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.
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
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
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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!