I have seen lovely textured and atmospheric prints made with the lino etching technique. When I tried this some time ago nothing happened – it was a total non event. I don’t like being defeated and I was keen to find out just what I’d done wrong.
Inkers Printmakers at Barmoor

Inkers Printmakers at Barmoor

I am a member of Inkers Printmakers, this gang of Yorkshire based printmakers exhibit as a group as well as getting away from it all once a year to spend time together. In April twelve of us set off for Barmoor at Hutton-le-Hole for a long weekend of sketching, walking, eating and printmaking. Our annual weekend away usually includes someone sharing a printmaking technique – this year Jenny demonstrated lino etching so here was my chance to discover how to do it properly.

Speedy results

the plate turned 90 degrees and over printed

the plate turned 90 degrees and over printed

Being rather impatient I struggle with the length of time it takes to cut detailed lino plates. Lino etching on the other hand, is relatively quick. You discover unpredictable lines and textures that are very exciting. The effect doesn’t resemble traditionally cut lino but you can add cut marks to the etched plates. An added bonus is that anyone who suffers from arthritis or weak hands and wrists may find lino cutting too painful to enjoy. Lino etching does not tire out those muscles as you get the results by using various liquids rather than cutting tools.

What is Lino Etching?

A caustic soda solution is painted onto lino – this eats away the surface creating interesting textures that often print in unexpected ways. You can control the process by masking off areas of the plate to prevent or reduce the effects of the caustic soda etch.

Here is how we did it at Barmoor

synthetic tools and brushes

Synthetic tools and brushes

Caustic soda decomposes proteins. Proteins are things that are (or have been) alive – for example plant and animal tissues, so natural oils and fats, hair, and skin. This also includes you! If you get it on your skin it will cause painful chemical burns. It does not affect synthetic man made materials (but can affect aluminium,) so use plastic containers to mix it in, rubber gloves and plastic aprons, tablecloths etc. Please see the ‘caustic soda’ post for more essential information about this chemical.

Recipe for caustic soda lino etching solution

200 ml water 3 tbsp caustic soda 2.5 tbsp wallpaper paste
mixing caustic soda for lino etching

Mixing caustic soda for lino etching

Put the water in your pot first, then slowly add the caustic soda, stir until it dissolves. Be aware that it gets hot and gives off fumes at this stage. Sprinkle the wallpaper paste on and stir this till it is thick and even.
thick caustic soda over wax and stop-out varnish

thick caustic soda over wax and stop-out varnish

The mixture we used was like thick jelly – you could drop a blob a centimetre thick on to the lino and it would just sit there etching away. If your mixture is too runny it will flow off the lino or dry out before etching it. (Making the mix too thin was my original mistake).


Traditional lino is made from linseed oil and chalk – linseed oil is a natural protein so the caustic soda will dissolve it. Caustic soda etching will not work on vinyl based ‘soft cut’ lino as this is synthetic and doesn’t contain proteins.


lino changing colour as it etches

lino changing colour as it etches

You can simply apply the caustic solution to the blank lino plate. Coarse synthetic brushes (not hogshair as that will dissolve in the solution) make nice sweeping strokes. You can drop it on in blobs to etch random shapes. Also try scraping it with a plastic comb to make lines in it. As it starts working you will see the colour of the lino change to a darker shade of brown.


The longer you leave it the deeper it will etch. It is good to start with some timed test pieces; 10 minutes will be fairly shallow, leave it for an hour and it will have bitten much deeper. You can create different levels of etch on a lino plate by adding more caustic solution part way through the etching process.

Masking areas of the lino plate

painting etch over a plate masked with electrical tape

Painting etch over a plate masked with electrical tape

To make more controlled designs you can mask areas of the lino plate to prevent the etching solution reaching it. As caustic soda dissolves natural materials you must use man made materials as a mask. It takes a while to get the idea that the areas you mask will print black, etched areas will be white. This is the reverse of conventional etching – it all helps to keep your brain agile!


Electrical tape worked well, making sharp edges and geometrical shapes. I guess other plastic tapes or stickers would also work well.

Petroleum jelly

Vaseline (petroleum jelly) was excellent – smear it on, wipe off areas, scratch or comb into it to get different marks. If the Vaseline is thin the etch may start to bite through it at the edges giving lovely textures.

Paraffin wax

We melted the wax and used tjantings to draw loose flowing lines on the plate as you would in batik. The layer of wax can be scratched into with a needle or drypoint tool – fine lines will etch where the wax is removed

Stop out varnish

This is a spirit based bitumen varnish used in traditional etching. Put it on thick and the etch will not penetrate it, if it is thinner interesting lacy patterns form as the caustic soda bites through it. There are surely lots of other materials you could try – I wondered about nail varnish? Leave a comment below to let me know if you come up with any others that work well for you.

Cleaning the plate

lino etching made with wax resist

lino etching made with wax resist

Once you have masked the plate and etched it as long / deep as you want all the caustic soda and masking materials must be removed. Wearing gloves, scrub it with a stiff nail brush under running water. Keep scrubbing till the brown colour is gone. It is fine to put caustic soda down the sink as it is designed for clearing drains. We used malt vinegar after washing to finally neutralise the alkali but not everyone does this. Remove any wax left on the plate by laying a sheet of newsprint over the lino and ironing it several times. Other masking materials may need solvents like meths to remove them if they are still clinging on after the caustic soda has done its work. The etched plates look exciting and are lovely objects in themselves. Enjoy feeling your plate before you print it!

Printing the etched lino

black relief print

black relief print

Once the plate is dry take a simple relief print to see what has happened – you will no doubt get some nice surprises. If you don’t have a press lay your paper on the plate, cover it with grease proof paper and rub the back evenly all over with a wooden spoon. After your test print you might decide to carve more details into the plate, or etch some more areas.
intaglio and relief print from etched lino block

intaglio and relief print from etched lino block

I find the plates work well inked up as intaglio and then rolled over with a different colour as a relief print. As the plates have several distinct layers it is also interesting to try viscosity printing with them. If you need more hands on instruction Jenny has a studio at West Yorkshire Print Workshop and sometimes runs lino etching courses there. Have a look at my post about other artists who use this technique for more inspiration….