Alternatives to the 'Hon Baren'
With the price of the least expensive (I hesitate to say 'cheapest') real baren now running at about 80,000 yen, it is no surprise that many alternatives are on the market. Some of these are useful - some less so. Here is a short run-down on some easily obtainable barens.
The high cost of the 'hon' baren reflects the large amount of time needed in its construction. For makers trying to produce cheaper alternatives, the first thing they must do is reduce the amount of hand work needed, and there are two areas in which time can be saved: the ategawa backing disc, and the coil itself.
The 'Ki-urushi' baren
'Ki' is the Japanese term for wood, and 'urushi' is lacquer. This backing disc of this baren is thus made of wood covered with lacquer (carefully applied by hand in the traditional way). The inner coil is the standard wound bamboo coil of the 'hon' baren.
There honestly isn't a lot of difference between this and the 'hon' baren. When the multi-layered paper of a real ategawa gets very old (many decades), it starts to get soft and loses its 'spring'. This wooden disc would presumably not soften like that; on the other hand it may be more prone to breakage, an unheard of thing with the layered-paper.
Just as the price of the baren can be reduced by using a substitute for the ategawa, so can it be reduced by finding an alternative for the coil. The same maker who produces the 'ki-urushi' baren listed above, also makes the:
In this baren the disc of hand lacquered wood has been replaced by a disc of spray-lacquered plywood. The inner coil is made of a braided cord, rather than the many tiny strips of bamboo skin. The cord used is one known as 'Tetron', and is extremely tough and resilient. These barens are capable of very powerful application and are not for use on delicate and finely carved work. The maker supplies them in two sizes, and two strengths. (Murasaki is the Japanese word for purple - the colour of the cord inside these barens.)
These barens are nifty little tools. I use one myself for those times when I want a bit of extra power. (Their small diameter also makes it easier to apply power, but the 10cm is just too small to be practical, I think.) Note also that the price is just about 1/10th that of a real baren. For the beginner, or someone trying to get more selection in his baren collection, these are a great choice - if you can handle the power!
These came up about ten years ago, and now are made by a few different people here in Tokyo. They all work on the same system: an array of small ball bearings is held between perforated plates in such a way that just the tip of each ball is exposed to roll across the paper.
They also are capable of a very powerful application. I'm not sure just what this does to the woodblock with extended use, but if you are looking for a way to print deep colours without breaking into a sweat, or if you are concerned about strain injuries, this may be the way to go.
The most common type comes in four 'flavours': with 'quiet' or 'muffled' bearings, and with 'more' or 'fewer' bearings per inch.
Note that the ball-bearing barens do NOT use a wrapping of bamboo skin. They have a handle of coiled leather glued/attached to the upper surface. The entire way of holding them and applying force is completely different from the traditional baren.
This is another 'ultra-modern' substitute for the real baren also needing no bamboo skin wrapping. On this baren the lower face of a simple white plastic disc is covered with a vacuum formed plastic on which bumps have been raised.
For those who have absolutely no access to any other type of baren, this can be a useful tool, but it has one extremely large drawback - a large and clumsy plastic handle is formed on the top of the disc, and this makes it impossible to hold the tool in such a way as to allow the force to be properly transmitted. When using a baren the pressure of the body must be applied down through the arm and into the paper through the base of the palm, but that is impossible with this baren. I took one of these barens, sliced the handle off and replaced it with a leather strap, and it became useable - barely.
In addition to the tools listed here, a wide range of student barens is also available. The word 'student' attached to many of these tools is deceptive, and can mean either college-level art student, or Grade 3 handicraft class student. Price is a general guide. Quite decent tools for those college students (with plastic backing discs and cord coils) are available at 4,000 ~ 6,000 yen.
My local drug store has stuff at the other end of the scale - 500 yen (or cheaper). These are totally unuseable for anything other than children's playtime.
So which of these do I use myself? My main barens are described on another page, but there are sometimes occasions when a less expensive tool is more appropriate.
I use a student baren with a plastic ategawa and fibre coil when I do embossing using metal type, as I don't want to expose my main barens to the extra wear and tear this brings. I also have a very wide baren (about 15+cm) which has no coil inside; a circle cut from a sheet of sandpaper is inserted instead. This is covered as usual with bamboo skin. This results in a baren with almost no 'power' - very useful for printing areas of widely scattered small carvings.
I guess I have five or six barens in regular use - contrast this with the more than a dozen used by most of the traditional printers here in Tokyo. Their work is far more varied than mine, and they have to be ready to handle anything that is thrown their way.