PVC foamboard is a really intersting material for printmakers. In this post I will take you through some different ways of using it for embossing.

Making embossed plates is a great way to include a wide variety of interesting textures in your prints. The big challenge is finding a plate material that’s soft enough to emboss things into, but also strong enough to stand up to the pressure of the press when you come to print it. 

foam board print by Jet James

Inspiration from down under

In my foam-board research I discovered the Aussie artist Jet James. He has created lovely textures and some very fine lines by embossing natural materials into PVC foam-board.

Inspired by his work I decided to have a go myself. Perhaps foam-board in Australia is softer than in the UK but my efforts showed that it is not so easy to achieve this!


Read on to see what happened….

How to emboss PVC foamboard

After removing the protective covering, (see the previous foam-board post) lay the foamboard on the press bed and arrange the objects you want to emboss on top of it.

Cover it with something stiff, I used hardboard, and then found a piece of steel plae which was harder. This covering needs to be stiff and rigid so the objects don’t emboss into it – the purpose is to press them down firmly into the foamboard.

Run the foam-board with the objects on it, covered with the stiff board through the press on a tight setting.

Protect the rollers with blankets as usual so the steel doesn’t mark them.

foam board plate on the press, ready to emboss

What kind of things can you emboss?

I tried a few to see which ones worked best. Things need to be fairly hard to get a good impression; wire, cardboard, dried plants and string all worked well. Coarse sandpaper made a speckled texture on the plate.

Use things with a similar thickness, if you have too much variation the thick ones will emboss deeply and the thin ones won’t show. Aim for objects about a millimetre or so thick. Avoid things that can crack or break, unless you want a print about cracked broken objects!

Plants are a great source of design material but they must be dried otherwise the juices will squash out in the press. Things with stiff thin stems and seed heads work best. I did some dried lentils, which were ok, but pumpkin seeds squished oil out everywhere.

wire, string and sandpaper for embossing

Twist soft garden wire into shapes; knot or plait twine for interesting designs. The green sandpaper is very coarse and makes good textures wehn embossed into foamboard.

dried plants for embossing foam board plates

These seedheads dried in the garden, bu you can always press plants to dry them out before embossing. 

Foamboard printing plate embossed with card

Pieces of mount board impressed into a foamboard plate once, then moved around and impressed again to create an overlapping design.

leylandii embossed into foam board

Some dead twigs from a leylandii tree created these textures in foamboard.

Printing your foamboard plates

Before inking your plate you may like to try a blind embossed print, ie printing without ink. This works best on plates with quite deep texture.

To make a relief print roll an inky roller over the embossed plate. Lay the printing paper over it and either rub the back of the paper, or run it through the press to transfer the ink to the paper.

Relief printing puts ink on the top surface of the plate and misses out any embossed areas so these remain white. Relief prints work on dry paper but I usually make it damp, as the paper takes the ink better. You do need damp paper for good intaglio prints.

I always like to test plates by printing in relief and then intaglio. The process of intaglio inking is described in this post. Jet James uses intaglio inking for his prints and I was excited to see what would happen when I tried this.

What a disappointment!

The embossed images had fuzzy edges so details didn’t show well.

The surface of foamboard has a subtle texture giving some tone in your prints, while this soft colour can look lovely and can be wiped fairly clean, it came out a bit dark and I thought this reduced the contrast with the embossed areas.

A few more attempts with various found and natural materials left me underwhelmed; the detail and definition of the embossing was just not great when inked up as intaglio.

relief print of embossed foam board
intaglio print of embossed leylandii

Don’t bother trying this

I had the feeling that I was missing some essential aspect of this technique. After a bit of puzzling I had the brainwave of heating the foamboard up to make it soft before embossing it. I was certain this was the secret.

65° C is recommended; I rigged up a camping cooker and immersed the foamboard plate in a pan of boiling water for a bit before quickly transferring it to the press.

intaglio prints from honesty embossed in foam board

The results were quite interesting, but not what I planned or expected;

Heating it made it expand in thickness and changed its shape as it shrunk in one direction and grew the other way. The heat also made the surface more textured so it printed darker.

The embossing was not improved either. This experiment had made things worse.

You can probably tell I was getting a bit disheartened at this stage. However the point of an experiment is not to be successful but to find out about a process.

Viscosity printing cheers me up….

Viscosity printing is fun and often produces interesting results from slightly less than great plates.

It involves rolling over the plate with runny ink first, then rolling over with stiff ink in a different colour.

To cheer myself up I rolled out some really bright colours. The prints were better and there is certainly potential for combining viscosity printing with these embossed plates.

viscosity print from foam board plate with embossed card
cow parsley and finished print

If in doubt grab the aluminium tape!

If you have been following this blog you will know that I love aluminium tape. I was determined to get a good intaglio print off the foamboard and aluminium tape seemed worth a try.

I was delighted to find that the results were lovely; it sharpened up all the details and the smoothness of the tape enabled me to wipe the surface cleaner so the embossed images had more contrast with the background.

A previous post investigated embossing into mount board and this didn’t stand up too well to the rigours of the press. Foamboard is more robust than mount board, the embossing into the aluminium tape is crystal clear and the plates will produce more prints before losing definition.

More benefits of PVC foam-board

The advantage of foam-board is that you can continue working into the surface with other mark making tools so the embossed images and textures can be incorporated into a design. The material is robust, and will withstand printing in the press at the pressure needed for intaglio quite a few times before losing definition. The board holds the embossed textures well, and you can repeat emboss with other shapes to get overlapping layers of embossing. An added bonus is that it is very easy to clean all the ink off the plate.

intaglio print from card embossed into foam board

Intaglio print from the embossed  mountboard plate

relief print from string, sandpaper and lentils

String and sandpaper, with a few lentils printed in relief with the viscosity method.

Time for more experimentation

Embossing into PVC foam-board is a deceptively simple technique, it is easy to get results but I found that without the aluminium tape not so easy to get really good results with intaglio inking.

If anybody has used foam-board for embossing with more success, or if you have other tips (or disasters) to share please tell us your methods.