I'm not sure what it says about me but I'm always experimenting with inks for block printing, wondering if there is something else out there that I'm missing. So with that in mind, over the last couple years I've been experimenting exhaustively with inks made by a wide variety of manufacturers from around the world. I've printed on all different sorts of paper from thin Japanese paper to Rives BFK, as well as fabric, mostly on a Blick etching press. These are the inks I tested:
Caligo Safe Wash Relief Ink
Charbonnel Aqua Wash Etching Ink
Daniel Smith Oil-Based Relief Ink (now discontinued)
Gamblin Oil-Based Relief Ink
Schmincke Aqua Linoldruck Ink
Lukas Linol Ink
Akua Intaglio Ink
Graphic Chemical Water-Soluble Relief Ink
Blick Block Printing Ink
Speedball Block Printing Ink
Permaset Aqua Textile Screen-Printing Ink
Speedball Fabric Block Printing Ink
Gamblin Drive by Black Textile Ink
Versatex Screen-Printing Ink
Jacquard Screen-Printing Ink
Speedball Fabric Screen-Printing Ink
Blick Fabric Screen-Printing Ink
Some of these inks are fantastic, others not so much.
Update: Some of these inks are a little tricky to find and people have asked where to get them, so I've included links that will take you to Blick Art Materials and Amazon, where most can be found. If you click on those 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, the opinions here are all my own and I bought all these inks with my own money. McClain's Printmaking Supplies is a smaller company that also sells relief printing materials.
Best Oil-Based Ink for Printing Linocuts on Paper
Winner - Caligo Safe Wash Relief Ink
Hands down the best overall ink on the market for lino printing, in my opinion. It's the ink that I've gone back to time and time again over the years. It has all the benefits of traditional oil-based ink but because of its special formulation, it comes without the cleanup hassle. Here's how to clean your inked brayer. Hold the brayer over the sink and squirt a fair amount of dish soap on it (no water, yet!) and rub it all around until the ink is completely coated with soap. Then rinse it all under warm water, rubbing it off with your hands. Done. Let it dry.
Caligo inks come in a variety of colors and are widely available online. I recommend starting with tubes of black, white and their process colors (red, yellow and blue). With this color palette you can pretty much get any color you want. I prefer the tubes to the cans of ink - avoiding problems with the ink skinning over. After you get used to the inks you can try the different ink modifiers that they sell. I sometimes use the extender to make the inks more transparent.
Unlike water-based inks, oil-based inks take longer to dry and Caligo is no exception. Expect at least a couple days in my experience but it often is longer, particularly if you've stacked a lot of layers on top of each other. Drying time can be affected by the temperature and humidity of the studio, how thick the ink was applied, the type of paper, as well as the number of layers of ink.
Honorable Mention - Charbonnel Aqua Wash Etching Ink
Yes, it's an intaglio ink but it works just fine for relief printing right out of the tube. Similar to Caligo but a little more expensive and smelly.
Least Favorite - Traditional Oil-Based Inks
Not sure I see the point of using using traditional oil-based inks anymore, given the availability of much easier to work with inks like Caligo and Charbonnel, but Gamblin's line of relief inks are reliable.
Best Non Oil-Based Ink for Lino Printing on Paper
Winner - Schmincke Aqua Linoldruck Ink
This was probably the biggest surprise of all because I don't think it's widely used, particularly here in the US. However, I really, really like it! Schmincke doesn't dry too fast while you're rolling it out like other water-based inks do, but it dries to the touch on paper quite fast. It also doesn't require any modifiers and works fine straight out of the tube. I used this ink on my anglerfish print, which I recently finished.
On the downside, it is sort of expensive and you need to roll the ink on your block carefully to avoid leaving lap marks. It isn't widely available (in the US) but you can order it through Blick. If cost isn't a factor for you, it's the logical ink to replace the inferior Speedball and Blick Block Printing Inks.
Honorable Mention - Akua Intaglio
When applied in very thin layers, this ink works alright with linoleum. They also sell an extensive array of ink modifiers (transparent base, mag mix, etc.) to work with. I could see using this on a case-by-case basis, but it wouldn't be me goto linocut ink.
Honorable Mention - Graphic Chemical Water-Soluble Relief Ink
I'm pleased with the printing results of this ink. However, I found the water-soluble vehicle very sticky and messy to work with. Other downsides are that it's not distributed by major retailers here in the US and I wish they'd provide lightfastness ratings for their range of inks.
Least Favorite - Lukas Linol Ink
I'm sorry, but it worked terribly for me and I tried several different colors. Thankfully, it's very hard to buy for those of us in the US.
Now, onto printing on fabric.
If you've gotten this far and want to learn more about the linocut process, I've got the lino printing method broken down step-by-step. Now, onto printing on fabric.
Best Inks for Block Printing on Fabric
Testing fabric inks for relief printing is a whole different animal. There are two schools of thought when printing linocuts on fabric: using screen-printing ink vs. block printing ink. The benefit of screen-printing textile inks is that they're washable when heat set and there are lots to choose from. In contrast, there aren't a lot of relief textile inks on the market.
I did extensive testing on these inks with copious amounts of notes and numbered fabric samples...it all bordered on insanity! Some of the testing I did included:
Washing the fabric before printing vs. not washing it
Mixing brands of inks in different ratios
Adding modifiers to some inks to thicken them, increase tack or prolong the working time of the inks
Using foam vs. rubber brayers
Heat setting vs. not heat setting
Heat setting by ironing vs. in the dryer
Pre-washing quality of the print vs. post-washing quality
This post is all about choosing the best ink but I've got lots of information if you want to learn some specific techniques and tips for lino printing on fabric.
Okay, so this is what I think. You'll notice that I have two winners here: Gamblin and Speedball. Though I like Gambin's textile ink, it only comes in black and I like Speedball for its wide range of colors.
Winner (Black) - Gamblin Drive by Black Textile Ink
This is a traditional oil-based ink, which means it's a real pain to work with and clean up (unlike the Caligo I mentioned above). I wouldn't recommend Drive by Black if you're printing in your kitchen or something. However, it's a really rich ink, rolls out beautifully and prints nicely on fabric. Once dry, it holds up to washing quite well. Cleanup is best done with vegetable oil and/or Gamsol odorless mineral spirits.
Winner (Non-Black) - Speedball Fabric Block Printing Ink
While also oil-based, it's made to clean up easily (like Caligo's ink) and comes in a wide spectrum of colors. Speedball rolls out nicely and produces crisp images on t-shirts and other fabrics. On the downside, I find the smell a little unpleasant while I'm working with it. After it dries (up to 7 days), it washes well but there will be some slight fading over time.
*2018 Update - I posted about the long-term permanence of Speedball Fabric Block Printing Ink.
Honorable Mention - Speedball Fabric Screen-Printing Ink
A lot of people use textile screen-printing ink for block printing on fabric, my favorite among those is probably Speedball Fabric Screen-Printing Ink. A couple tricks for using this ink: 1) let is sit on the slab for a little while to dry/thicken before rolling it out, and 2) use a foam brayer instead of a rubber brayer. Versatex Screen-Printing Ink showed promise too.
Least Favorite - Permaset Aqua Textile Screen-Printing Ink
This might be my most controversial pick. I really wanted to like it, I promise! Many people who print on fabric swear by it, but its results trailed far behind every other fabric ink I tried. I can't recommended it. Jacquard's ink didn't do itself any favors either by drying so fast on the slab making it difficult to work with when doing a print run of more than one item.
If you've made it this far, I'm impressed :) Please let me know if you have any questions or thoughts!