Relief printing

Relief printing includes the artistic techniques of woodcut, linocut, material printing, etc.. For letterpress / typesetting characters with font sizes from 6 pt to 96 pt are available: From business cards to individual invitation cards and posters up to DIN A1 format. Theoretical support ranges from typeface history to typesetting techniques, typographic design and printing press development. A Boston Tiegel press (DIN A5) and a pulling press (max. 52 W × 57 L cm; printing area max. 49 × 56 cm, max. print height approx. 2.4 cm) are available for printing.

Woodcut on the pulling press

Relief printing

is the oldest of the four classic printing processes. Millions of years ago, our ancestors realized that they could transfer these dyes by making marks in the (wet) sand with their feet and by means of pigments on their hands. These “imprints” have survived the ages in prehistoric caves, e.g. very well preserved at Puente Viesgo on the north coast of Spain (over 40,000 years old).

This simple as well as ingenious procedure, which is used for the signing/signature of non-literate persons under e.g. contracts up to today for the identification of criminals or for the production of passports/ID cards, is a stamp in the classical sense – just like the potato “print” used in kindergarten or school. The appearance does not meet the demands that are placed on a print run: with each finger “print”, the edge areas look different and the potato cut print area changes with each stamping process … because printing is defined that way:

Definition of printing: In the classical sense, the production of print runs (duplication) of texts, graphics and images by printing an inked printing forme onto the substrate by means of a printing force generated by a counter-pressure element of the printing press.

For artistic printing, I would like to add here the addition: “the possibility of producing editions”. Because it is our decision as artists whether we WANT to produce an edition of a printing form (this is how identical prints/productions for publication from 15 or 18 pieces are defined in the different country regulations or handling) … And if we color the identical printing form differently/non-repeatable each time or choose different/different looking printing stock, this counts as monotypical prints or unique prints.

Relief printing

The definition is: All types of printing in which the ink-receiving and ink-delivering parts of the printing forme are raised. This includes information transfer without color, blind embossing, which is possible only with a raised form.

The relief process is based on the principle of pressure and counterpressure. Only the raised, mirrored parts of the printing form are inked (e.g. rolled in) during the printing process and only these release ink during the process, pressing onto the substrate (e.g. paper), so that sharp-edged contours are produced, while the non-printing parts lie lower.


– Printing elements, i.e. letters and halftone dots, lines and areas, have a typical squeeze margin, i.e. the ink has been squeezed in the printing direction over the visible margin contour,

– the shading; depends on the substrate thickness and the imprinting (except for flexographic printing and letterset) into the substrate,

– typical form of screening (for clichés)

– the color of the printing elements has the same density on the entire sheet if the ink was applied evenly.

Relief printing includes letterpress, flexographic printing, letterpress, embossing and blind embossing, woodcut and wood engraving, linocut, metalcut, zinc etching, material printing and others.


Relief printing has a predecessor dating back to antiquity in stuff printing, the printing of fabrics with wooden forms. Chinese relief cut stones were used for duplication thousands of years ago (raised areas mark themselves when rubbed, among other things). This technique is called frottage. The earliest European woodcuts (including texts) were made towards the end of the 14th century. to be applied. In China, this technique was in use even before then, and scrolls were found to have been made as early as 868 by duplicating them using carved wooden letters. In Korea around 1390, people even used word signs cast in bronze.

In 1455, Gutenberg finished printing his 42-line Bible (Gothic script); he began producing smaller print editions, such as the Donate (indulgence letters/donation receipts) and calendars, with collaborators in Mainz around 1435/1445. He is the European inventor of letterpress printing with movable metal type and the hand-casting apparatus needed to cast this type. Before that, even in Europe, “printing” was done sporadically by means of letters cut into wood and imitating the calligraphy of the manuscripts (only small editions – durability of the material!). The space for initials was left blank, they and also colored lines were added by hand by illuminators. The sheets/books printed before 1500 are counted among the early prints, they are called incunabula, i.e. cradle prints. Thus, the development of printing presses – the first were made of wood and constructed from the wine press – as well as the production of printing stock is also significant for the history of printing.

Woodcut and linocut

Cutting material

Linoleum is basically softer and has a homogeneous surface, not characterized by grain, but therefore also more “inanimate”. Today’s linoleum, which is mainly used for linocuts (also mostly the one used today for flooring), has a fabric on the back that can be used for textured prints. The cut surface is slightly porous, which is marked in large areas at printing force setting without or with minimal embossing and short ink on the substrate paper. If this is undesirable, you have to increase the ducking force and/or the ink tack. Also, this linoleum “crumbles” very quickly when cut in contrast to the even softer, but with foreign body inclusions provided, then most widely used flooring from GDR times, which also in turn – because without backing fabric – elongated like rubber when cut. Linoleum can be cut with the simplest means (scissors, knife, cutter) to a wide variety of bases, so “mosaic” cutting and multi-color printing of composite, differently colored shapes in one printing process is also possible.

So: linoleum is a good material if you want to overcome little material resistance with less cutting force and at the same time achieve closed color surfaces. With good cutting execution and optimum pressure force, even high runs are possible.

In contrast to wood engraving, which works into the end grain, i.e. standing fibers with even higher pressure retention (boxwood is preferred here), wood engraving involves removing/cutting out the non-printing parts from the longitudinal wood surface (lying fibers). Woodcut and wood engraving are combined under the generic term xylography.

The woodcut is a modern special form of the woodcut, in which it is formally refined by a fine line network – often in combination with the normal woodcut technique. The black and white is often supplemented by colors.

As with all printing processes, the desired print run should also be considered for woodblock printing. What good are 1000 possible printed copies if they are kept in one’s own (rented?) studio or apartment until the end of one’s life?

(Almost) all types of wood are suitable for woodcutting. Hardwoods such as pear, walnut or cherry allow the highest runs, but require more cutting force due to their material resistance. They are especially popular for more detailed graphics, as fine lines can be achieved in them better and more permanently than in softwood. For softwood you need less cutting force, the height of support to be achieved is usually sufficient. They are particularly suitable for large-area work and have the further advantage that large panels or boards are cheaper to buy than those made of hardwood.

Also used are blockboards and especially plywood, less often chipboard and veneer panels. These wooden forms are popular with printmakers because they do not warp and larger sizes can be had inexpensively. My tip: look in the “leftover box” at the hardware store when cutting! Old furniture wood is well seasoned and therefore excellent. So: keep your eyes open everywhere!

In woodblock printing, the expressiveness/vividness of the grain is important to me, i.e. I include it in the design/composition. I often make a grain impression before cutting to visualize the printable appearance and from there select the appropriate wood stock for the designing cut. The grain impression can be strengthened by means of wire brush and / or other. We can minimize it by grinding the surface.

Furthermore, rubber printing and vinyl blocks, softcut and other foam-like boards, as well as bristol board, chalkboard, etc., are nowadays used for cutting and high-pressure scribing techniques. In contrast, lead cutting, which was also common in the past, is no longer practiced, as far as I know.


When cutting/manufacturing, a laterally reversed form should be created for the mostly direct printing here (i.e. that the ink is transferred directly from the printing form to the substrate). Also, not fully thought-out area-line compositions often lead to display problems. There are no mediating gray elements in black and white printing! And a black line in black area is not producible for everyone – this needs another printing pass with another form.

So the best thing to do beforehand (for beginners, but mistakes happen to professionals, too) is to produce a design that is as accurate as possible, as large as possible in shape and color, mirror it (laterally reversed) and then it could still be copied through to the surface. This also avoids that the pressure element size does not match the die size as well as the cutting knife size.

Linocut, proper cutting away from the handDraft on the woodblockWoodcut and linocut, NEVER cut toward the hand !Woodcut, workstation with arrow cutting knives.


A so-called “safety workboard” is recommended. It can be attached/attached to the table edge and the material to be cut is fixed by the rear upright stop bars, i.e. secured from slipping away. The cutting direction should always be away from the body and the holding hand! Otherwise risk of injury!

Types of cutting technique

in woodcut and linocut

there is – derived from the classic printing with black on white paper – the

– White line cutting, where the images (information)/lines are perceived as non-printing elements (i.e. white/paper colors) in the printing base, thus must be cut out. This form of presentation requires the least editing work (mostly/depending on the subject and its detail) and is often used first. But already Albrecht Dürer used it with its negative inversion to increase the artistic effect in black-lined woodcuts.

– Black line cutting, in which the image information/lines must stop when cut, take on the color and release it back onto the paper and thus be perceived as “black” lines. Shall be the most original form of woodcut …

– Surface cut, in which the image is composed mainly of large black and white areas. Here the effect of the wood grain is used most beautifully. Paul Gauguin, for example, preferred to use box boards …

and the mixtures of the same.

White printing is also worth mentioning. Here, the raised areas of the printing plate are coated with white ink and printed on black paper. Furthermore the designations brown print, red print etc.

Photoxylography is the name given to a woodcut process in which the drawing or object to be reproduced is transferred photographically to the prepared woodblock and then cut.

Multicolor prints

Here, too, there are several procedures:

– the “real” color printing, also clay plate printing, with the form suitable for each color,

– the “fake” multicolor printing, for which the different colors are applied next to each other on the same form,

– the “lost form”, also called “lost cut”, degradation cut or elimination technique, where after printing each color the form is cut further,

– puzzle printing, also called mosaic printing, for which the individual different color forms are put together for printing in one printing process,

– Iris and flow printing, in which the ink is applied to the printing forme by the inking rollers in a rainbow-like flow,

– the Clair-obscur woodcut, also known as Camaieu print or Camaieu cut,

and others.

There are 5 basic shapes of cutting knives used.

– The graver, actually an engraving tool used to cut/engrave edge-straight/parallel lines into the wood,

– the goat’s feet, also called groovers or buck irons, each of which cuts equally v-shaped depressions with different v-shaped cutting edges,

– the round graver, also round iron or U-iron, with which particularly wide lines can be cut out in one cutting movement due to its distinctive, almost three-quarter round cutting edge shape,

– the various hollow and flat irons used to cut away larger, non-printing sections. Some woodcutters work exclusively with them and do not use tools such as

– the contour knife or degree knife used in woodcutting for cutting through the fibers when cutting against the direction of the fibers and with which fine lines are cut out in a single or even v-shape.

All these tools have different cutting action due to their different cutting edges and profiles. The handle design is very important for handling. Also, more modern tools are used today, such as milling and drilling machines and even power saws (e.g. by HAP Grieshaber). Carving knives are not cutting knives, but can be used in the same way depending on individual requirements.

When selecting/purchasing the tool, one should pay attention to good “handling”, i.e. good “fit” in the palm of the hand, optimum grip/force transmission and feel. A distinction is also made between linoleum and woodcutting knives, partly because of the different hardness of the cutting material. And for Chinese woodblock printing, other knives are used again! After some trial and error, I decided to use cutting knives from the company Pfeil, they are not exactly cheap but durable in quality and grant me a good handling. You can work with these knives in the printmaking studio.

The side surfaces of the cut recesses should ideally be slightly inclined upwards towards the pressure element (cone – inclined support of the pressure surface) so that it can withstand the pressure force for longer.

Lead type sizes, letterpress formSuper in plug-in type box, photo: Uplawski

Here still later the letterpress / lead type comes in …


A distinction must be made between water-based and genuine, grease-based letterpress/ letterpress inks. The former are usually longer in tensile strength, and therefore tend to close the depths and have more squeeze edges. They have shorter drying times as well as more frequent ring-shaped print image phenomena, etc. The speed of letterpress/ letterpress inks can be adjusted to the printing elements and the desired printout. Also, you can easily work with them (mostly) for hours without the risk of drying. Both ink types require the appropriate cleaning agents for tools and printing plate!

Possible for wood and linoleum printing is also the use of watercolor, tempera to oil paint – all have, depending on the coloring tool, again specific means of expression, but also printing problems!

Coloring the linocut

If the inking is not done with/in the machine, then the appropriately sized hand roller must be used to ensure an even (if desired) ink application. For this purpose, always roll over in several directions, if possible, and the last rolling operation should cover the entire surface (parallel to the grain direction of the wood).

However, coloring can also be done with a leather (traditional) or other color pad, with color pads as well as brushes etc. – this again results in specific expression possibilities.

During inking, the ink develops adhesion forces to the printing areas of the printing forme. The pressure with which the counterpressure element presses the substrate against the printing forme also creates adhesion between the substrate surface and the printing ink. When the two media separate, both adhesions pull on the ink film, causing it to split. This is called color splitting. This takes place with every ink transfer, i.e. also from one ink roller to another. The remaining ink on the printing forme (as well as on the rubber blanket, e.g. in offset printing) is re-inked and thus ink can build up. This then leads, among other things, to an increase in tonal value.

Ink transfers must always take place from soft to hard and from hard to soft. Two hard bodies to each other would also damage each other.


In general, a distinction can be made between machine and manual haul-offs. When printing by hand, the paper becomes slightly glossy (rub marks) on the reverse side due to the rubber (also spoon, folding leg, etc.). A rubbing print is time-consuming; however, it gives the artist the opportunity, depending on how the printing block is inked, to also influence the final result by rubbing. However, this makes the differences between individual prints greater than is the case when printing with a press.

There are three printing principles for printing presses:

Pressure principle surface against surface. Toggle presses, stick presses and platen presses operate according to this pressure principle. The very high force required for printing (press pressure for each square centimeter of the printing elements of around 50 kilograms) limited and still limits the size of the print format. Gutenberg first printed single pages and later up to the maximum paper size 50 x 70 cm with 4 pages to cross fold.

Surface against cylinder. Impression and proof presses and high-speed presses (the first in 1811 by Friedrich König – 1100 impressions per hour, compared to Gutenberg’s three presses, which printed around 50 to 60 impressions per hour).

Cylinder against cylinder. In 1865, the first rotary press was built by William Bullock (Philadelphia). The prerequisite was/is the roll paper with sizing in the mass, which was first produced in 1807 by M.F. Illig and his development of the Fourdrinier machine. This printing principle cannot be used for original woodblocks, linocuts and lead typesetting forms. For this, a mater would have to be produced from the original mold and this was previously cast inside with lead or plastic (stereos from a special cardboard or plastic), rubber or synthetic rubber (vulcanizing/flexotyping from a thermoset material) or copper-plated inside in a galvanic bath with low-voltage direct current (galvanos from lead, wax or Astralon/PVC foils). These duplicate printing forms obtained in this way could be clamped rounded onto the cylinder and printed rotationally. But in letterpress, this principle is still used today to produce products in line printing, flexographic printing, and letterpress.

The principle of finishing in high pressure: If the force, which remains the same over the entire surface, is distributed over pressure elements of different sizes, flat elements will receive too little pressure. At these points, silk or other papers of the special thicknesses (e.g. on the counterpressure element) are deposited on the printing stock. Also a different height in the woodcut or the wear of the pressure elements can/must be compensated by the finishing.

Positioning the printing block on the proofing pressPrinting on the proofing pressPrinting in the pile dryer


Each printing ink of each printing process requires time for drying, depending on its composition, application quantity and quality as well as the substrate. There is surface drying and deep or through drying. There are no tables or diagrams for all possible combinations, there are only individual empirical values. Drying accelerators may be added to the ink, but this usually leads to other problems.

When the products are placed on top of each other, ink that is not dry will cause them to settle (stain) or even stick together. Industrially, this is countered with a wide variety of pollinating powders.

Stack dryers are best suited for artistic letterpress printing in larger quantities. One of these is used in the printmaking studio. Systems for clipping/hanging are also common.

If, exceptionally, a specimen is needed before “normal” drying, the ink surface can be stabilized somewhat by adding talcum powder (which permanently lightens the ink slightly).

Signing print

according to the “rules” of Lothar Lang, Der Graphiksammler, Berlin 1979

On the left under the graphic, impressions before the edition are marked with Roman numerals, possibly also as a proof = E.E., or as a voucher print for the artist (number = 10% of the edition size) = e.a./E.A. = Épreuves d’artiste = A.P., or outside the sale = h.c. = hors commerce; the edition, if the printing sequence is known, is marked as a fraction, in the numerator the consecutive number and in the denominator the edition size. (Otherwise always 1-pad height.)

On the right is the signature and the date of creation, in the middle a possible title and/or cycle. It is sometimes noted here the technique.