Choosing the Best Linocut Carving Tools for Block Printing

Over a year ago, I did a big review of the best linocut inks. So many people found it helpful that I thought I'd embark on a new project - reviewing some of the best linocut tools. Over the years, I've used a wide range of carving tools for block printing, such as those made by Speedball, Power Grip, Pfeil and Japanese woodblock carving tools. I'm going to break down my research into two categories: inexpensive, budget oriented carving tools and more expensive, superior tools. I have some specific recommendations at the end.

 Some of the carving tools I use for block printing

Some of the carving tools I use for block printing

I've included Amazon, Blick and McClain's Printmaking links in this post because they're easy places to order tools - it's quite rare to find a local art shop that sells a range of good quality relief printmaking tools. Amazon and Blick also have helpful customer reviews to read and if you click on their links, I get a small commission if you end up buying something there since I participate in their affiliate programs. You can find more details about this here. But, I have no relationship with the wonderful McClain's Printmaking Supplies and the opinions below are my own.

Beginner / Budget Linoleum Carving Tools

Some of the best options in this category of tools are the classic, all-in-one Speedball Linoleum Cutter and relatively inexpensive gouges like Power Grip tools.

Speedball Linoleum Cutter

The most basic, versatile and inexpensive tool is the Speedball Linoleum Cutter. This is sometimes the first tool linocut artists use. It's cheap (under $10), dependable and comfortable.  If you're not familiar with this traditional tool, it works with six interchangeable blades that store in the plastic handle. The available cutters are:

  • (No. 1) Small "V" Gouge
  • (No. 2) Large "V" Gouge
  • (No. 3) Small "U" Gouge
  • (No. 4) Square Gouge
  • (No. 5) Large "U" Gouge
  • (No. 6) Knife
 Speedball Linoleum Carving Tools

Speedball Linoleum Carving Tools

The metal blades are replaceable when they get dull, though, I sharpen them many times before recycling them. Many hobby and art shops sell their own versions of this tool but some are of inferior quality - this one is definitely worth the $1-2 more. This is a video of me carving a tree in a linoleum block with this type of cutter.

Power Grip Carving Tools

I like these simple tools made in Japan by Mikisyo. Power Grip carving tools come with sharpenable steel blades and fit really nicely in the hand. I use a range of "U" and "V" gouges, as well as a small straight chisel (for woodcuts) and skew knife. These are a step up in quality over the Speedball Linoleum Cutter and must be sharpened with a water stone, honing block and honing compound, like all the other tools mentioned below.

 Power Grip Carving Tools

Power Grip Carving Tools

Expensive / Deluxe Block Printing Tools

Tools in this category are going to cost roughly $15 or more for each individual gouge or knife. These tools will last a long time (but need periodic sharpening) and carve very smoothly, often with less effort, when sharp.

Usually, you will save some money if you buy them as part of a set. At this price level, you're having to make a bigger investment in your art practice. Therefore, before investing in a set, I recommend buying or borrowing one tool first to see how you like it. Ask yourself questions like:

  • How does it compare to what tools I already have?
  • How does it fit in my size hand?
  • Is it comfortable after a lot of carving?
  • How does it carve my particular type of lino or material of choice?
  • How well does it sharpen?
  • Is it going to last a long time?

Pfeil Palm Carving Tools

Pfeil palm carving tools are high quality wood and linoleum tools that are Swiss-made and characterized by their wooden mushroom or pear-shaped handles that fit in the palm of your hand. I have a small 1.0 mm "V" parting gouge and I think it's a really nice tool, however, I don't like the way it fits in my hand. I haven't bought any more of these and it taught me the, "try one tool before buying a whole set" lesson.

 Pfeil Palm Carving Tool

Pfeil Palm Carving Tool

Flexcut Carving Tools

I'd be remise if I didn't mention Flexcut tools. I've never used them, but time and time again I hear that relief printmakers love them so you might want to give them a try. They have wooden handles that fit in the palm and are in the middle price range. This less expensive Flexcut Lino & Relief Printmaking Set with interchangeable blades looks promising.

Josei Moku Hanga To

I've had four of these Japanese relief printmaking tools for almost five years and they're sold through McClain's Printmaking Supplies.

  • Josei Maru To, "U" gouge knife, 3.0 mm
  • Josei Maru To, "U" gouge knife, 10.5 mm
  • Josei Sankaku To, "V" gouge knife, 1.5 mm
  • Josei Sankaku To, "V" gouge knife, 6.0 mm

Josei Moku Hanga To are really good quality tools for a pretty reasonable price and I couldn't be more pleased with them. One of their unique features is that you can cut the long wooden handle to fit the size of your hand (instructions on how to do that).

 Josei Moku Hanga To

Josei Moku Hanga To

Futatsu Wari Moku Hanga To

Futatsu Wari Moku Hanga To are really gorgeous, top-of-the-line woodblock carving tools made in Japan and available at McClain's Printmaking Supplies. I was kindly given a few tools that are very similar to these by a friend many years ago. The gouges have a metal ferrule that slides off and allows you to take out the blades for sharpening or replacing. These are amongst the most expensive tools you can buy - most are $40 or more for each tool. If that's within your budget, they're worth considering.

 Linoleum Carving with Power Grip Tools

Linoleum Carving with Power Grip Tools

My Perfect Set of Tools

My preferred set of tools is an assortment of different brands that balance cost and quality. It includes a Speedball Linoleum Cutter, a couple Power Grip "U" gouges and numerous Josei Moku Hanga To tools of different sizes.

Speedball Linoleum Cutter: While some printmakers might consider this mearly a beginner's tool, I love it and use it all the time when carving linoleum. I find the small "V" gouge indispensable. One downside of this tool is that it's best used on linoleum and soft "rubber" carving blocks (like Speedy Carve and MOO Carve), not wood.

Power Grip: you can get a nice set of Power Grip tools for between $20-$50. I prefer the "U" gouges over the "V" gouges. My favorites are the 6.0 mm and 9.0 mm "U" tools.

Josei Moku Hanga To: I think these are the best tools available for the price. My favorites are the versatile 6.0 mm "V" gouge and the big 10.5 mm "U" gouge for clearing large areas of wood or lino.

There is a certain amount of subjectivity when choosing carving tools because everyone's hand is a little different so what's comfortable for one person might not be for another person. Please let me know if you've found something that works great for you!

Airplane Linocut Printed on an Etching Press + Liz Phair

My newest linoleum block print is of an airplane window seat view at dusk. It's printed with Schmincke Aqua Linoprint Ink on 250 gsm Stonehenge paper. I was playing with that feeling of flying over a city and looking out at the sprawling, lit up urban landscape below.

I remember that great 1990's Liz Phair song, "Stratford-On-Guy," which starts off with the lyrics, "I was flying into Chicago at night...." That song's video on YouTube is definitely worth a watch. And, for a deep dive into that track, check out PopMatters' take on it.

Here's a little video I made while printing the final layer on my small press, which is a Blick Econo Etch Model II Press. The linocut is part of a series of airplane window view artworks and is now available in my Etsy shop. If you have any questions about how my prints are made, please feel free to email me!

The Best Travel and Airport Podcasts

I spend a lot of time listening to music and podcasts during the week while I'm working. Many of the podcasts are related to travel (and airports, when I can find them). A great travel podcast is one that allows me to feel connected to travel - feeding my wanderlust between trips. Often this is while I'm deep in an art project or just daily family life.

The two best all-around travel podcasts, in my opinion, are Zero To Travel and Extra Pack of Peanuts. I've been a fan of their shows for a few years and they continue to put out great, engaging episodes.

Zero To Travel

Jason, host of Zero To Travel, is clearly passionate about travel and it comes through in his show. He does wonderful interviews with international travelers and shares a lot of useful tips along the way. He also talks about digital nomadism and location independence and, together with Travis of Extra Pack of Peanuts, runs Location Indie. The show covers a wide range of topics, from trekking episodes to quitting your job and affording to travel. Along the way, he introduces us to a passionate community of travelers.

Extra Pack of Peanuts

Travis interviews travelers, creative folks, and entrepreneurs on Extra Pack of Peanuts, but also does "Best of..." shows and destination specific episodes. Do yourself a favor and check out some of his old shows where he talks to adventurers who accomplished some amazing the two-part Dave Cornthwaite series, for instance. Want to start an adventure travel company or open a hostel, well Travis has interviewed people who have done just that.

Dots, Lines & Destinations

Dots, Lines & Destinations is a travel podcast with a small group of hosts that talk a lot about airline and airport news but also give some time to destinations (like the country of Georgia recently). One thing I like about it is that they include international travel - routes, airlines, tourism and airports. It's a fun, and hard to find, mix of aviation business and travel.

The Dirtbag Diaries

For those interested in adventure and the outdoors, I highly, highly recommend The Dirtbag Diaries. This professionally produced show features stories, mostly set in the US, focused around rock climbing, camping, kayaking, hiking, vanlife, and other outdoorsy topics. You get some really great storytelling on this podcast.

To The Best Of Our Knowledge

One specific airport podcast episode I'd really recommend is To The Best Of Our Knowledge's show on Airports that they did a while back. Alain de Botton, author of A Week at the Airport, and Christopher Schaberg, who wrote The Textual Life of Airports, were amongst the guests on that show.

The Terminal and The Travelers

Finally, I have a couple recommendations for podcasts that seem to be either on hiatus or stopped altogether. The short-lived aviation podcast, The Terminal, centered on airport management and it might be worth going through the archives to see if a subject catches your eye. And, the stellar podcast, The Travelers, has an interview-based format and I'm always in a great headspace after listening to it. Alas, it only comes out with new episodes sporadically these days.

New Airplane Window View Art

I've got a long history of exploring airplane window views in my art, as no surprise to many of you. For instance, I use this aerial view from a plane window linocut a lot online for marketing purposes and it was also used as a book cover. I did a black and white airplane window seat print, too.

I always try to snap some photos from the window seat as references pictures, though, these days, I'm often sitting in the middle and leaning over my son or daughter who are enthralled with something else. Here are a few photos of the sky, land patterns, clouds and airplane wings that I used for my newest art project.

 Some references photos for my new airplane window seat print

Some references photos for my new airplane window seat print

I wanted to do something a little different with this new print, allowing for more spontaneity and experimenting. First, I did some simple illustrations to play with compositions and colors. I came up with a rough plan and used masking tape to block off areas of a linoleum block while inking the plate for the background sky. I printed several different layers on top of each other. A seperate lino block was used for the black layer. Here's a shot from Instagram that helps illustrate the process.

Since I peeled off the tape before printing, I can't print an edition of identical prints but I used some of the lighter ghost prints that I got from the same block. As a result, no two prints are exactly the same.

These are two early versions that I printed on my Blick Econo Etch Model II Press and I'm continuing this series of window seat prints. The new linocut prints are available in my Etsy shop where I have numerous travel and airport prints for sale. 

 Two versions of the new airplane window view print. Printed on my Blick Econo Etch Model II Press.

Two versions of the new airplane window view print. Printed on my Blick Econo Etch Model II Press.