What Woodcut Tools do you Use?

Updated: Mar 29


My carving tool with one of my woodblocks

It takes artists months if not years to discover her perfect tool. The right tool could make or break a piece. Of course, it makes art-making so much more pleasurable!



Pre-printing woodblocks.

✵✶✺Choosing the Right Woodblock✵✶✺


Hong Kong has a small printmaking community. (You can see a large percentage of printmaking artists at the current Why Print 3 exhibition hosted by Marble Print & Clay studio and KC100 Art Space.)





That means, professional printmaking supplies are pretty much unavailable in Hong Kong.


When I first tried woodcuts, A friend took me to Dafen village in Shenzhen. Dafen village is possibly the largest artist village in the world. It is renowned to be the world’s painting factory. Think of the paintings you see in hotels and restaurants. Many of them were probably made in Dafen. (Not the high-end hospitality venues. I have made commissioned pieces for hotels!)


I picked up a box of inexpensive carving knives, a few woodblocks and a few lino blocks and began carving. I had no idea that there are different grades of plywood. There is the softness/hardness of the wood. There is the consistent thickness of the block. There is delicate craftsmanship—when it’s not done well, you have cracks on the surface.


My first batch of woodblocks often warp by the time I bring them to Marble Print & Clay studio for printing. That makes printing evenly more difficult, if not impossible. On top of that, the thickness was not consistent even within the same batch of woodblocks from the same supplier! That also creates problems because Dave the master printer at Marble Print & Clay had to constantly change the pressures of the printing press.



My Japanese woodblocks are all consistent in thickness.

Four years later, I only buy Japanese woodblocks via a Taiwanese printmaking supplier. There is simply no woodblock of this quality in Hong Kong. During COVID, the shipping fee more than doubled. Now more than 1/4 of what I pay for one block is shipping.


It is always a journey to find the right material for an artist. I have now carved over 20 blocks with these Japanese woodblocks, and look forward to carving more!



✵✶✺ Sharpening Carving Tools ✵✶✺


There is a Chinese saying that in order to do any task well, you need to sharpen your tool.


My first box of carving tools from four years ago worked great for the first three blocks. Then the carving tools stopped feeling like a sharp blade cutting into soft butter. It felt sluggish. The lines began to look hairy. It never dawned on me that I needed to sharpen my tools, even though it should have been common sense.



All my carving tools

I first used sandpaper. It turns out the sandpaper I used was ridiculously coarse. Oh so that didn’t work out…


Artist friends Hsu Yi Hsuan and Lam King Ting suggested the finest sandpaper. It worked for a bit, but some tools still felt dull even after a few rounds of sandpaper sharpening. No matter how many Youtube sharpening videos I watched, I still wasn’t getting it.


I reached out to Macanese printmaking guru Mel Cheong. I have never met someone so selfless about sharing her printmaking knowledge! Not only did she respond right away and pour out all her knowledge, but she would say things like “I’m at work now. Let me take a photo of my setup when I get home.”


I went through another phase of buying printmaking-specific sharpening stones. They were great for certain things but still didn’t quite do the trick for others. (For printmaking artists, they lose the edge and corners for the inner V-gouge and U-gouge eventually.)



My trusted sharpening stone.

I am happy to share that now I use a combination of a fine sharpening stone (purchased from Chan Chi Kee, Hong Kong’s finest knife shop) and fine sandpaper. I am still on the lookout for better tools to sharpen the inner edges of certain carving tools. For now, I am taking a break from my search for the best sharpening stone.


Update: due to a dear friend and collector's request, I made and uploaded a sharpening video.




✵✶✺ The Right Printing Ink✵✶✺


I couldn’t find professional woodcut carving tools in Hong Kong. I didn’t expect to find professional printing ink here either.


I didn't.



Detail of a Polluta Propaganda woodcut print



Detail of a Polluta Propaganda woodcut print



In short, the consistency is less ideal. The colour palette is limited and the saturation is lacking. In general, the more expensive paint is, the more pigment (what gives the paint its colours) there is. After all, it is the pigment you are paying for when it comes to paint.


I also wanted to try fluorescent colours. After hours of online research and asking in the friendly Kala Art Institute alumni group (I took two residencies there in 2018), Amy Burek reached out to me. She has two cans of leftover Vanson Fluorescent ink and I could have them for free!!!


Random act of kindness! She didn't know me at all! A complete stranger! People, spread the love you have to give because you never know how far your love will go!!!


So in summer 2018, I hopped onto an Oakland-bound bus towards her studio and she gave me two cans of gently used cans. I couldn’t have been more grateful.



My first can of fluorescent ink!


Fast forward to 2022, many cans later, master printer Dave from Marble Print & Clay and I have also discovered a Korean alternative. He is also in love with Swallow Taiwanese printing ink for its smooth buttery consistency and saturated colours, a brand of printmaking ink we recently discovered through working on a corporate project together.


Swallow printing ink

It often takes years for an artist to experiment and find the right material for herself. It is another story to find the right colour palette. I will share how I discovered the right colour palette for my works in the next post.


✵✶✺


Love what you are seeing? I am going to launch "The Animal Collection" on 30 March. Get my love notes for exclusive launch discounts, reserved only for my most loyal fans!


Plus, I give away a piece of art with every love note I send out. Yes, you heard me right. That's over 25 pieces of art every year! Only to my most loyal fans. Get it now!




✵✶✺ THE ANIMAL COLLECTION✵✶✺

✶Polluta Propaganda Woodcuts✶


✵✶✺ Launching on 30 Mar 2022 15:00 HKT✵✶✺


✶15 DAYS✶

✶15 IMAGES OF ANIMALS✶

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