What you need: WOOD, carving tools, waterbased inks and a baren or or oil-based inks and a roller.
carving a block
Step 1: Choose a block of wood for your carving
Any kind of wood can be used; the softer the wood, the easier the cutting but, also, the rougher the result. So, when planning a very detailed picture with many fine lines, a wood from a fruit tree is generally chosen for its hardness. Recommended woods for detailed designs are hard woods from fruit trees like cherry or pear. Easier to cut is alder wood, or the soft basswood. Plywood can also be used, but tends to sliver.
Step 2: Transfer your drawing
You can draw directly onto the block or transfer the image with the help of carbon paper. Another method in the Asian tradition, is to draw onto a special thin paper, which is then glued face down onto the block (so that the block will receive the colour). Once dry, just before cutting, carefully rub off the paper fibres and you will be left with only the drawing on the block.
Step 3: Carving the block
For carving there are three basic cutting knives: A pointed one for the outline, another one for removing wide unwanted areas (U-shaped knives) and another for trimming waste near the printing areas( v-gouges and chisels)
You can hold the carving knife either in your fist (for stronger carving), or in your hand, holding it like a pencil (for easier guidance). First you need to cut around the outlines, holding the knife at an angle that will produce a beveled edge on the final areas (see image). Keep the tip of the blade about 1-2 mm deep in the wood, and carve around the entire outline of each area. When this is done,take the round chisel, and start removing the waste wood (unshaded portions of each tracing). Hold the chisel firmly in one hand, and guide the tip with the fingers of the other. Work with a scooping motion, changing direction as the grain of the wood dictates. Do not carve right up to the outlines previously cut with the 'toh', but keep a short distance away.
The last stage is the final trimming with the small flat chisel which you will use to carefully remove the waste wood right up to the outlines.
When the main carving is done, it is time to cut two guides on the block for the registration of the printing paper. Use the main carving knife to cut on the lines, and a flat chisel to clear away the waste, and make a couple of shallow ledges. These ledges will allow the paper to be positioned in the proper location each time you print. This is particularly important when working with several colours. When this is done, wash the blocks to remove leftover tracing paper, and let it dry.
DEPTH of the carving:
If you will be printing with a press with rolled-on ink, your cutting can be very shallow (1 mm) , as no ink will touch the carved-out areas to cause blotches. If you are planning to print by hand, or by using brushed-on pigment, the carving depth becomes very important; when working with brushed on pigment, if you want to have a good print and avoid blotches on paper, David Bull, master ukiyo-e printmaker, suggests carving at least 0.7 mm in depth in an open space of 1cm in width, with an open space of 2 mm carve down1.3 mm, for 3cm carve 2.0 mm, for 5cm carve 3.6 mm, and for 10cm carve 4.5 mm. Carving shallowly avoids build up of colour in the recessed areas, caused by the building up of paste on each line.
Step 4: Get your paper ready
Before printing, the paper needs some preparation. Which paper you choose depends on your printing. If using a press, you can use any printmaking paper. If printing by hand, with a Baren, traditional Japanese paper (Washi) must be your choice as it has long fibers which provide the necessary strength to stand up to the beating it gets when being rubbed onto the blocks. Additionally, its soft and fluffy texture improves the quality of the print.
Good washi should neither be too thick nor too thin.
Hosho and Torinoko are 2 very much preferred woodblock papers.
Prepare your paper by cutting it to the appropriate size for your print, remembering to leave extra margins for the paper to fit into the guides carved on the woodblocks. (These margins will be trimmed off after printing.)
Before printing, the paper needs to be moistened. Printing on dry paper would expand the fibers of the paper unevenly as the moist from the paste would be absorbed, causing the paper to bucke. To moisten the paper you use a large brush to apply water, stacking each sheet of paper on top of the other and then wrapping them in a plastic bag and allowing some time to let the paper absorb the moisture evenly. The paper must not be wet, just damp. This means that it should not look shiny and the feeling is that of a cotton shirt which has come out of the drying machine, after a nice spin.
Step 5: Get your paste and materials ready
Paste: Using a paper cup and an old chopstick, take some paste and blend it with water to about the consistency of a runny cream to mix with pigments. (for paste recipes see http://www.woodblock.com/encyclopedia/entries/013_02/013_02.html). If your mixture is very watery you will get light, delicate colour in the finished print. Less water will result in deeper colours. No paste means that eventually when dry, your pigment will fall off the paper.
Lay a slightly damp towel under the woodblock so that it won't slide on the table while you're printing (only very slightly damp - otherwise the block will warp upwards ...), and lay out your materials ready for use (pigment bowl with a small paintbrush, a cup of paste with a chopstick, a woodblock printing brush, a baren, the stack of moistened paper (tucked away inside a plastic bag to keep it damp), and a basin of water with a moistening brush.
Step 6: Let the printing begin!
Moisten the surface of the woodblock before printing so that it will be ready to receive the colour. Next, smear some of the colour to the woodblock. Don't put too much. Only after seeing the result will you determine how much colour you need next time.
Put a blob of paste onto the woodblock (too little and the colour will be weak abd blotchy) and scrub the paste and pigment together spreading it all over the raised portions of the block. Final strokes should be gentle to smooth out the mixture.
Take a sheet of previously dampened paper and carefully place it on the block by laying it face dowm sliding one corner into the registration mark in the shape of an L and the other side of the paper goes against the straight guide.
Do not move the paper at this stage.
With a baren rub the pack of the paper to create an impression. First rub left to right quickly over the entire surface of the print, then you need to press firmly applying strength with the heel of your hand and moving the baren in a circular pattern and cover all the areas to be printed. Pressure also depends on the paper you are using: a thin paper will require much lighter pressure than a thick one. Sometimes a baren needs to be lubricated, and this can be done with a could of drops of camelia oil to help it slide.
Step 7: Remove the paper
Check your work: if the impression is uneven or some colour is missing in some areas, then this means that either you did not use enough pressure when rubbing or you didn't brush the pigment thoroughly over the entire area. Your paper also plays an important part in the printing phase because if it isn't moist enough you won't get a good impression. If you have too much water in your paper, in your paste or in your pigment mixture, the colour will look watery when printed.
If you get colour blobs over the edge of printed areas, it means that you are using too much paste.
ANOTHER PRINTING OPTION: oil-based inks
In the Western tradition, oil-based ink is used for printing woodblocks, applied evenly with a brayer in a thin layer. The paper is placed onto the inked block and run through a press.
If you want to make your own press, here is an instruction sheet on how to construct and use a bottle-jack press, by Charles Morgan