Difference Between Hard or Soft Brayer for Printmaking

By Shannon Leigh O'Neil
A soft brayer is well-suited to etching and other relief printmaking methods.

A brayer is a handheld roller used in several printmaking processes. Its purpose is to evenly distribute ink on a block or plate, to transfer an image to paper. Brayers are made of synthetic rubber, leather, acrylic, polyurethane and foam sponge. Rubber brayers are available in different degrees of hardness (known as durometers) and are generally employed in letterpress or relief printing. Hard brayers are not as likely to spread ink into the cut or etched areas of a printing surface, while soft brayers dip into the cuts and transfer fine lines more effectively.

Hard Brayers for Woodblock Printing

When making woodblock prints (also called woodcuts or wood engravings), the texture of the wood grain transfers better when using a hard brayer. Generally, a high-contrast impression is fundamental to woodblock printing, and a hard brayer allows the cut designs to show up well. It can be tricky, however, to distribute the ink evenly across the woodblock, especially if the surface is irregular or rough.

Soft Brayers for Etching

Soft brayers are more suitable for etching and other relief printing methods, as their flexibility makes it easier to cover the whole surface quickly and evenly. The finely-cut details on an etching plate transfer more effectively using a soft brayer. You can build up thin coats of ink with soft brayers, rather than putting on one thick layer.

Hard Brayers for Linoleum Block Printing

Use a hard brayer when creating linoleum block prints (also called linocuts) for the same reason as woodcuts, although there is no wood grain to transfer. A distinct impression is essential to linoleum block prints. Using a hard brayer achieves this result. Linoleum blocks are very smooth, so it’s easy to get uniform ink coverage across the surface.

Soft Brayers for Monotype Printing

Monotype printing is a one-print process that involves drawing or painting on a flat, smooth, non-porous surface. You can use a copper or zinc etching plate; you can also use glass or transparent acrylic plastic. The image is transferred simply by pressing the plate onto paper. Soft brayers are best for inking the monotype surface, because they offer you more control in applying pressure to create different effects.

About the Author

Shannon Leigh O'Neil, a New York City-based arts and culture writer, has been writing professionally since 2008. Her articles have appeared in "GO Magazine," "The New York Blade" and "HX Magazine," as well as online media. O'Neil holds a Master of Arts in modern art history from the City College of New York, where she also studied French and minored in classical languages.