#9 Toner washes and charcoal images

Dry copier toner images have become a common worldwide printmaking technique after I introduced it in 1985. There has been minor changes to toner powders over the years, becoming much finer to accommodate the newer 600 and 1200 dpi machines, but the same principals apply for using all toners. Toners today contain all or a large percentage of black iron oxide instead of lampblack like the earlier material. Artists know iron oxide as Mars black pigment in oils colours. The concern that toner is toxic because of carbon black was basically unfounded as each particle was encapsulated just like many of the medicines we take for timed release. It is a dirty product that most people would not like to get on themselves, and making enough toner dust is just plain carelessness.

Do not buy new toner as it can be quite expensive, but can be had from local companies that recycle and refill laser printer cartridges. They should be glad to give you all you need because it becomes a material that has to be recycled by special environmental companies that charged for this service. I can pick up good toner by the bucketful from a local company.

You should test your toner to see how solvents affect the particles. Much more is written in my university site at: http://homepage.usask.ca/~nis715/, in the toner paper. Keep in mind that the technique was developed as a replacement for grease tusche in traditional lithography.

toner proportions In a small tight lidded wide mouth bottle, fill it about 1/4 with water, then put in a few drops of wetting agent. Now add toner powder to twice the amount of water to make the container 3/4 full. Put on the lid and shake until the particles are all wet. This will be your stock supply that you can take out unto a dinner plate to mix with more water to fit the image you are planning. Depending on the supply, I have found newer toners do not require any disinfectant as mould growth has not been a problem for me.

EPSON DSC picture You will have to somehow wet the particles if you are planing to use water as the wash media, so go to the grocery store to purchase a bottle of dishwasher rinse surfactant. It is cheap and doesn’t introduce foam that can get in the way of your image. There are many good surfactants that will wet the particles to give you a nice wash, but don’t use too much as that may coat the particles so that they cannot adhere to the plate when heated or set with campstove fuel.

Foam can be used to get the popular “Skin of the Toad”, only available with French grease tusche on zinc plates. There are some detergents that will produce foam if one mixes the toner on the saucer vigorously before drawing your image. Let the wash dry on its own before heating to retain the textures.

EPSON DSC picture

I prefer to bond the toner to plates with a heat gun as all types of toner melt and stick well to the metal plate. So as not to disturb the wash if one is in a hurry, apply the heat from the bottom of the plate until all the water has been driven off, then switch to the face of the plate to bond the particles. Campstove fuel will only affect some toners, but this method is useful if the drawing is done on a plate outdoors. Pour the solvent from a bottle holding a string to prevent dropping solvent from dislodging the loose particles.


Toner washes on Mylar can be easily transferred to plate by means of a press, just like with grease images. The toner is not bonded to the plastic and the wash is allowed to perfectly dry before transferring take place. The particles can even be transferred in stages to produce a multicolour print with transfer to the first plate under light pressure to remove only the thicker areas of the image, leaving the rest for transferring to other plates in perfect registration. Use several sheets of newsprint to get an even transfer of toner; unlikely when a thicker sheet of backing is used, because of the grain in the paper. An accurate registration system has to be used to get the best prints.

toner chalk

On the university website, I explain how one can make a toner chalk that will produce charcoal like images directly on plates or on paper for transferring to plates. Good registration is needed for multicolour editions, but it will give a completely new type of image when compared to grease materials. The toner chalks can be made in various hardness depending on the surface texture of your plate or paper. This is a technique that could be explored more by printmakers after acquiring the ability to make their own chalks. This illustration is taken from a proof of a area in a toner transfer from a drawing on newsprint.

One has to use acetone to washout the image before printing starts, but many are very concerned about using this solvent. It has a TVL of 1000 parts per million and in small volumes needed to washout the toner, there should be little concern compared to children inhaling airplane glue for a high. I believe its’ greatest danger is flammability from the low flash point. Do not use hydrocarbons on the silicone surface as it is susceptible to damaged by them.

EPSON DSC picture

To reduce the amount needed to washout a plate, I have been using a retarder that prevents acetones’ complete evaporation and dissolved toner, which rebonds on the plate. After many material I have tried, I am now using automobile common brake fluid designated DOT 3 or 4. The polyalkylene glycol it contains is not toxic; about 5% added to your acetone for image washout works about right – too much reduces effectiveness of the acetone to dissolve toner. After dissolving the toner in the image, there is no attempt made to produce a clean plate surface with the solution. A cloth wet with water or soap added will give you a plate ready for printing.

There are many more features of toner that will produce interesting effects for artists, but you will have to experiment with the material you have. In my CD, there is more data on toners and how they can be used in this and other media as well. I suggest that printers ask me specific questions that come to their mind and I will try and answer them from my experience using the material for 23 years.

Copyrighted Nik Semenoff 2008


  1. 1
    everfree Says:

    Thank you for this, The intrepid Driographers are on it! we will be back on monday with questions.

  2. 2
    everfree Says:

    As of friday 22nd we now have broadband installed in our studio and can read your notes directly in situ. This is going to make things much easier for experiments.

  3. 3
    nats Says:

    hi Nik, i am a member of the driographers at green door. I have managed to do some prints, but find this way of printing challenging, my print was inked in black, but on the paper i found color where i had drawn. Could there be something i have done wrong?

  4. 4
    nik.sememnoff Says:

    Hi Nats:
    I really don’t have enough information to give you a good answer. There is bronzing that is common in some black ink that looks like interference colors one sees on oily water surface. It is all on the way the ink dries. I presume you were using Van Son Rubberbase plus ink, which I use and never had that problem. As far as I know, it is more common in traditional litho, but I have not heard of it in waterless. Give me a bit more information as to what colors and if in reflected light at an angle.

  5. 5
    nats Says:

    thanks for replying nik. Yes i did use van son rubberbase plus ink, the colors reflect red on my print. could this happen if the ink is not applyed evenly?

  6. 6
    nik.sememnoff Says:

    This is puzzling as Van Son black has a blue undertone, which comes up when it is diluted in cleanup using acetone or alcohol mix. When you look directly at the image, is it black or red? Reflections show off the bronzing, which is yellow, red and brownish. It could be more humidity in the UK that causes the bronzing, which in itself in weird. Thick ink probably is more likely to bronze I suppose.

    If anyone has any idea, we could use the help.

  7. 7
    nats Says:

    I think i may have answered my own problem nik. After printing another plate, i still got red on the paper, i think it may be the fact i did not wipe the pencil off properly. Either way it is very interesting, hopefully it won’t happen on my next piece of art. Thankyou for your time, will keep posted on this subject.

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