Object lessons: block prints

Martha Stewart
Published Jul 16, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

You probably know all about the carved-potato trick or, of course, your own thumb. Or maybe there’s a little girl in your life who presses her princess stamps all the way down your left arm. Such has been your understanding of making prints. But have you considered that odd button? A scrap of string? The berry basket in the recycling bin? These everyday objects — and many, many more — can be used to make graphic and beautiful block-printed fabrics and papers. The process is easy enough for a summer afternoon, and it requires very few supplies beyond the stuff you already have on hand.

Block printing tips and tricks

1. Keep your eyes peeled. Once you start looking around for objects that lend themselves to block-printing, you’ll find that your home is practically Gutenberg’s workshop: You will see potential everywhere — a pair of dice, rubber bands, striped bocce balls. (Be sure to do a test run, and be aware that paint might permanently stain the object.)

2. Make a printing block. Some things, such as plastic berry baskets and woven trivets, are ready-made for printing. For others, such as buttons or lengths of twine, you’ll need a hot-glue gun to secure a scrap of wood to the object, creating a base panel.

3. Prep and print. If you’re printing on paper, use craft paint; if you’re printing on a textile, fabric paint is best. If you want a sheerer finish without watering down the pigment, mix one part paint with three parts lightener medium (also known as colorless extender) in a jar. When you’re ready to print, spread paint on a palette or a piece of cardboard; dab paint all over the object with a foam pouncer.

4. Press on color. When printing on a textile, lay the cloth over an old towel or a piece of batting (depending on the object — you may need to experiment). In addition to helping the paint press into the fabric, this cushioning keeps the block from slipping. Some paints dry in as little as five minutes; if you’re creating an overlapping pattern, allow for drying time between applications. When you’re finished, set paint according to package instructions to make the design permanent and machine washable.

Block printing how-to

Tools and materials:

Craft paint

Lightener medium (optional)

Jar

Hot-glue gun (optional)

Wood scrap (optional)

Cardboard

Foam pouncer

Paper or fabric

Mix paint and medium as needed in jar. Hot glue chosen object to wood scrap if necessary. Pour some paint on cardboard, and dip foam pouncer in. Dab paint on raised portions of block.

Position block over paper or fabric, and press straight down.

Reapply paint, and reposition the block to create desired pattern. Let dry.

Paint primer

If you want to print on textiles, experiment with a variety of fabric paints. Some brands are more transparent; some are heavier — so each gives a different effect. Mix in colorless extender to make the paint semitransparent — if you overlap colors, you can create a new shade.