Woodcuts - Printing in relief

(entry by Mary Krieger)

Woodcuts belong to a family of printing methods in which the non-printing areas are carved, cut or etched away to make the design. Materials commonly used as the printing block include wood, stone, linoleum, metal and cardboard. The relief methods are considered the earliest developed of all printmaking methods.

Woodcuts and other relief printing methods follow the same basic principle. A block is prepared to print a design on paper. Those areas that the printer wants to print are in relief, higher than those areas that will not print. The printer coats the block with ink and a sheet of paper is pressed against it. When the paper is lifted away, the cut design appears in ink on the paper. An everyday object that uses this printing principle is the rubber stamp.

The traditional materials for relief printing are wood and stone. People have used both wood and stone for a very long time and the materials and the tools to work them are generally available. Today, stone is less frequently used, with at least one notable exception, the stonecuts of the Inuit in northern Canada. Wood is expensive and scarce above the Arctic Circle, but a good supply of stone and stone cutting expertise in the community makes it an obvious choice for printing blocks.

Woodcuts were developed in China very shortly after the development of paper. The advantages of producing large quantities of one design using a single block were apparent to many societies and the technology moved eastward to Japan and westward to Europe. Woodcuts were the main methods of commercial printing for many centuries. Books, posters, wallpaper, playing cards; all types of paper goods were printed using this method.


Woodcuts today can be divided into two general types based on the type of inking and printing methods used. The 'Japanese' method uses a water-based ink applied with a brush, prints on dampened paper by hand, using a baren. The 'European' method uses oil based ink applied with a roller and prints with a press or by burnishing by hand. A greater concern for limiting the vapour hazards associated with oil-based inks and their solvents has occasioned the recent development of water-based ink for use in the 'European' tradition. These inks are formulated for use with a roller and are quite different from those used in the 'Japanese' method. Wood engravings fall under the 'European ' method as they are printed using that method.

As new materials became available, new types of relief prints were developed. Linoleum is often used as it is cheap, available and is easily cut. Metal type (printed in relief) was once the primary method of commercial printing but has now been replaced by offset lithography. As relief printing methods have fallen into commercial disuse, artists and craftspeople have continued to use and explore the possibilities of these materials to create images of lasting appeal.