Society of
Children's Book Writers
and Illustrators

The Craft of Scratchboard

by Sophie Cayless

Lately I have been working alot with this fascinating medium.  First invented by an Austrian in the late 1800's, scratchboard now comes in several forms. Some are cardboard, coated with a clay substance, then finally sometimes coated with ink. (Canson, Paris and Ess-Dee scratchboards.) These must be used only when dry to ensure a clean cut. I use alot of Ampersand scratchboard, backed with a wood particle board, as I find it more rscratchboardesponsive for finer scratch strokes.

Many tools can be used on scratchboard, both commercial and household. Ampersand sells several: a basic scratching nib, a wider variation and some multiple-point scratching tools.  Other makers supply more. One may also use X-acto knives, linoleum or wood-cutting tools, old dental tools and even steel wool (for larger white areas) and a needle pushed into a cork "handle".

To correct mistakes on black scratchboard, or to cover white scratchboard, India ink, technical pen ink or black sumi ink may be used.  Ampersand sells a set of colored and black inks that do not leave a conspicuous film.

With the varied tools many strokes are possible. Always direct the stroke towards the hand to ensure a smooth stroke. Stippling, straight lines and crosshatching are all possibilities.  Steel wool produces a cloudier effect, while multiple point tools cover larger ares more quickly.  Tools with a thicker edge create thicker strokes for more dramatic effects. On white scratchboard, ink and scratch combinations can be very interesting.

Transfer drawings onto both white and black scratchboard with carbon paper: the black will show on the white and, with the right light angle, on the black. For transfer onto black, one can also rub light chalk or conte crayon on the reverse of the drawing.

Scratchboard can be enlarged to reveal unintentional scratches, giving a wood cut effect. Or, gain this effect right away with less detailed lines. For finer wood and metal engraving effects, scratch fine parallel lines.

A variety of media can be used with scratchboard: gouache, inks, markers, watercolors, casein, egg tempera and oils. Softer watercolor pencils work better than standard colored pencil on the smooth surface.

The clay surface also works as a relief printing plate.  And finally scrimshaw techniques are effective, especially on white board. Cut lines deeply, fill in those lines with pigment, then scrape the rest of the surface clean to leave
fine dark lines.

Scratchboard is quite sturdy but can be fixed with Krylon UV Resistant Clear Acrylic Coating–matte or glossy.

To learn more see the following books by Watson-Guptill Publications:

  • How to Cut Drawings on Scratchboard by Merritt Cutler
  • The New Scratchboard by Charles Ewing
  • Scratchboard for Illustration by Ruth Lozner

Enjoy this versatile medium!

© Sophie Cayless, 2004. All rights reserved.

Ampersand Scratchboard Image from Jerry's Artarama