Section 13: Lithography and Relief Printing

General Chemicals


Intaglio, lithography and relief inks consist of pigments suspended in either linseed oil or water as a vehicle. There can be additional hazardous binders or preservatives, etc.


  • Oil-based inks contain treated linseed oils. While linseed oil is not considered a hazard by skin contact or inhalation, ingestion of large amounts of some treated linseed oils might be hazardous due to presence of small amounts of toxic heavy metals. Oil vehicles are flammable when heated, and rags soaked in these may ignite by spontaneous combustion.


  • Know what materials are used. Obtain the material safety data sheets (MSDSs) on all products used. Use the least toxic inks possible.
  • Do not use an open flame to heat linseed oil, linseed oil, varnishes, or burnt plate oil. Take normal fire prevention measures (e.g. no smoking or open flames in work area).
  • Place oil-soaked rags in the 55 gallon drum provided for waste rag disposal. An alternative is to place the oil-soaked rags in a pail of water.


Pigments are the colorants used in lithography, intaglio, and relief printing inks. There are two types of pigments: inorganic pigments, and organic pigments.


  • Pigment poisoning can occur if pigments are inhaled or ingested. For normal printing with prepared inks, the main hazard is accidental ingestion of pigments due to eating, drinking or smoking while working, or inadvertent hand to mouth contact.
  • The classic example of a toxic inorganic pigment in printmaking is lead chromate (chrome yellow). Lead pigments can cause anemia, gastrointestinal problems, peripheral nerve damage (and brain damage in children), kidney damage and reproductive system damage. Other inorganic pigments may be hazardous also, including pigments based on cobalt, cadmium, and manganese.
  • Some of the inorganic pigments, in particular cadmium pigments, chrome yellow and zinc yellow (zinc chromate) may cause lung cancer if inhaled. In addition, lamp black and carbon black may contain impurities that can cause skin cancer.
  • Chromate pigments (chrome yellow and zinc yellow) may cause skin ulceration and allergic skin reactions.
  • The long-term hazards of the modern synthetic organic pigments have not been well studied.


  • Obtain MSDSs on all pigments. This is especially important because the name that appears on label of the color may or may not truly represent the pigments present.
  • Use the safest pigments possible. Avoid lead pigments.
  • Avoid mixing dry pigments whenever possible. If dry pigments are mixed, wear a NIOSH-approved toxic dust respirator.


In general, organic solvents are one of the most underrated hazards in art materials. Organic solvents are used in printmaking to dissolve and mix with oils, resins, varnishes, and inks; and to clean plates, rollers, tools, and even hands.


  • Repeated or prolonged skin contact with solvents can cause defatting of the skin and resultant dermatitis. Many solvents can also be harmful through skin absorption.
  • Inhalation of solvent vapors is the major way in which solvents are harmful. High concentrations of most solvents can cause dizziness, nausea, fatigue, loss of coordination, or coma. This can also increase the chances for mistakes and accidents.
  • Many solvents are toxic if ingested. Swallowing an ounce of turpentine can be fatal.
  • Most solvents, except chlorinated hydrocarbons, are also either flammable or combustible.


  • Obtain the MSDS on all solvent products used. Use the least toxic solvent possible. For example, replace the more toxic methyl alcohol with denatured alcohol or isopropyl alcohol.
  • Use adequate ventilation.
  • Keep minimum amounts of solvents on hand and purchase in smallest practical container size. Large amounts of solvents or solvent-containing materials should be stored in a flammable storage cabinet.
  • Never store solvents or solvent-containing materials in food or drink containers. Always label containers.
  • Do not allow smoking, open flames or other sources of ignition near solvents.
  • Have a class B fire extinguisher in the area. (If ordinary combustible materials are present, you may need a Class ABC fire extinguisher).
  • Wear gloves when handling solvents to avoid skin contact In particular do not use solvents to clean ink off hands. Baby oil is a good substitute.


Acids are used in intaglio (acid etching) and in lithography. Strong acids commonly used include nitric acid, hydrochloric acid, and phosphoric acid, and less commonly carbolic acid (phenol), chromic acid, hydrofluoric and sulfuric acids.


  • Concentrated acids are corrosive to the skin, eyes, respiratory system and gastrointestinal system. Dilute acids can cause skin irritation on repeated or prolonged contact.
  • Chromic acid is a skin sensitizer, suspect carcinogen, and oxidizer.
  • Phenol is highly toxic by skin absorption and ingestion. It may cause severe kidney damage, central nervous system effects and even death if absorbed in large amounts.
  • Hydrofluoric acid is highly toxic and can cause severe, deep burns which require medical attention. There is no immediate pain warning from contact with hydrofluoric acid.
  • Concentrated nitric acid is a strong oxidizing agent and can react explosively with other concentrated acids, solvents, etc. Nitric acid gives off various nitrogen oxide gases, including nitrogen dioxide which is a strong lung irritant and can cause emphysema.


  • Know what is used. Obtain the MSDS for all acids.
  • Whenever possible avoid concentrated acids.
  • Doing acid etching requires working in a enclosed hood, or in front of a slot exhaust hood or window exhaust fan at work level.
  • Store concentrated nitric and chromic acids away from organic materials. Concentrated nitric acid should always be stored separately even from other acids.
  • An important safety rule when diluting concentrated acids is to add the acid to the water, never the reverse.
  • Wear appropriate gloves, goggles and protective apron or lab coat when handling acids.
  • If adequate ventilation is not available, wear a NIOSH-approved respirator with acid gas cartridges.
  • If acid is spilled on your skin, wash with lots of water. In case of eye contact, rinse the eyes with water for at least 15-20 minutes and seek medical attention.


Lithography uses either zinc and aluminum metal plates or stones for printing. It involves use of a variety of chemicals to make the image ink-receptive and non-image areas receptive to water and ink-repellent.

Plate and Stone Preparation

A variety of drawing materials with high wax and fatty acid content are used to make the image, including tusche and lithographic crayons. Airbrushing liquid drawing materials or using spray enamel or lacquer is also common. Other materials used in stone or plate processing include etch solution containing acids and gum arabic, counteretch solutions containing acids and sometimes dichromate salts, and fountain solutions containing dichromate salts. Phenol (carbolic acid) has been used for removing grease from stones, and a variety of solvents including lithotine, gasoline, kerosene, and mineral spirits, which are used for diluting drawing materials, washing out images and correction of images. Talc and rosin mixtures are also used. Metal plates are prepared with solvent-based vinyl lacquers.


  • Acids used include phosphoric, nitric, acetic, hydrochloric, hydrofluoric and tannic acids. The concentrated acids are corrosive and even dilute acid solutions can cause skin irritation from prolonged or repeated contact. Hydrofluoric acid and phenol are the most dangerous to use.
  • Lithotine, kerosene, and mineral spirits are skin and eye irritants and inhalation can cause intoxication and respiratory irritation.
  • The solvents contained in vinyl lacquers can include highly toxic isophorone and cyclohexanone. Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK), which is moderately toxic, is often used as a thinner.
  • Dichromate salts may cause skin and nasal ulceration and allergic reactions, and are suspect cancer-causing agents.
  • Rosin dust may cause asthma and allergic dermatitis. There is the hazard of explosion from the buildup of rosin dust, in enclosed rosin boxes, around an ignition source.
  • Talcs may be contaminated with asbestos and silica.
  • Airbrushing drawing materials or using spray enamel paints is more hazardous than drawing with a brush because the inhalation hazard is higher.


  • Obtain the MSDS for all materials used.
  • See Acids and Solvents sections for the precautions with acids and solvents.
  • Use the least toxic solvents. Gasoline should never be used. Lithotine and mineral spirits are less toxic than the more irritating kerosene.
  • Use asbestos-free talcs such as baby powders.
  • Avoid dichromate-containing counteretches and fountain solutions if possible. Do not use hydrofluoric acid or phenol.
  • Appropriate gloves, goggles and a protective apron should be worn when mixing or using concentrated acids.

Printing and Cleanup

For all types of lithographic inks, solvents are used to make image corrections on the press, to remove images, and to clean the press bed and rollers.


Some roller cleaners and glaze cleaners can contain chlorinated hydrocarbons such as perchloroethylene and methylene chloride. Most chlorinated solvents (except 1,1,1-trichloroethane) have been shown to cause liver cancer in animals and are therefore suspect human carcinogens. In addition perchloroethylene can cause liver damage, and methylene chloride heart attacks.


  • Know materials used. Obtain the MSDS for all solvents. See Solvents section for the precautions with solvents.
  • Choose products that do not contain chlorinated solvents whenever possible.
  • For small scale solvent use in correcting images or cleaning the press bed using lithotine or mineral spirits, dilution ventilation (e.g. window exhaust fan) is sufficient.


Intaglio is a printmaking process in which ink is pressed into depressed areas of the plate and then transferred to paper. These depressed areas can be produced by a variety of techniques, including acid etching, drypoint, engraving and mezzotint.


Etching involves use of dilute nitric acid, Dutch mordant (hydrochloric acid plus potassium chlorate) or ferric chloride to etch the zinc or copper (respectively) metal plate. Unetched parts the plate are protected with resists such as stopout varnishes containing ethyl alcohol, grounds containing asphaltum or gilsonite and mineral spirits, rubber cement, and rosin or spray paints for aquatinting. Sometimes, soft grounds contain more toxic solvents.


  • See Solvents section for the hazards of solvents. 1,1,1- trichloroethane found in some soft grounds is moderately toxic by inhalation under normal conditions but may cause fatalities at very high concentrations.
  • See Acids section for the hazards of acids. In particular nitric acid etching releases the respiratory irritant nitrogen dioxide which has poor odor warning properties. During the etching process, flammable hydrogen gas is also produced.
  • Concentrated nitric acid is a strong oxidizing agent and can react with many other chemicals, especially solvents or other organic compounds, to cause a fire.
  • Mixing hydrochloric acid with potassium chlorate to make Dutch mordant produces highly toxic chlorine gas. Potassium chlorate is a key ingredient in many pyrotechnics, and is a potent oxidizing agent. It can react explosively with organic compounds, sulfur compounds, sulfuric acid or even dirt or clothing. On heating it can violently decompose to oxygen and potassium chloride. Storage and use are very dangerous require special precautions especially when mixing.
  • Rosin dust (and asphaltum dust which is also sometimes used) is combustible. Sparks or static electricity have caused explosions in enclosed rosin and aquatint boxes. Rosin dust may also cause asthma and dermatitis in some individuals.
  • Inhalation of solvents and pigments can result from use of aerosol spray paints.


  • Obtain the MSDS for all materials used.
  • See Solvents and Acids sections for specific precautions.
  • Use Dutch mordant with extreme caution. A safer substitute for etching copper plates is ferric chloride (iron perchloride). This forms acidic solutions so should be handled accordingly, but does not have the dangers of handling concentrated acids. Ferric chloride solution might cause minor skin irritation from prolonged contact.
  • Application of grounds or stopouts should be done with local exhaust ventilation, (e.g. slot or enclosed hood).
  • Acid etching should be done with local exhaust ventilation. See section on precautions for Acids for more information. Rosin (or asphaltum) boxes should be explosion-proof. Use sparkproof metal cranks, explosion-proof motors, or compressed air. Don't use hair dryers to stir up rosin dust.

Other Techniques

Drypoint, mezzotint and engraving use sharp tools to incise lines in metal plates.


  • One major hazard associated with these types of processes involves accidents with sharp tools.
  • Long-term use of these tools can cause carpel tunnel syndrome, which can cause numbness and pain in the first three fingers. Severe cases can be incapacitating.


  • Keep tools sharp, store them safely and always cut away from yourself.
  • When possible, clamp down plates to avoid slippage.
  • Minimize the chance of carpel tunnel syndrome by choosing tools with wide handles, avoiding tight grips, and doing hand flexing exercises during regular rest periods. Set work table height so wrist flexing motions are minimal.

Printing and Cleanup

Intaglio inks contain pigments, treated linseed oil and modifiers. Printing involves placing the ink on the inking slab, inking the plate by hand, and then printing. Cleanup of inking slab, press bed, and cleaning the plate is done with a variety of solvents including mineral spirits, alcohol, lithotine, turpentine, etc.


  • Preparing your own inks from dry pigments can involve inhalation of toxic pigments. See Pigments section for the hazards of pigments.
  • See Solvents section for the hazards of solvents. Plate cleaning is more hazardous than cleaning inking slabs or press beds because larger amounts of solvents are used.
  • Lithotine, turpentine, or oil-soaked rags can be a spontaneous combustion hazard if improperly stored.


  • See Pigments and Solvents sections for the specific precautions for pigments and solvents.
  • NIOSH-approved respirators with organic vapor cartridges can be used if ventilation is not adequate.

Relief and Other Printing Processes

Other printing processes include relief printing, collagraphs, monoprints, and plastic prints.

Relief Printing

Relief printing techniques include woodcuts, linoleum cuts and acrylic plates for plaster relief. These techniques involve the cutting away of plate areas that are not to be printed. Relief inks can be oil-based or water-based.


  • Some woods used for woodcuts can cause skin irritation and/or allergies. This is particularly true of tropical hardwoods.
  • Accidents involving sharp tools can result in cuts.
  • Wood carving and cutting tools can cause carpel tunnel syndrome. This was discussed earlier in the section that included drypoint and mezzotint.
  • Caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) is sometimes used for etching linoleum. It can cause skin burns and severe eye damage if splashed in the eyes.
  • Eating, drinking or smoking while printing can result in accidental ingestion of pigments.
  • Hazardous solvents are used in stopouts and resists in linoleum etching, and for cleaning up after printing with oil-based inks. See Solvents section for more information on the hazards of solvents.


  • Obtain the MSDS for all materials used.
  • See Acids and Solvents sections for precautions with acids and solvents.
  • Water-based inks are preferable to oil-based inks since solvents are not needed.
  • Wear appropriate gloves, goggles and protective apron when handling caustic soda.
  • If the chemical is spilled on your skin, wash with lots of water. In case of eye contact, rinse the eyes with water for at least l5-20 minutes and contact a physician.
  • Always cut in a direction away from you, with your free hand on the side or behind the hand with the tool.
  • Carpel tunnel syndrome can be minimized or avoided by using tools with wide handles, avoiding tight grips, and rest periods with hand flexing exercises. Linoleum cutting is softer to work, and thus can reduce musculoskeletal injury.


Collagraphs are prints produced by using a collage of different materials glued onto a rigid support. A wide variety of materials and adhesives can be used in making collagraphs.


  • Rubber cement, a common adhesive used with collagraphs, is extremely flammable and most rubber cements and their thinners contain the solvent n-hexane which can cause damage to the peripheral nervous system (hands, arms, legs, feet) from chronic inhalation.
  • Epoxy glues can cause skin and eye irritation and allergies.
  • Spraying fixatives on the back of collagraph plates to seal them can involve risk of inhalation of the solvent-containing spray mist.
  • Sanding collagraph plates which have been treated with acrylic modeling compounds or similar materials can involve inhalation of irritating dusts.


  • Know the hazards of materials used. Obtain the MSDSs from the manufacturer.
  • Use the least toxic materials available. In particular use water-based glues and mediums (e.g. acrylic medium) whenever possible. Some rubber cements are made with the solvent heptane, which is less toxic than n-hexane, primarily because peripheral neuropathy is not associated with its use.
  • Wear gloves when using epoxy glues.
  • Wear a NIOSH-approved toxic dust respirator when sanding collagraph plates.

Plastic Prints

Plastic prints can involve making prints from a wide variety of plastic materials and resins.


Plastic prints can involve hazards from inhalation of plastic resin vapors (e.g. epoxy resins) and also from inhalation of decomposition fumes from drilling, machining, sawing, etc. of finished plastics.


  • Obtain the MSDS for all materials used.
  • See Solvents section for the precautions with solvents.
  • Use the least toxic material available.


Monoprints involve standard intaglio, lithographic and other printmaking techniques, but only one print is made. Monoprints have the same hazards involved in plate preparation and printing as the parent techniques.


Photoprintmaking involves exposing a light-sensitive emulsion or film to ultraviolet light through a transparent support containing an opaque image to transfer the image to a plate. The transparency through which the photoemulsions are developed can include drawings on a transparent support such as Mylar or acetate, or photographic images processed on graphic arts film to yield a positive image. Several photoprintmaking methods will be discussed.

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