If you think ‘combs’ and ‘cement’ sound odd together, this post should help to change your mind. Combed cement creates a range of strong textures which are very effective in collagraph printing plates.

You can approach this technique in various ways; speedy and dynamic, geometric and measured, or slow, flowing and meditative. There is a combed cement technique for all temperaments!

Create a comb collection

Assorted combs for cement

Assorted combs for cement

Combs are wonderful tools for mark making on collagraph plates and mono prints, and really come into their own with tile cement.

Collect a variety of combs; different sized hair combs, (cut them up); combs for grooming dogs; nit combs, (very satisfying to use these for combing cement rather than combing nits!); combs used for spreading cement before tiling, and any other combs you come across.

You can make your own from thin, stiff materials (preferably waterproof); stiff plastic packaging, thin wood and plastic or vinyl floor tiles, for example.

Make your cement base

Smoothing a thin layer of cement with a plastic scraper

Smoothing a thin layer of cement with a plastic scraper

Spread a thin layer of cement on your base plate using a wide flat spreader. A piece of stiff plastic will do, or a decorator’s scrapers.

Mash it around a bit to make sure it is smooth and even, spreading it in different directions till you get the feel of it.

Aim for a layer about as thick as a 5p piece. Try  thicker and thinner layers of cement to see what happens. Nb if it is too thin it will dry very quickly.

It can take a while to get the feel of how thick to spread the cement and produce a nice even layer, so give yourself plenty of time to practice.

Feel the flow; work standing up

A collagraph print made with combed cement and drypoint

A collagraph print made with combed cement and drypoint

You might find it easier to work standing up as your arms move more freely and this will  be reflected in the flowing patterns you make.

You may move around quite a bit as you use the combs, putting your whole body in to the mark making action.

Enjoy experimenting

Cement combed vertically and horizontally

Cement combed vertically and horizontally

Place the comb on the wet cement and drag it towards you – bend the line sideways, turn a corner or spin the comb on the spot, drag it long ways to make a thin line then give it a flick…. Keep going, just play around with it and see what happens.

After you have filled the wet cement with marks take your spreader, smooth it out, and begin again.

You can create geometric designs, crossed effects like weaving, or organic twisting and spiralling shapes. Just have fun and let yourself go!

This is the sort of thing that needs a warm up, to so I generally spend at least 10 minutes (often much longer) playing around getting the feel of the combs and letting my muscles move with the comb and cement.

When you are happy with the result let the cement dry thoroughly.

Sand-paper the combed cement

smoothing the dry combed cement with sand-paper

smoothing the dry combed cement with sand-paper

It is essential to sandpaper the cement when it is dry; this removes the sharp edges, making them flatter so the ink has somewhere to sit.

Sanding reduces the deeper grooves which can be hard to print, as the paper will not reach the bottom if they are too deep.

We usually do this outside as it can produce quite a lot of dust. Have a soft brush handy to remove any loose dust left on the plate.

Lighten the surface

Close up of combed cement plate, sanded and sealed

Close up of combed cement plate, sanded and sealed

Once sanded and dusted make the surface smoother with a layer of diluted pva.

If you don’t smooth it the rough texture of the cement will hold a lot of ink and your print will all be rather dark. This can look good if you are after deep dark textures with a limited range of tone.

I always recommend sealing the cement with diluted pva as the top surface will be easier to wipe, and print a bit lighter providing good contrast with the ink sitting in the deeper lines.

Seal the surface

Finish the plate with shellac or varnish. This is to seal the pva and prevent it sticking to your wet printing paper in the press and tearing your print.


Make a supply of combed cement textures

You can spread cement directly onto a printing plate and create a design that works on that size and shape.

Alternatively I often work on old sheets of card or stiff paper, producing lots of combed textures, and then select the best bits to stick onto a plate. This approach is more relaxed – you don’t have to worry about fitting a design onto a fixed shape. You can work fast on a large scale so the marks you make will be more spontaneous. After the cement is dry cut or tear the bits you like from the paper sheets and glue down firmly onto a plate. The torn edges will provide additional texture to your plate.

This approach also means you can combine combed cement with other techniques to get a range of tones and a variety of textures.

Make a combed cement shape

A collagraph print and plate made using combed cement

A collagraph print and plate made using combed cement

Another way of using combed cement in a collagraph plate is to make a shape onto of a background texture.

In this example I used crumpled tissue paper and fabric to give the impression of a landscape as the background.

Once the background is dry cover it with masking tape and use  a craft knife to cut a shape from it (in this example a tree). Peel the cut out shape off the plate.

Spread a layer of cement over the gap in the masking tape, then comb it. Remove the remaining tape while the cement is still wet to reveal your combed cement shape on top of the background.

Printing your combed cement plate

A relief print made from combed cement plates

A relief print made from combed cement plates

Ink the plate with a roller as a relief print.

This means the colour will sit on the top surface, and the indentations will not have any colour in them.

In this example orange ink was rolled on the plate and printed on paper. It was then rolled with black ink, and turned 180 degrees before printing on top of the orange.

Collagraph print from a combed cement plate

Collagraph print from a combed cement plate

Ink your plate as intaglio, rubbing the ink into the grooves and wiping it off the top surface.

You can also combine intaglio and relief inking to put two layers of colour on the plate at the same time. This example has orange ink rolled over as a relief layer.

Because the plate will have different layers of texture it could work well as a viscosity print too.

Combs are wonderful tools, enabling you to create parallel lines in many different formations on your printing plates. Do you have a favourite comb, or a favourite way of using combs? Share your experience in the comment section below.

Tile cement features in several of the short printmaking courses I run in the studio, please get in touch if you would like to join a course.