Alternative types of baren
Not having a baren 'handy' around the house when I was making my first printmaking experiments didn't stop me - not should it stop you. Here is a collection of different ideas and tools that may be of use to those in a similar situation ...
The tool I used during those first experiments was a bamboo spoon - the flat kind used for scooping rice from a rice cooker. It had a wide and smooth back that slid easily across the paper. It was impossible to make smooth colours, as the contact area was relatively small, and lines thus appeared in the prints, but it worked.
(It had another small side effect - my children grew up calling rice scoops 'barens', and I guess that's the term they'll always use for them ...)
I have an excellent book on printmaking here in front of me at the moment, one aimed at the thousands of people here in Japan who make woodblock prints as a hobby. The author, Mr. Katsuyuki Nishijima, gives a number of baren alternatives:
- Take a 'hand' sized flat block of wood, and wrap tough cord tightly around it in a smooth pattern, with the 'coils' lying side by side. Staple the ends to the wood to hold it in place. Tie a bamboo skin over this, with the ends brought up on top to form a handle, like a real baren. Very cheap and very effective.
- Make a 'cheapie' baren yourself. For the backing disk use a circle cut from thin plywood, and for the 'coil', roll a length of electrical wire into a circular pattern. Glue this to the disk, and then cover as usual with bamboo leaf.
- Use a coffee can lid. Hold it upside down and rub it on the back of the paper.
- Some particular coasters, designed for hot coffee cups or teapots, can be very effective. These are made from coiled twine, and are in a circular shape. Select one that fits in the open hand, or trim down a larger one.
- For the ultimate in cheap 'barens', take a large handkerchief, fold it into a long narrow shape, and then roll this tightly around the fingers, gripping the loose end with the thumb. The pressure is then applied to the paper with your protected knuckles. (But I don't think you should plan particulary large editions if you are using this method!)
- Use a standard-issue rubber printing roller.
A book written in England in the earlier part of this century - Wood-Block Printing, by F. Morley Fletcher - discusses some baren alternatives.
Several substitutes have been tried in place of the Japanese baren, with coverings of leather, shark's skin, celluloid, and various other materials, but these necessitate the use of a backing sheet to protect the paper from their harsh surfaces.
An ingenious rubber of ribbed glass which works directly on the paper has been devised by Mr. William Giles, who has produced beautiful results by its means.
Another English book from the same era - Colour Block Print Making, by Hesketh Hubbard - introduces a porcelain baren.
Walter Phillips' book on printmaking (1926) contains the following passage:
The printing pad, or baren, as it has come to be called, is not yet standardized in the West, as it has been for more than a century in Japan. The Japanese baren is a most efficient tool, but dependent upon a steady supply of bamboo leaf which forms its outer covering. The body is made up of a disc of cardboard, overlaid by a closely woven web of twisted bamboo leaf. Horsehair is sometimes added. The cover, flat on the underside, is twisted on the other, and its two ends tied to form a handle. Buy one if you can - there is nothing so good.
A substitute, of hard wood, is easily constructed. My own is merely a disc with one ribbed face, with a block of wood forming a grip screwed or glued to the other. The disc should be four or more inches in diameter, and a quarter to one inch in thickness. The ribs may be anything from four to twenty to the inch. The larger ribs necessitate a thicker wood, and are made on a planing machine. The small ones are cut on a wood-engraver's ruling machine, or they may be dug out laboriously by hand with a V-tool or a graver. They should be moulded into fairly shallow rounded shapes, because a cup-shaped depression will occasion suction in rubbing, that is, besides forcing the printing paper down to the wood it will tend to raise it again, which is awkward. At intervals wipe the face of the baren with an oil rag, unless like the oriental a rub on the back of your head will give a similar result.
It is advisable to interpose a sheet of butter paper in printing, as a protection to the print, though it is not always necessary. You will need also a rag or a sponge for cleaning the blocks after each impression.
I have not yet mentioned any of the host of substitutes for the baren, except my own, which I have found to be effective. Mr. Giles has one constructed of ribbed glass, with a wooden grip glued to the disc. Sharkskin, book-muslin and other kinds of cloth have been recommended as a substitute for bamboo leaf. Cloth of any kind is especially futile, at least that is my experience; apparently other artists have found it useful for it is frequently mentioned. Such unlikely tools as a photographer's squeegee (a rubber roller), and a cocoa tin lid, give results.
(I'm not so sure if he had a very good understanding of what a real baren was like - The body is made up of a disc of cardboard - but his suggestions on alternatives may perhaps be useful ...)
It seems that Phillips made all of his hundreds of woodblock prints (and thousands of impressions) using these wooden barens with ribbed faces.
So no more complaining because you can't afford the best! Get out a block of wood, carve yourself a good tool for printing, make a bunch of prints, sell them, and then use the money to buy a real baren!