If you’d like to make your own prints out of blocks you carve yourself, you’ll find no shortage of options. You’ll just have to decide what material you want to carve. Block printing—the process of etching a design into a flat surface, then coating the relief with ink and stamping it onto blank paper or fabric—is said to have originated in China before 220 A.D. By the 12th century it was widely used in India, then gradually spread around the globe. Long before block printing became the basis for Gutenberg’s famous press, printers used wood blocks for sophisticated, intricate carvings. Many stampers still use woodcuts today, but for the initiate, other malleable synthetic materials—like linoleum, rubber, foam, and PVC—provide more options in terms of texture, softness, and print fidelity. Reaping from a variety of materials, we’ve rounded up the five best blocks for printing. Browse our picks to see what suits you best.
1. Speedball Red Baron Unmounted Linoleum Block
Anyone who’s done block printing before won’t be surprised by our number one pick. Speedball is practically synonymous with block printing, and its go-to slate-gray linoleum block continues to beat the pack. The company’s 12-by-18-inch version may be pricier per unit than some of our other picks, and novice block cutters may be frustrated by its firmness. But if you have the right tools, this 1/8-inch-thick linoleum block’s ease of use, retention of detail, and sturdiness make it well worth the investment—and more than good enough to cinch our top pick.
2. JoePaul’s Beginner’s Basswood Carving Blocks Kit
To be accurate, this isn’t a carving “kit” but rather a pack of wooden blocks. But what blocks they are! Made of yielding Minnesota basswood, these blanks are designed with whittlers in mind but also offer an ideal tabula rasa for woodcut prints. Their biggest limitation is their shape: While other carving blocks on our list are roughly square or with height and width in a 2:3 ratio, these are all oblong. Consider these for a narrow design or a lovely border arabesque.
3. Inovart Presto Foam Printing Plates
Innovart doesn’t call this an “econo pack” for nothing. If you don’t mind a shallower carving, these foam pads—4 by 6 inches and sold in a quantity of 100—are a great bulk buy, costing just pennies each. At 0.05 inch thick, they’re much thinner than a proper printing block, but they do the trick for simple etchings and designs (lettering, outlines, and the like). Plus, they’re a breeze to cut. They are also available in other sizes and quantities.
4. Martin Universal Moo Carving Block
Another option in the sweet spot between linoleum and foam: PVC. This type of plastic may not be the most intuitive material for a carving block, but you’ll be converted by this soft yet sturdy option. It comes in a 4-by-6-inch block or a 2.5-by-5-inch version that’s a little thicker. The only knock against this offbeat pick: Some buyers report an acrid, chemical odor upon opening the package.
5. Bastex Rubber Stamping Blanks
Don’t be confused by the maker’s description: These are flexible, bendy rubber blocks, not linoleum, and therefore are easier to carve. Even so, the highlight isn’t the material but Bastex’s two-tone design. Slice into the white surface to reveal the black interior and you can see exactly where you’ve cut; this makes it possible to create hyper-detailed designs. Each set includes five blocks measuring roughly 4 by 6 inches and ¼ inch thick.