I have been experimenting with using flexible clear pvc as a relief printing plate. So far it seems to be a great material that makes all parts of the process from transferring original designs to registering plates much easier. Lino printing is not my main technique so I may have missed something – but I’d say clear pvc printing plates are definitely worth a go if you have never tried them.

Introducing Polyvinyl Chloride (aka PVC)

PVC has a multitude of uses, too many to list here, but in any single day you will probably have sat on it, walked on it, looked through it, worn it, drunk water from it and read something printed on it…..

It comes in two forms; rigid or flexible, it is chemically resistant to acids, salts, fats, and alcohols. Like most plastics it is oil based, however it can be recycled. Soft cut lino is also made from PVC but is squashier and obviously not transparent.

Warning; never try burning PVC – it gives off noxious fumes.

Black PVC pondliner

I first stumbled on it as a printmaking material when I scrounged some 1mm PVC pond liner offcuts form the local garden centre. 1mm is thin enough to cut with scissors and thick enough to carve with lino cutting tools.

The PVC has enough resistance to add fine details with lino tools, so you can cut out shapes to build up complex designs by tessellating different shaped pieces.

After I used up all the free offcuts I went in search of more, only to find that the PVC pond liner I had was quite hard to come by, most pond liner is butyl rubber and this is difficult to cut or mark with lino tools as it is so bouncy. It also has a surface texture like woven cloth whereas PVC is quite smooth.

The benefits of transparent printing plates

My second brainwave was to hunt for transparent PVC, thinking this would have all the good qualities of PVC pondliner with the added benefits of transparency. I like using transparent plates for several reasons:

two clear pvc printing plates overlapping

two clear pvc plates overlapping

Reversing images is simple – if you start with an image on paper, lay the plate over it and trace with a marker pen, then turn the plate over to work on the other side.

If you are using several plates to build up an image the transparent plates can be stacked on top of each other to get an idea of what is going on.

two clear pvc printing plates inked up and overlapped

two clear pvc plates inked up and overlapped

Transparent plates are also great for overprinting as you can see what is underneath so you can align (or misalign) the inked up plate over your printed image.

Clear flexible PVC sheets

Clear PVC comes in different thicknesses from less than .5mm up to about 10mm. It is used for ‘soft top’ car windows, factory curtains and table protectors amongst other things. The thicker sheets are more expensive.

It was easy to find 2mm and 3mm to buy on line, but 1mm was harder, eventually I tracked it down in the form of a tablecloth from China. If you want to get hold of some I suggest googling ‘flexible clear PVC sheet’ as there are lots of suppliers.

Cutting clear PVC printing plates

clear pvc printing plate with cut spiral

clear PVC plate cut with lino tools

Anything less than 1mm thick is no good for cutting into.

I prefer 1mm or 2mm as you can print these as either relief or intaglio. 3mm can be cut into more deeply for extra texture.

For a more thorough demonstration of cutting clear blocks have a look at the handprinted blog which compares different types of lino plates.

pvc plate cut with spiral design

pvc plate cut with spiral design

Options for inking up clear PVC printing plates

relief print from two overlaid pvc printing plates

relief print from two overlaid pvc plates

Clear PVC plates work really well for relief prints.

You can overlap 1mm pieces (great for blind embossing).

Try tesselating cut shapes to make a composite image so different areas can easily be rolled with different colours.

pvc plate inked as intaglio and relief

pvc plate inked as intaglio and relief

If your cuts are not very deep you can also ink the plate up as intaglio and print it under pressure on damp paper, giving lovely dense bright lines of colour.

PVC will stand up to quite a bit of pressure without distorting in the press.

I would love to hear from printmakers who use traditional lino (or other materials) for relief cut plates – what are your thoughts on using PVC?