Happiness is a Wet, Smooth Block

‘Tenjo?’ nagura (sharpening stone). Traditionally used with water to knock down wood grain.

As a continuation in my quest to print the smoooothest color I can, I am turning to wet sanding blocks as a part of the prepping process. Keeping in mind that traditional Japanese artisans use yamazakura or mountain cherry (preferably hand-planed) which has a much more tight grain than the black cherry from the US I am using. However, I want to make the best with what is at hand.

Recap- In case you have not seen my earlier entries on block prep, here they are:

  1. Basic lamination “One block at a Time”
  2. A more efficient use of cherry “A New Way (for me) to Laminate”


My Old Way

OK, so until about two months ago, I would simply laminate the 1/4″ cherry to 1/2″ birch plywood, plane, sand, and buff using polishing rouge. This produced a

Start by soaking blocks face-down for ~10 minutes.

almost mirror finish. When I printed, the smoothness went away somewhat and I had to resort to using a #5000-grit nagura stone to polish the wet block when the wood grain started to appear. This can be tricky as it’s easy for the corners of the stone to wear the edges of carved areas of the woodblock- plus is makes a little slurry.

So, I thought- What’s this non-sense? Why don’t I wet-sand while prepping the blocks?

I was familiar with wet sanding- the idea is to raise the grain with water and sand it smooth so that when a finish is applied, the wood grain will expand again and as the finish dries from the outside in, the surface will be locked into a smoother surface.

Now woodblock printmaking is a different animal, but the re-introducing of water during the process (in woodblock, it’s the printing) is similar in a way.

My New Way

Once again, my earlier process of block prep concentrated on judging the smoothness of a block while it was dry. I now decided that I need to judge the smoothness of a wet one since that is the condition of the wood while printing.

Here’s a diagram that may communicate better visuallywet sandTo re-iterate: After the block’s grain has been ‘knocked down’, the dried block surface will not appear smooth until water is re-introduced while printing. I have always charge my blocks with pigment and covered with a wet towel for at least 5 minutes. It allows the pigment to soak into the wood which produces a much more clean and consistent result. I have found that if I follow this, it really does limit the number of those early bad impressions.

Dave Bull had mentioned to me years ago that Woodlike Matsumura’s very smooth laminated blocks were sanded -underwater-. Instead of imagining guys in scuba gear, this concept led me to wet-sanding by hand using fine #800 and #1200- grit emery paper with a block submerged in a developing tray. This is OK- a little awkward, but for the present series I am working on, (80 blocks done, 80 to go) this is too much for a wimp like me, so I decided to buy a wet orbital sander designed for car refinishing.

Wet sander and a un-sanded block. You can see the raised grain pattern that is soon to be ‘knocked-down’.

It works pretty well- a water feed from a bucket (blue hose) allows for a steady stream of water. It’s powered by an air hose from a compressor.

Half of the 12 blocks needed for the next print.

The blocks are then washed off and dried. I learned the hard way once- don’t stack wet blocks as they will mold!

Drying blocks overnight with a fan

OK, so I had pretty good results printing using this latest block prep technique. You of course don’t need fancy equipment- the key concept, IMO, is that knocking down raised grain is a good idea if you’re into smoooooth impressions.

Good luck!

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