection, with the purpose of encouraging a budding printmaker to take up their tools and give the trade a go. From the feedback I received I THINK I was successful. It was the first of my controlled trial, using the tool as a variable to carve the same image on the same block of lino for comparison.
My lino printing journey started in school, where I completely took for granted the tools available to me. When I took it up again independently, I was at a lost of where to start. My first gouge was bought purely for its economic value, £5 for an Essdee cutting tool with five heads, that’s basically £1 a head. I’ve had this tool for years, it is really sturdy and the handle is designed to fit right into your palm, using the force of your arm in carving. The smallest size, blade 1, is not actually that small when compared with other gouges available and as we shall see. Essdee also make their own lino, it’s a soft cut, grey lino and this tool would work better on their own products than on the brown one I used.
The next tool I tested is the Speelball cutting tool, which also comes with five heads. Speedball is an American company and your American lino printing community on Instagram will, no doubt, have an envious cache of their equipment featured on their grid. In the UK Speedball tools are difficult to come by, I found mine from an American seller on *whispers* Amazon. I’m not sure if it is because of the distance it travelled to get to me, or because of the exchange rate but a Speedball cutting tool with five blades is about £15. That’s £3 a head. BUT, their smallest gouge is 1mm, which will give you the ability to carve tiny details in your blocks without splashing out on a professional set. The Speedball tool doesn’t fit into your palm as snugly as the Essdee one, meaning you have a greater distance from your hand to the block which allows for more movement if you’re inclined to carving long wavy lines in one go. Speedball have their own soft cut rubber blocks and it’s pretty obvious that their tools are designed to offer detailed carving on their own blocks.
One of the tools I’ve had in my collection for the longest time is the Pfeil L12, which is also 1mm and can be purchased from high end art stores. I got mine from Jackson’s Art Supplies. This post isn’t sponsored, by the way. One of these costs about £20 but for a good reason. I didn’t realise how intricate I could carve until I bought this, which I really needed to consider given the cost. In my controlled trial the Pfeil tool carves deeper into the lino than any other tool which gives you more definition in the print. It’s a professional tool and designed for traditional carving so it works on lino, and even this brown lino, with precision. No skill needed, really. The Pfeil’s smallest tool is the L11 v blade with is less than 1mm and which I used exclusively for the letters and details of my Anna Karenina print.
The last tool in the experiment is my latest tool and lockdown purchase. This is the Flexcut Micro Palm Set, but I’m using blade one from this set, which like the two preceding tools is 1mm. This set of four is about £100, although do shop around because you may find it for about £90 from some online stores. If you find it cheaper let me know so I can mourn the extra money I spent on my set. Like many others, I haven’t been spending money on coffee outside during lockdown. I usually buy a coffee from my local café or the one at work roughly three times a week. I calculated that two months of lockdown and coffee made at home saved me the cost of one Flexcut Micro Palm tool set and so, two months into lockdown which conveniently coincided with Eid, I bought this for myself. Flexcut, like Pfeil, are professional tools. Their tools can be used on soft cut rubber, soft cut lino, stiff brown lino and wood alike. It is incredibly versatile and their slipstrops are made for the grooves of their own tool so you’re less likely to splinter the sharpening block using it. The Flexcut tool I used in my experiment glided through the lino, this designed that I carved took less than a minute. While the cuts are not as deep as the Pfeil tool, the sharpness of the blade has given the print a crisp finish.
The Essdee tool is the oldest in my collection and while it did the job the carve wasn’t as deep and defined as what was achieved by either the Pfeil or the Flexcut blades. The Speedball handle is designed to accommodate the buttery feel of their soft cut rubber blocks but it does give you definition in your work at a fraction of the cost of the professional tools. You can read on for the full methodology,
So, my thoughts for you – if you’re thinking of taking up lino printing: start with the Essdee tool as I did. It’s affordable, for those of us with money to spare on a craft, and will last you years. If you’re looking for an upgrade try the Speedball tool. It’s smallest size, 1mm, is matched by both Flexcut and Pfeil and there’s no need for snobbery in this craft, there’s enough of that already. It’s the most affordable tool that will give you the tiny details you want to develop.