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Printmaking Supplies Alternatives

printmaking supplies hacks

Everyday Printmaking Materials Hacks

A common printmaking misconception is that you need all the right tools to begin. You really don’t. Over the years I have found many substitutes for high dollar printmaking supplies. While I encourage the use of quality materials, particularly handmade paper, sometimes expense and availability can get in the way of art making. Here are my best printmaking hacks to start or keep you printing regardless of funds or materials.

Drypoint Etching Material Alternatives

  1. You don’t need plexiglass or copper to make beautiful work. Aluminum cans can be sliced and laid flat and etched into on either side. I recommend using a tallboy can so you have a larger plate to work on, and taping it down so to prevent the metal from rolling up while you’re working. This also protects you from those sharp edges.
etching onto aluminum can
beer can etching

CDs are another fun alternative, but just about any smooth plastic will work. I’ve used overhead projector plastic sheets for an experiment with printing etchings onto wood (semi successful). I wouldn’t be surprised if the smooth inside of a plastic milk carton would make a good substrate. If you try it out, let me know.

  1. You don’t need a fancy etching scribe to make a good impression. My first printmaking teacher, Brian Spolans, taught us that we could tape a pushpin to the end of a pen. I used that silly looking tool to etch my first drypoint. I’ve upgraded since then- my favorite etching tool now is a needle in a mechanical pencil.
  2. No ink? Try scribbling across your plate with a watercolor pencil or crayon. The water based pigment will fill the grooves and your wet paper will draw it out, much that same as ink.
  3. No tarlatan? Use cheesecloth or phonebook pages. I’ve also had luck using fabric remnants from a tight weave cotton fabric- think pillowcase or tablelcloth material.

Monotype Inks

I made my first monotype in high school, using watercolor on a sanded plexiglass plate. Since then I’ve done monoprint using oil paint, waterbased marker, watercolor crayons and watercolor pencil. I’ve even experimented with chalk pastel, making some beautiful effects using Prismacolor Nupastel.

Relief Printmaking

In a moment of artistic passion, I grabbed the nearest scrap wood I had- a thin plywood I had found by the side of the road and schlepped home. No, not balsa, not linoleum. I had no wood carving tools yet so I used a wood burning tool. I love the effect. You can see the woodgrain. I cut a little frame for the print out of the same wood I used to make it.

plywood relief print power lines

Here is my relief print “Burbank Alley” made from the lid of a styrofoam egg carton. Materials are everywhere, and frequently in the the recycling bin. See my Styrofoam Printmaking post for more on this.

syrofoam printmaking


When it comes to unusual materials, collagraph is my favorite. When I taught printmaking afterschool, the kids loved the chance to glue unexpected things to paper. I brought rosemary, feathers, textured fabrics cut from dilapidated lawn furniture, mesh bags fruits and vegetables were purchased in, pastas and more.

Good, Cheap Paper

In my years of printmaking I discovered an inexpensive paper that soaks quickly and absorbs ink well every time. It’s good to have a reliable paper for tests or classes. I’ve ended up using it for cards as well. Office supply stores sell a heavy weight cardstock, sometimes called Vellum, that works great. Neenah Exact Index Premium Cardstock was the most recent name I purchased this paper under. Offered by both Office Depot and Staples, 250 sheets goes a long way!

Soak a minute or two, until the paper develops a couple of gray spots- where the paper soaks through too much, pat dry in a towel, and print.

Printing Press Alternatives

  1. The Pocket Press! If you are not yet familiar with my handheld press, learn all about it here.
  2. Your car. I have printed etchings using my car tire. Proceed with caution. You plate could break.  I set it up with a wooden board on top of the traditional felt sheets.
  3. Your office chair wheel. I conducted an experiment in office printmaking using a broken open ballpoint pen for ink and the wheel of my chair to press the ink onto the page. I had to roll back and forth over the plate a bunch of times, and make sure my weight was being applied as I rolled, but I did transfer my etching. Not beautifully, but, enough.
  4. I’m a fan of the wooden spoon baren, though I’ve always wondered what kind of transfer I could get using my weight and a roller skate.

What are your favorite printmaking supplies hacks?

9 thoughts on “Printmaking Supplies Alternatives”

  1. Quite awhile ago I did etching on aluminium but can’t remember the cheap alternative ground used collected from our hardware store. I thought it had something to do with shellac flakes or a liquid bitumen product – can you suggest something- Julie

    1. Hi Julie, it sounds like you may have been using a chemical process with hardware store supplies. That is so cool. I have only used alternative drypoint materials, but if you rediscover your process, I hope you’ll share it here for posterity. This is my most popular blog and I’m sure many fellow printmakers would also love to know.

  2. So sorry to hear that you are no longer making your little hand presses! Will you be making them in the future?

    1. Hi Deb, I will likely make them again some day, but I have no plans as of now. I’m sure you’ve noticed that my press building plans are for sale on this site. With a small section of a 2×4 and some other hardware store parts, you can build your own.

  3. Hi,

    Just wondering if you have discovered any good ‘scrim’ alternatives. Tarlatan is expensive… you just wipe off your unwanted ink with newsprint or a dry cloth?

    1. Excellent question! I’ve been using cotton scrap fabric to wipe my plates for so long that I forgot that it wasn’t the norm. The cotton I use is similar to a cotton bedsheet, which is what I will probably use when I run out of my current fabric. I have also used leftover cheesecloth, though I’m not sure this would be cost effective and telephone book pages. But I tend to go for the cotton fabric scraps.

  4. Lol! If you are.willing to try a roller skate and your weight, try rolling over it with a car tire (Papermaking idea), put a smooth board over it and just stand on it.

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