Qualities of Inks

The debate is out in the non-toxic printmaking world whether traditional oil-based inks are "toxic" or not. The matter is subjective because the term "non-toxic" is relative. There is no such thing, in actuality, as completely non-toxic printing. The primary concern around inks is the necessity in the past of cleaning them with solvents. With the advent of VCA's, however (vegetable cleaning agents-- see attached article), solvents are no longer necessary at all.

A look at the MSDS sheets for Graphic Chemical inks will help you decide for yourself: while the inks may be linseed oil based (not petroleum), the pigments and solvents used in the inks can be frightening. Often, pigments involve heavy metals. Inks like Akua water-based not only wash up with soap and water, they have also been thoroughly researched to contain only the safest, most stable pigments.

Quite a few oil-based inks that can be cleaned with soap and water have been developed in the last several years: Charbonnel Aquawash, Faust Aqualine, Caligo SafeWash, and Hawthorn stay-open vegetable inks, to name a few. Caligo and Hawthorn are available for you to try, though I do not recommend Caligo for intaglio. Charbonnel has excellent reviews from printmakers who are hesitant to give up traditional inks. Indeed, it smells like traditional ink, so if you are sensitive to linseed oil, this ink is not recommended.

Akua is often the ink of choice for many printmakers. They find that this water based and soya based ink is looser and more transparent than traditional inks, but overall they were very accepting of them. The looseness and transparency can both be adjusted. They particularly enjoy the easy clean-up!

For monoprints, try Akua Kolor.

Caligo water based relief ink also has had good reviews (it worked well on a letterpress).  Another option besides Caligo and Akua include Hawthorn inks.

 ink collage

Water based inks

In the following notes, you will find detailed information and testing results for Akua, Caligo, and Hawthorn inks.

  • Photo-etches wipe very quickly and easily. A few swipes with a tarlatan to remove the majority of the ink, plus careful paper wiping to control plate tone is all it takes.
  • Hand wiping is rarely needed with Akua, and is not recommended because though the inks are safer than traditional inks, they do still contain pigments that can leech in through the skin.
  • If desired, try wiping your paper down evenly with a damp sponge and then lightly blotting, rather than dipping it in the water bath. Paper needs to be barely damp to print well.
  • All of the techniques and effects you use or obtain through oil based ink transfer to Akua. A little adjustment is all it takes, but you should not have to compromise the quality of your print.
  • Akua makes metallic inks. They are best mixed with other inks to give them a metallic sheen. For surface rolls, mix the ink and roll up as you normally would. Follow with a roll of lift agent. The lift agent cannot be seen but helps the ink transfer to the paper. For intaglio, card the ink on, scrape it off, and before you move on to tarlatan and cleaning up plate tone, card on some lift agent. Let it sit for about a minute and then proceed with wiping. The lift agent is slippery and wiping will go quickly (the ink, however, will NOT wipe out of your lines, unless you seriously over-wipe).​

Caligo Safe Wash Ink

  • Oil-based ink for all techniques including woodcut, linocut, monotype, letterpress, engraving and Solarplate
  • Soap and water clean-up - no solvents required
  • Available in a wide range of colors
  • Ink will not reactivate with water after it is fully dry
  • Lightfast and highly pigmented
  • Excellent for any studio where solvents cannot be used

Caligo Safe Wash Relief Inks will handle and print like any traditional oil based ink but these inks have been formulated so they can be safely and easily washed away with soap and water. You don't need solvents to clean up Caligo Safe Wash Relief Inks.

Thin the ink with Caligo Safe Wash Oil, which is made with the same washable oil medium used in the Safe Wash inks. Thicken the ink with magnesium carbonate. While you can safely add traditional oil based ink to Caligo Safe Wash Ink, too much will alter the ink so that it loses its ability to be cleaned with soap and water alone.

All the inks except for Light Orange, Burnt Sienna and Raw Umber are made from single, pure pigments, meaning they are excellent for mixing your own vibrant colors.

The inks can be printed on dry or damp paper. Since they are designed to emulsify in soap and water, it is recommended that you keep your paper fairly dry and make sure there is no surface water on the paper.

Caligo Safe Wash Relief Ink dries by oxidation and polymerization. The ink will dry most efficiently if it is printed on absorbent, acid free paper and allowed to dry in a warm and dry environment. The inks contain a very small amount of driers, less than 1%. If you wish to speed up the drying process you can safely add up to 0.5% liquid cobalt or manganese drier.

Caligo Safe Wash Ink Clean up

Clean-up is safe and easy. First remove as much ink as possible by rolling the brayers on newsprint and scraping away any ink left on glass slabs with a paint scraper. Apply a layer of liquid soap (no water yet) to the inky surfaces and work it in with a nail brush. You will see the ink breaking down as it mixes with the soap. When all the ink is loose, wash under warm water, using the brush to help lift and carry away any remaining ink.

If any stubborn patches of ink remain, dry the surface with a paper towel, work in more soap and wash again.Water alone sometimes causes the ink to cling so remember the rule "soap before water!" Carefully dry all tools and surfaces before final storage.