Preparing Your Block for a Steamroller Event

Hopefully, by now, some of you have begun preparing and carving your blocks for the steamroller event in April. For those who are doing this for the first time or need some tips, this month’s post is about getting your block ready for the event.

Check the size. We are only set up to print 3 x 4 or 3 x 5 blocks which are 3/4 inch thick. The parking lot is prepared for that thickness, so if your block is too thin, it may not print well, if at all. You can use MDF or plywood. Please also keep in mind that we are NOT printing collographs or monoprints. This is a relief printing event.

Although some choose not to take this step,  it is highly recommended  that you prepare your block before you carve. This keeps the MDF from chipping out and makes the surface easier to carve. The standard preparation is shellac and denatured alcohol mixed 50/50 and applied with a foam brush. You will need to apply several coats front and back. If you don’t apply it to the back, the very porous MDF  will begin to warp and cup.

I color the wax right onto the block like a crayon and melt it with the heat gun, but it can be applied with a brush too.

I have tried and had success with a new alternative to the first method. This one is recommended by Chris Wallace. You can melt paraffin over the stove (over water-paraffin can explode) and apply with a foam brush. The very porous MDF soaks it right up. Chris advises 3 good coats. I melted it slightly with a paint stripping heat gun, colored it onto the block like a large crayon and then melted it right into the board with the heat gun. Paraffin also prevents chip out, allows fine cuts and cuts down on the dust produced by the MDF. My block soaked the coats right in and left absolutely no waxy residue on the surface. Best of all, the board did not cup or warp, so I didn’t have to do the back as well.

One bit of advice on planning the drawing. In previous years I have drawn and carved right to the edge of the block. When the steamroller passed over these sections of the block I got touch-down or noise in my prints. (unwanted inky areas showing up) I have since learned to plan a border around my image. This gives the steamroller a firm surface at the edges and you’ll get a better print.

Next, it’s time to get your image onto the board. Direct drawing is always good. Eileen McClellan likes to use photographic imagery, so she tiled her image in Illustrator and took it to Staples. There, they printed it almost to the exact size of the block. She then used Saral transfer paper to transfer the image onto the block.

Eileen uses the white Saral paper to tranfer her design. She pre-inked in green.

Here you can see the board, which she pre-inked (more on that later), the Saral paper and a portion of the block which she has already carved. I did something similar with my block.

David Webb prefers to tile his images onto 15 gram mulberry paper which he adheres to the block with Nori. The mulberry is extremely thin and he can carve right through it. Any remaining mulberry and Nori can be washed off at the end.

If you will be disturbing the surface of your board a lot, you will want to reinforce the drawing or the graphite with marker. Eileen reminded me that black marker makes it very hard for the inkers to see where the ink has gone down well. This year I am using green. You will also want to ink the surface lightly with something that will help you see where you have carved. This is the green you can see on Eileen’s block.

My block pre-inked with red Dr. Martin Bombay India ink which helps me see where I have carved.

Here is my block from two years ago. You can see where I reinforced the drawing in marker and how the red ink helped me see where I still needed to carve.

After you have carved, you will need to seal the block both back and front. You can repeat the shellac & alcohol step with 3 coats. Sand lightly between coats and lightly after the last coat to give the board some “tooth” for the ink to adhere to.

Polycrylic is an alternative to the shellac and alcohol mixture.

This year I’m trying something new advised by Katherine Fields. MinWax Polycrylic is water-based, soap-and-water clean-up and goes on easily with a foam brush. The man at the hardware store reminded me to stir gently, NOT shake the can. (bubbles will form on your finish) Lightly sand this surface, as well, with a fine sandpaper. PLEASE make sure you do the sealing step well in advance of the event. Boards which are wet or still tacky on the day of the event cannot be printed. Boards which are unsealed also cannot be printed. Sorry.

Pat Masterson really gets into the steamroller event.

We’re really looking forward to the next steamroller event in April. Hope to see all of you there whether as artists or volunteers.

Chris Fitzgerald
PrintMatters artist member Chris Fitzgerald lives and blogs in Houston, Texas.