'One-point' Lessons

Lesson #17: Transferring designs onto the woodblocks

(contributed by April Vollmer)

In Japan it is customary to cut the linear key block of an image first, print it - including the kento marks - and then glue these black line prints to the color blocks. These can then be cut through so each color block will line up. This approach is not practical for the way I work. I don't use a key block or black outlines, and I find it quite difficult to glue a thin sheet of printed washi evenly on my blocks.

The first method I used for transferring designs was carbon paper transfer: working out my design on thin tracing paper, taping or weighting it down on the block, and tracing through carbon paper with a hard 6H pencil. The same drawing can be used for each color block. The trick with this technique is to cut through the tracing paper at the kento marks, so those important lines can be drawn clearly, right through the hole in the tracing paper. The rest of the design is transferred by drawing through the layers of tracing paper and carbon paper.

This is a useful technique for simple designs and small blocks. I still use it often. But as my blocks got more complex, I started to go nuts trying to trace all the little details on a large block four or six times for color blocks. The tracing paper starts to wear out after a number of blocks - not to mention my patience!

My solution was the WINTERGREEN TRANSFER. This technique requires an etching press, but is otherwise very simple. Hand pressure with a spoon or baren doesn't seem to work because the block becomes too slippery after it is painted with the wintergreen. Wintergreen is an old medicinal rub that smells minty; it is mostly alcohol. It is available at many pharmacies in 2 and 4 oz. narrow mouth bottles. Wintergreen dissolves plastic so pour it into a wide mouth glass jar for application with a brush.

The design, including kento marks, is drawn on any paper and photocopied onto a fresh sheet approximately the same size as the block. (Special photocopy machines can print up to three foot copies.) Make one photocopy for each block. One extra is useful for mistakes, or if you decide to add another color block halfway through printing. Cut the photocopies to the size of your block so they will line up on the wood for transfer. Note which corner is the kento corner, because that will be the corner to line up. You want the kento to be in from the edge of the block (and your photocopy) at least 1/4". Note: everything will be reversed, including the kento, so to end up with your kento on the block in the lower right (the 'proper' corner) draw it on the lower left.

Check the pressure of the press with the plain block. It should be firm, but not cause damage to the blanket, or make the block jump. One thin blanket should be enough softness to press the photocopy into the wood evenly. Be sure to protect the bed of the press and the blanket from excess wintergreen. This is especially important if the pressbed has a plastic sheet over it. The smell will eventually evaporate from the blankets, but the pressbed will dissolve!

Now, set the block on a table with good light, so you can see a thin even layer of wintergreen as you brush it across the surface. (remember to use a brush with real hair, no synthetics!) It must be smooth and even, a bit like applying color - no puddles and no dry spots. Wait a moment for it to soak in, and put the block on the press bed.

Place the photocopy face down on the block, leading carefully with the kento 'L' corner (kagi), then the kento straight line stop (hikitsuke) whose locations you have noted on the back of your photocopy. Put a sheet of protective paper on top, then the blanket, then run it through the press.

If the transfer isn't dark enough, sometimes it can be run back again, but carefully, not to lose the registration. The block with the transferred design should be left to dry for several days before cutting, as the transferred image will smudge until it dries.