One of the delights of experimental printmaking is using materials that have a mind of their own. I like the feeling that I am letting it do its own thing and also at the same time guiding the process. It feels more like a collaboration and I often find my ideas are modified and altered as my understanding of the material grows. If you too enjoy this approach then you will definitely like experimenting with Tyvek printing plates.

What is Tyvek?

Tyvek is a truly amazing non-woven fabric; it looks a bit like beautiful silky Japanese paper. It is very strong and hard to tear it but it cuts easily and can be sewn, it breathes but will not let water through.

Tyvek against the light
The structure of Tyvek

You may have come across it in other forms – it is used for wrist bands at festivals and swimming pools, strong envelopes for posting, thin white boiler suits and also breathable membranes in the building trade. Museums use it for archival storage; see my post on Tyvek storage folders to see how you too can store your prints safely.

Tyvek is made by Dupont, have a look at their info here for more details.

First get your Tyvek

I generally get Tyvek from Spenic Graphics; they sell a good range and are very helpful if you need more information. Buy it by the sheet, pack or on a roll.

Different weights and surface textures

Tyvek comes in a range of weights from 55gsm (rather thin) 75gsm, medium and 105gsm, which is much more robust. 

Some Tyvek has a surface texture like fabric on one or both sides; this will show when you print it. Sometimes the texture is obvious, for example on the thin Tyvek used for boiler suits, but it can be harder to spot on thicker Tyvek and you may not realise it is there till you actually print it. Generally the reverse side will be smooth though, so you can make a choice about the finish.

Melting Tyvek

Tyvek melts at low temperatures, it behaves a bit like metallised film – see the crisp packet printing plates post for info on this.

Iron with greaseproof paper
Use greaseproof paper to protect the iron

It is easy to use a domestic iron to alter the structure of Tyvek; lay a piece of greaseproof paper over it to prevent it sticking to the iron. Move the iron gently over the Tyvek, not pressing too hard at first, it will bubble away from the heat source, so if you heat it from both sides you will get a variety of patterns, concave and convex.

Once it has started to shrink you can press down with the iron, this will harden the wrinkles, making them more distinct. If your iron is too hot or your hold it in one place for too long the Tyvek can melt away altogether – do a test piece to gauge the temperature and timing. Thicker Tyvek melts more slowly than thin stuff.

Tyvek shrinks away from the heat
Tyvek shrinks away from the heat
Too much heat melts Tyvek
Too much heat melts Tyvek

Heat gun

As well as the iron you can use a craft heat gun, this is generally hotter but it is easier to see what is happening as it shrinks. Finish the Tyvek off with an iron to get it to lie flat.

Soldering iron

A soldering iron will make little holes in the Tyvek; you can also melt shapes with it. Heat it after soldering to distort the holes and lines.

Melting Tyvek with a soldering iron
Melting Tyvek with a soldering iron

Masking areas

By covering areas up you can to control how much heat reaches the Tyvek, this enables you to manage the way it melts.

Using a cardboard mask
Using a cardboard mask

You can do this by masking areas before heating it with a heat gun. Here are examples of masking with cardboard and also with rulers.

Masking with rulers
Masking with rulers
Tyvek printing plate masked with rulers and heated
Tyvek printing plate masked with rulers and heated

Freezer Paper

Freezer paper
Freezer paper

Freezer paper is very handy stuff to have in the studio. It was originally made for wrapping food to freeze, but inventive artists have discovered many more uses for it… If you google ‘Reynolds freezer paper’ you will find lots of sources on line for buying it.

The shiny side is heat sensitive so you can iron it onto the Tyvek and it will stick. The stiff paper prevents the Tyvek from shrinking so you can control the shrinking process (a bit) 

Freezer paper stuck to tyvek printing plate
Freezer paper stuck to tyvek printing plate

Constructing Tyvek printing plates

Once your pieces of Tyvek are shrunk as much as you want, and flattened with the iron you can simply ink them up and print them onto paper.

Just leaving the crooked edges looks good but you can always cut shapes out and combine with other printmaking techniques. For example lay a piece of inked up Tyvek onto a flat area on a lino plate to introduce a different texture.

Glue it onto card

Tyvek printing plate using mount board
Tyvek printing plate using mount board

If you want to make a more conventional stiff printing plate glue the Tyvek onto mount board. This works best using pva wood glue which is stronger than regular pva. Tyvek can be springy and is a bit oily so needs the stickiest glue for success.

Once it is firmly attached to card you can coat it with gesso, add acrylic gels or cut and remove areas from it… 

Inking up

Tyvek plate and print
Tyvek print and plate with freezer paper and soldered holes

Tyvek is oily, and it absorbs grease. If you are using oil based inks they tend to soak into it. This is useful as you can take several good impressions from one inking.

However the downside is that if you use neat ink the image can turn out very dark and without contrast. I found it best to use transparent ink – say a tablespoon of extender to a pea-sized blob of ink, to start with. That is very subtle but you can gradually add more coloured ink till it prints well for you. 

Ink up as intaglio

Mix your ink and extender and add some oil to make it a bit runnier. Paint this onto he Tyvek printing plate with a stiff brush. 

Wipe it off with a rag and then polish the surface with newsprint.

Please have a look at the post inking up a collagraph plate for more info about this process.

Roll over relief

As with any textured collagraph plate you can roll a layer of relief ink over the intaglio to add more colours or help define the high points in the plate.

Double your output

Tyvek printing plates have 2 sides – ink both up and sandwich your plate between two pieces of paper before running it through he press – you get two different prints in one go! 

Two prints from one tyvek printing plate
Two prints from one tyvek printing plate

Keep experimenting with your Tyvek printing plates

Tyvek printing plates look great after they have been printed a few times; in fact they often look better than the actual prints! You will probably find yourself developing ways to display the plates, or to reuse them in other art projects.

I feel sure there are many potential ways to use Tyvek in printmaking and to combine it with other art forms – please let me know if you come up with any more ideas!