Relief Printing Inks Explained ~ Oil, Soy, Rubber or Water Based Ink?

So now that I’ve got my Adana 8×5 I thought I’d order all the other things I need to get printing and ink was the first thing on my list. Traditionally letterpress inks are linseed oil based however I noticed when looking at other letterpress portfolios that soy based and rubber based inks seem pretty popular, plus I knew there are water-based inks available too, so I set out to find out the differences between them all. There are also different inks for relief work, intaglio and lithography but I’ll concentrate on inks suitable for relief work for now. I can’t say which will work best for you… it depends on so many variables and personal preferences and after researching it online, I found both supporters and critics for any given type of ink.

In printmaking as in many other industries there has been a move to using greener, safer products and this has led to the development of new inks that do not need solvents to clean up and solvent (VOC free) cleaning products for traditional inks.

WATER BASED INK: E.g. Akua. Akua produces two kinds of water based ink – Akua Kolor (water soluble) and Akua Intaglio (soy baser – see later- also suitable for relief work). Both inks dry by absorption only (not evaporation) and drying time will depend on how thick/absorbent the paper is that you are printing on. Not suitable for glossy or coated papers.

WATER WASHABLE LINSEED OIL-BASED INKS: The Caligo range of Safe Wash Inks have a flax linseed oil base and can be cleaned up with soap and water instead of solvents, therefore making them more environmentally friendly. They contain a small amount (1%) of added ‘drier’ and the inks dry in the same way as traditional ink – a mixture of absorption and air-drying. Many people using wood blocks for printing are not comfortable cleaning them with water.

TRADITIONAL LINSEED OIL~BASED INKS: E.g. Lawrence (who make a special letterpress range of six different blacks). These formulas have been in use for hundreds of years. They (and indeed any oil based ink) will form a skin over the surface  in the tin when exposed to air. Protect the ink with a polythene disc and lift any skin aside to use the ink underneath. Skin formation can be avoided by buying ink in tubes. They dry through absorption into the paper and by exposure to air. Will need solvents (white spirit) for clean-up. Removal of surplus ink prior to solvent cleaning (apparently vegetable oil is good for this?) is key, so as to use as little solvent as possible

SOY BASED INKS:  Akua Intaglio ink (see above) is the only readily available soy based ink that I can find in the U.K. People are choosing this for it’s reputed greener credentials however it seems to be a debatable issue. Further discussion can be found in the Spark Stationery blog and in the Briar Press discussion pages. Clean up with soap and water.

RUBBER BASED INK: E.g. Van Son Ink Rubber Base Plus. This kind of ink stays ‘open’ much longer, in fact long enough to leave it on your press overnight and resume printing the next day without cleaning up! It doesn’t form a skin in the can and prints very matte. It dries slowly, mainly through absorption so it’s best on absorbent papers. Clean up is with solvents. Rubber based Inks don’t seem to be so readily available in the U.K.

So which one will I choose? Being a traditionalist at heart I’ve ordered some traditional oil based ink from Lawrence’s to experiment on the Adana. I would have liked to try the rubber based Van Son Inks but couldn’t find anyone in the UK with a good range of small tins in stock. In fact a couple of the suppliers I spoke to were phasing it out. I think I will try Akua Intaglio or Caligo when it comes to larger linocuts for ease of cleaning up. I’ll let you know how I get on… but in the meantime I would love to hear from anyone else who has an opinion on this to share!

6 thoughts on “Relief Printing Inks Explained ~ Oil, Soy, Rubber or Water Based Ink?

  1. Hello, I have been using Caligo safewash; intaglio and relief inks after trying out the traditional oil and soya ones at college. I thought that the effects with Caligo were just as good as traditional oil based inks-only easier to wash! I am thinking of teaching so I am wondering about the soya based ones initially- not sure yet! Will keep on printing though!

  2. What are your thoughts on lino printing serving boards for use when catering for parties? I would like to do this, but am fearful of inks not being food safe and perhaps washing off too readily. What do you recommend?

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