Sometimes you discover a new material, or a new use for an old material and it just gets your creative ideas flowing. This happened to me with PVC foamboard, and in this post I want to introduce you to this excellent material for making printing plates.
It all started when I spotted a post on Instagram that mentioned Sintra, and decided to investigate it, as this was something new to me.
Sintra is one of the trade names for PVC foamboard, it is also known as Foamex, Forex, Foamalite or Palite, but looking for ‘pvc foam board’ will generally lead you to the right stuff.
It is an interesting material to use for printing plates, the more you find out about it the more you wonder – is there anything foamboard can’t do?
What is PVC foamboard?
This is a rigid plastic board made from expanded PVC.
It comes in different thicknesses, e.g. 3mm/5mm/10mm, and in large sheet sizes up to several metres square (in case you wanted to do an enormous print).
It is produced in a range of colours, white being the easiest to find.
What is it used for?
The most common use is for digitally printed signs; you will probably notice it everyday, once you know what it is.
PVC foamboard is great for exhibitions or displays – being lightweight and strong, easy to cut and drill, or to fix with double sided tape. It is also used a lot by model makers, and for theatrical props and costumes. It can be heated and formed into 3d shapes, and painted. (Perhaps not so useful for printmakers but still interesting)
It is fire resistant and self-extinguishing, although burning it is not advised. I did try using a soldering iron to melt designs into it but decided the resulting prints were rather fuzzy and not really worth it.
So why is it good for printmaking?
Lightweight and strong, foamboard is easy to cut, carve, drill and sand. It has a consistently smooth, slightly matt surface.
Compared to other plate making materials it is relatively cheap (or free if you can get offcuts).
Rigid and hardwearing, it will withstand the pressure of the press (well the 3mm board did compress buy about 0.5mm when I forced it through the press as tight as possible to test it, but this didn’t really make any difference to the printing)
It is chemical resistant, so oil based inks and common solvents won’t affect it.
Some Downsides to PVC foamboard
The only negative aspect I’ve found is that some glues won’t stick to it, so if you are using acrylic gels do a test before investing lots of time in making a printing plate. Some gels will just peel off the surface of the board when it comes to printing.
We aren’t talking about a solid metal plate here, and as it is essentially a foam it will loose definition after a being repeatedly compressed in the printing press for intaglio prints. If you are printing it as relief the pressure is much lighter so this is not such an issue.
Where can you get it?
I got mine from Simply Plastics in the UK as they sell small quantities at a good price.
Most sign shops use it so if you have a local sign shop it could be worth making friends with them and asking if they have any offcuts.
Be careful not to get foamcore board by mistake this is a more lightweight foam sandwiched between layers of paper, whereas PVC foamboard is solid all the way through and much stronger.
Have a go at making a printing plate!
Prepare the board
When you buy it new it comes with a thin plastic protective sheet on one side – I’d suggest removing this before starting work, as it will probably peel off anyway. One you’ve got rid of this both sides are the same.
Cut it with a craft knife and ruler; run the knife along a few times and it will brak easily along the scored line.
Make simple sample plates by pressing into the surface
To get started with foamboard plates the easiest and quickest thing to try is simply pressing into the surface with different tools.
You can get kids involved with this too, foamex is harder than polystyrene pizza bases so takes more pressure to mark it, but the plates are much more hard wearing.
- Nit comb and dog combs
- Drypoint tool / screw
- Knitting needle / old biro
- Edge of a palette knife or your finger nail
Have fun with a nit comb
these delicate marks were made by pressing and dragging the nit comb over the surface of foamboard.
Print your sample plate in relief
Relief printing takes an impression from the top surface of the plate, any incised lines will not be inked so will print white, if your paper is white. (You can always try different coloured paper to contrast with your ink.)
Charge your roller up by rolling some ink on a flat surface till it is nice and even. Then roll ink all over the surface of the foamboard plate.
If you have thin paper lay it over the plate and rub the back to transfer the image.
If your paper is thicker or has a rough surface you can make it damp before printing, and this will produce a clearer image. See the blog post preparing paper for information about this.
I usually run it through the printing press on a low pressure to get a nice even print.
Tooth and nail
No special equipment needed; in this sample the foamboard plate was marked by biting it and presing with the edge of a thumb nail. Sometimes really limiting yourself can lead to new creative ideas!
A dog comb
The metal dog comb is strong enough to make clear marks in the foam board. In this sample the points of the comb were pressed in to make lines of dots. dragging it across the foamboard in differnt directions produces an enormous range of marks.
Needles and screws
In this example the shell was drawn into the foamboard wiht a drypint tool, you could use a needle or the point of a compass to get the same fine lines and tiny dots.
The wavy lines and larger dots were made with the end and side of a screw.
Print as intaglio
Intaglio printing needs the pressure of a printing press to work well.
The idea is to rub ink into all the grooves and wipe it off the flat surface of the plate. Please see the blog post about inking a collagraph plate for a video about intaglio inking and wiping
Notice how the tones of the marks are reversed – what was light in the relief print (on the left) is now dark in the intaglio print on the right.
Needless to say this is only the beginning…..
There are lots of other ways to use PVC foamboard for making printing plates; in future posts we will explore altering the surface with gels and tapes, embossing textures into it, carving it with hand and electric tools, and printing in a combination of relief and intaglio.
Let’s put PVC foamboard on the printmaking map!