Breaking in a new baren

These comments will be addressed to those without much experience of using 'real' barens, so perhaps this section should be entitled: 'Breaking in your FIRST baren'!


When you receive your new baren, do the 'future you' a favour, and try and document as well as you can the condition in which it arrives. The bamboo skin will have been tied by the maker, and as that skin will soon become worn out and will have to be discarded - to be replaced by one you cut and tie yourself, it will be a long time before you ever see one tied that well again! A long long time!

So get out your camera and notebook and try to capture exactly how it looks. Count how many 'tucks' are taken on each 'corner', measure how much skin overlaps over onto the top surface, inspect how the string is tied on the handle ... check just how tightly the handle is tied ... take some extremely close-up photos ...

When the day does come that this skin is just too worn to use any more - remove it very carefully (also checking exactly how the string was tied), soak it in water, and lay it flat for inspection. KEEP IT as a sample template for cutting future skins! Believe me, you will save yourself much grief if you do these things. (Unless of course, you have an expert baren user living nearby to show you how to re-tie it - and to show you again, and again, and again, until you finally start to get it down ...)


Before you can use your new baren, the skin must be lightly lubricated with camellia oil. This oil has a couple of functions:

  • it of course helps the baren to slide smoothly over the surface of the paper, without tearing the fibres.
  • it deters absorption of the paper moisture up into the bamboo skin. The skin is always moistened before tying, to make it flexible and supple, but is then allowed to dry before use. If it starts to pick up moisture from the paper, it will become too soft to use ...

Prepare some cloth about 15cm square - thick enough to form a soft 'pad' on which the baren can rest during the printing process. This pad will gradually become fairly saturated with the oil, and you will not have to apply new oil very often. Use a type of cloth that doesn't shed lint easily.

Most printers keep a little bottle of the oil at their bench, and use a cotton swab to dab some on the baren when necessary. I have found it useful to keep the oil in a small plastic 'squeeze bottle' - it is very easy to apply just the right amount. Put a bit of oil on the skin, and then rub the baren vigorously on its pad. The bottom surface will pick up a nice sheen.

Note: using other types of oil is most definitely not recommended. Sewing machine oil (watch oil, etc.) leaves oil stains in the finished prints, and vegetable oils soon become rancid. Camellia oil does neither ... And yes, the older printers here in Japan (the ones who still have hair), easily get a quick 'recharge' of the oil on their baren by wiping it across their head ...

Another note: the baren should never be left sitting on its pad (except during the actual printing work). The skin becomes soggy from the oil and from not having a chance to air out. Whenever pausing in the work for more than even a few minutes, flip it over on its 'back' to expose the working surface to the air. At the end of the day always put it away on a shelf, exposed to the air. Don't keep it shut up in a tight box.

Rotating the inner coil

When using the baren, always remember that the inner section must be rotated occasionally inside the skin. This is to ensure that the bumps of the inner coil do not always press against the same places of the skin. If allowed to do so, they will wear through very quickly - but before they do, you will notice a great decrease in the 'power' of the baren, as the bumps dig into the skin and lose their effectiveness.

The coil is rotated by holding the baren flat in one palm, and using three or four fingers of the other hand to press the ategawa and twist it in place. (A very slight moistening of the fingers sometimes helps).

A new tightly tied baren skin can be extremely difficult to rotate. Tapping the edge of the baren lightly on the printing desk can sometimes help jog it 'loose' a bit.

On heavy printing jobs, the coil is rotated after every impression - on light jobs much less frequently.

High spots

A problem that occurs with all new barens, even the best-made of them, is the existence of 'high spots' on the coil. There is simply no way that the maker can get the coil wound in such a way that every single bump on the coil projects to exactly the same distance. Some of them are inevitably slightly higher than others. These projections will cause two problems: visible marks in the print, and rapid wear and tear of the skin.

There is nothing you can do about them when you first get your new baren, as you don't yet know where they are. The only way to find them is to use it for a time, and then inspect the coil (with the skin off ...). Hold the coil up to the light (don't take it out of the ategawa) and look at the projections. You will see a couple of these have probably become shinier than the others. These are the high spots.

Place the coil flat on the table, and using a nail with the point filed off, gently tap them down a fraction. Tie a new skin on, and use the baren some more. Repeat as necessary ...

I mentioned not taking the coil out of its place in the ategawa. The cord is not sewn into a coil shape very tightly, and each time you take it out and put it back, it re-adjusts itself into a new position, and you may find problems with new high spots cropping up. Try and leave it alone as much as possible ...

Adjusting the 'plane' of the baren surface:

Each maker has his own pattern of ategawa construction - some make the baren almost perfectly flat in shape, some make a slightly convex curve. This can have a dramatic affect on the action of the resulting baren.

A completely flat baren spreads its pressure across the entire disc surface, while a convex one concentrates the pressure on a smaller portion of this surface. In addition to this, some printers believe in squeezing the handle extremely tightly during the printing process, pulling the disc up into a sharper convex shape. Other hold it very lightly, leaving it in its 'natural' shape.

It is a very common practice of printers to adjust the curve of the face of the baren to their own personal taste by inserting a series of thin paper 'shims' between the coil and the ategawa. I have done this with one of my barens, using a 'stack' of six extremely thin discs of paper, sized from 10cm down to about 2cm in diameter. This gives a very natural and gentle curve to the face, and helps me concentrate the pressure just where I need it.

Gosho-san doesn't agree with me. He thinks I should leave it the way he made it. But it's my baren now, and I'll adjust it the way I like it !


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