Simpler Method of Making Toner Chalks

by Nik Semenoff   2005


When I first started to work with toners for images in lithography, I also wanted a chalk like stick as I liked the look of charcoal drawings. My first attempts to make toner chalks was to use the traditional method used for producing pastels; a weak glue in water binder and either rolling or extruding the wet paste. While this worked reasonably well, I wanted a more efficient process as I had hoped to market the chalks.  I went on to make a complicated two cylinder hydraulic press with automatic valves set to get consistent compression on the toner powder - as no binder is used, just the heat produced by pressure.  Alas my manufacturing adventure came to naught as I am now left with an expensive piece of equipment and plenty of chalks to use.



This print was mostly done with tranfering from toner drawings on newsprint or Mylar. The horses were drawn on newsprint and transfered on a press to recycled plates. The main horse was drawn with Omnichrom 108-9 pencil and printed out as a key image for registering all the other colors. On a light table, a sheet of newsprint was registered by means of registrations pins and chalks were used for one of the red colors and transfered to a plate. The same newsprint was used again to place the darker tints and transfered. The background was a toner wash on Mylar transfered to three plates by using the same drawing but slightly increasing the pressure with each transfer. This is my multi-stage transfer technique that I use quite often. One of the background plates was not printed to leave some white areas.


As the printmaking techniques made possible by drawing with the chalks are so exciting, I have published on my website the early “pastel” method of manufacturing.  I now think the problem to get the exact level of binder might be too much for the majority of printmakers, so they would not have this technique to use.  While doing a chalk drawing on newsprint for transfer to a plate, I thought of a much simpler method of binding the toner and produce nice sticks.  The binder one uses must not encapsulate the particle so that it will not bind to the plate surface.  In my early method I chose polyvinyl alcohol that is melted with heat and sufficiently soluble in white gas to stick to metal.  For the new method I have decided to use diluted shellac as it melts with heat– but I was not sure if it would prevent bonding to the plate when using white gas. The only true test was to try it.


Methyl or ethyl alcohols are the solvents used to dilute shellac and are perfect wetting agents for toner.  Some toners use a plastic that is affected by alcohol so these may not need any shellac for a binder.  The toner I use comes from a Laser recycling operation and consists mostly of HP material. It is very slightly affected by the methanol I use so I decided to try various percentages of shellac for harder chalks.


Making the toner chalks


Mix up some alcohol solutions that have various percentages of shellac. I chose to use commercial white shellac sold in a two pound solution, which means 2 pounds of shellac flakes are dissolved in a gallon of methanol. This is a standard mixture sold in paint stores for use as a sealer on wood.  Using metric measure makes it much easier to get percentages right. I have used 0, 1, 2, 5, and 10% shellac solutions to make chalks. 


Prepare the molding system before you mix the toner and shellac.  I suggest a shallow cardboard box top for the container.  Depending on the size of the box, cut up some strips of litho plates to be a bit wider than the depth of the container.  Organize the area so you get sizes that are appropriate to use. Cut the aluminium into suitable lengths and set aside.  You will place the strips into the toner mixture after it is poured into the container.



A box from 4 x 5 negatives makes a good container for molding toner chalks. The wet mixture in placed inside and shaken to level the top surface. Separating metal strips are inserted to allow for clean breaks for conveniently sized chalks. Next day the chalks are removed and allowed to dry throughout to produce an effective drawing material.


In a stainless steel mixing bowl, pour in some shellac mixture then start putting in toner powder and stirring.  The mixture should be quite stiff but manageable.  After the toner is well mixed to get consistent chalks, pour it into the container to the depth of one of the chalks dimensions. Now shake the container and pat the toner down until it is level on the top. You can insert the aluminium strips as separators along which the toner will come apart when dry.  Place the box in a warm place overnight so the alcohol can evaporate.  I take the toner chalks out of the box next morning and lay them on a piece of paper so the other three sides can be exposed to air. This assures me that the chalks are more homogenous. There may be a thin skin from the way the shellac dries on higher percentages of shellac, but this will help keep your fingers clean. Depending on the roughness of your substrate, it will come off when you draw - or you may use a coarse surface to remove it first. 


In my case, the 0% chalks will make deep marks on recycled plates with little effort.  At 2% they still do quite well on the smooth surface. The 5% chalks are the ones I use for newsprint transfers while the 10% pieces work on the regular ball grained aluminium plates sold for hand printing. In fact they all work in their own way depending on the surface tooth and it can be hard to tell the difference in the image.  I have found that the “wick flow” setting technique works well on all plates as the shellac content is not enough to prevent bonding to the plate.


Transferring the image


The left hand image is what is left on the newsprint after transfering to the plate. The middle image is the ink left on the plate after it was printed. It was flipped to make it easier to compare all three.The right hand image is the print. Note the light tints were I smudged the toner with a finger at the bottom of the test image.


Toner transfer techniques are easy to use and one can get perfect registration every time.  I prefer the grade of newsprint available locally as it is nearly perfectly smooth yet accepts toner chalks well for transfer.  I use a registration pin system so I can print a second and third color from the same sheet as I use the ghost image for toner placement.  The toner chalk goes on like charcoal or black Conte sticks.  I can blend the tones with my fingers to get nice tints – or erase sections.


Since I use recycled plates, the very smooth surface resists transfers so I encourage the toner to stick by wetting the surface with DOT 3 brake fluid. This is a safe material to use as it is made from Polyalkylene Glycol Ether.  I wet a facial tissue lightly and rub the plate in the area of the transfer.  I spread the solution to a very thin film so I can just see the area in reflected light.  The drawing is placed face down on the plate and passed through the press under pressure. Only one pass is needed.  More than enough toner will be on the plate, yet a ghost image remains on the newsprint for registering more colors.  I prefer heat for setting the toner. I use a common paint stripping heat gun for all my toner setting as it is less toxic and safer than using white gas solutions.  The brake fluid will evaporate with the heat necessary to bond the toner to the plate and the image will withstand the odorless paint thinner in the diluted silicone. This technique will also work for traditional lithography using acidic gum etches. Since traditional lithographers will likely use ball grained plates, the toner should transfer very well and the brake fluid can produce problems since it will be harder to get the very thin film.


Use a number of sheets of newsprint instead of one thicker piece of paper. Since paper contains variable thickness of pulp, a single sheet will reproduce these variations. A multiple pad produces a more even output. Use 3-5 sheets of smooth paper for the pad over the drawing.


Toner washes form Mylar


Since we are talking about transfers, one of the other more interesting techniques calls for toner washes done on sheets of Mylar.  The toner is mixed with water and applied with bush or airbush and allowed to dry in a horizontal position.  Most times I place the Mylar over a partially completed print and apply toner to the areas I want more color. After the toner dries, I use a chisel-like tool made from Popsicle sticks, tongue depressors or sharpened round sticks to scrape off the excess toner.  One uses wooden products as these will not mar the soft plastic, yet nicely remove the dried toner.  The flat tools are made by first squaring one end, then producing a bevel similar to a chisel by rubbing on a sheet of fine sandpaper.  These are used to remove the toner from around the image on the print.  Toner chalks drawn on frosted Mylar will allow you to see the underneath image better than does newsprint even when used on a light table.  Use the softer chalks as not all frosted Mylars have sufficient tooth to grab the toner.


While the above two transfer techniques allows you to add colors easily to a partially completed print, they are also used for the initial picture if one does not want to be confused with drawing a mirror image. Different textured papers can be used with great effect.


Another variation on toner transfers is possible by only using light pressure for the first transfer to a plate.  The remaining toner can be transferred by increased pressure to other plates for a multicolored print having an image somewhat like posterization.  Much will depend on the type of toner you use as manufacturers use many different plastics to get the proper fusing temperatures - also protect themselves from patent infringement lawsuits.  You will have to experiment with your toner, but the basic process would be the same.  Using these techniques, one professor on printmaking was having his first year class producing multicolor editions; this was normally left for senior students.


If you produce beautiful prints, please send me a JPG file so I can maybe include it in the gallery on my website at:   My e-mail address in  Have fun!


Nik Semenoff, Artist-in-residence, University of Saskatchewan.