Choosing the best tools will open the gateway to creating better works of art. Mastering your craft as a printmaker is essential to making good technical prints. Without these skills some artists may never attempt printmaking. Good tools, and knowledge of your process allows you to determine the what to, and how to create a work of art.
When I first started woodcut printmaking back in 1990, I did not consider much of woodcutting, nor did I think this would become my primary printmaking medium. I was in love with etching at the time as it was all that I was trained to do. When I graduated college I realized the toxic etching chemicals and press I needed to set up a home studio was expensive and unrealistic. I switched to linocut and woodcut printmaking to satisfy craving for printing in a non-toxic manner. I purchased what a lot of beginners choose,..the basic, plastic, interchangeable cutting heads made by Speedball Co. Early on, these worked fine for a while. I found them clunky, not very sharp since they were made so children could not injure themselves. As an adult, I needed better materials and I finally began to change my perception when I found there is something better.
I found woodcut to be a medium that was very compact initially. I could work on carving a print on my lunch breaks at work, and hand printed on the weekends. The only material I needed was the woodcutting surface and the cutting tool. My early woodcut works tend to be very small, and filled with lots of detail. I soon noticed that my cutting materials were setting me back. I would have skips with the cutting knives that sometimes destroyed part of the design. (My early woodcut tools have been buried in the local dump for years)
On a unrelated visit to my local retail store dedicated to Japanese tools, I was searching for some garden knives. I noticed several groups of printmaking chisels, and I decided to purchase a few to give them a try. These tools made a world of difference and centered my focus on woodcut printmaking. The tools had so much more to offer that it changed the way I carved, it changed the images in the artwork, and it changed my whole look at printmaking. These tools gave me the immediate ability to make more advanced prints, and combine printmaking techniques. These woodcutting tools have harder steel, a finer and sharper point, a wider variety of sizes and are even more comfortable and balanced in the hand.
Paper has also played an important role in how I print. I was taught to use 100% rag papers, and typically French or Italian. These papers are fine quality, and heavily sized....perfect for running through a press. But these papers also have a drawback for me. Because they are so thick and heavily sized, I could not print using the white line technique. I once again gravitated towards Japanese papers. Like most fine papers in the world, The Japanese papers are made by a rich family tradition with the techniques being handed down through generations. The Japanese papers are also made of rice or mulberry paper pulp, and the natural properties of these pulps make a stronger paper, and a much thinner paper. The thin quality allows me to print without pre-soaking the paper which has lead to more inventive ways of printmaking. This paper also has its drawbacks, sometimes wrinkles will form in the printing process that I do not like. This typically happens when a lot of medium is used the ink gets sticky, or when I work on a hot day the ink remains tacky on the printing plate and pulls the paper fibers and sometimes rips.
Inks are different from one brand to another too. I have found Dick Blick inks work fine, but if you would like a more rich and concentrated ink I suggest Daniel Smith. I use both and combine them when mixing colors. Dick Blick inks are ready to go straight out of the tube, while Daniel Smith inks are tacky/sticky and need to be cut with medium to get the desired texture to roll it out.
Experimenting with different tools also helps. Forget your local art store and you may find something that works great for you, the way the product was never intended. Here are a few tools in my studio that I have adopted to continue my printmkaing process. I found chopstick rests to be the perfect tool for resting a wet brush, common hardware clamps to secure large printmaking plates when cutting and printing, a wooden spoon has doubled as a baren since I began woodcut printing. Nails, screws, punches, awls, routers, and dremel have all been used to create unique works of art.
Find your own materials, learn how to use them, and use them in a creative manner to the best of your ability.