Tying the Baren Cover (entry by David Bull)
(clicking any image will show a larger version in a popup window - this will always be the same window, so keep it open on your desktop and switch back and forth between it and this window)
Photos courtesy of Sadako Ishizaki ... thank you!
'Comic' version of this tutorial is here ...
It's a bit hard for me to believe now, but I used my first Japanese baren for literally years without changing the cover. Why so hard to believe? Well now with quite a few barens on hand, and sometimes changing them daily, the idea of using one for such a long time is simply inconceivable.
One reason that it 'lasted' so long is that I wasn't really using it properly - I didn't put much strength behind my rubbing, and the bamboo skin cover thus did last a long time. But of course it gradually developed holes and torn spots, and I struggled with tape and whatever I could think of to keep it together.
Looking back now, I regret very much that I treated the tool so badly; it should have been a matter of common sense that a printer should keep his primary tool in good condition ...
But changing the cover is a difficult job. In one sense it's quite straightforward - just moisten a piece of bamboo, wrap it around the baren, and tie it somehow on top. That method works alright ... if you are not so demanding about how you intend to use the tool, and if the kind of printing you are doing does not involve too much physical pressure. But if you need good control over the tool, and certainly if you wish to be able to print deep and smooth colour, the baren must be tied correctly - and correctly in this case means tightly!
Let me 'walk' you through a series of photographs taken as I tied one of my barens ...
(Please note: I am left-handed. That doesn't make any difference at all in the way that a baren is tied, as it is of course a symmetrical tool, but it might make it a bit difficult for you to 'copy' what you see in these photos. If this bothers you, just download the images to your own computer, and 'flip' them in a graphic program ...)
Here are the tools and materials I use:
- The bare baren ready for covering is resting on a plank of hard cherry wood. This particular board is used only for this baren-tying job - it must be perfectly smooth with no dents or deep scratches. Softer wood is not suitable, nor is a board that is too hard.
- A length of strong cord is ready (actually the same length that just came off the old cover a moment ago). Not visible in the photograph are the small knots tied at each end (to allow the cord to be gripped and pulled tightly during tying).
- I use a pair of strong shears to cut the skin to the correct shape.
- The black object is a stone, for rubbing the skin to break down the rough fibres.
- At the top are a few rolled-up bamboo skins from which I will choose a good skin, and a hand towel rounds off the 'bill of materials'.
Here are two skins:
... the one that will be most suitable for the baren cover is the light-coloured one. Skins with large areas of brown are nearly always too soft and soggy to make a good cover.
Only unroll it far enough to test the thickness with your fingers; opening it up any farther than this will almost certainly crack or split it. In general, a thinner skin is preferable to a thicker one - it might not last quite as long, but it will be much more responsive in use.
It is not necessary for the skin to have any advance preparation - soaking, etc., etc. When you are ready to put a new cover on your baren, simply select a skin and take it over to the sink. Unroll it under running water ...
... opening it up bit by bit and allowing the water to flow along the length of it.
Once it is open, flip it over and get the entire skin good and wet. Around a minute should do it. Using warm water helps to prepare the skin for the subsequent steps.
The next part of the procedure is designed to get the skin softened up:
Roll it up into the light towel, leaving an inch or so of the root end of the skin protruding from the roll.
Time for some flute playing! Spend a minute or so blowing through the roll as you squeeze tightly while running your hand down the length of the towel, bending the skin at a sharp angle as you do so. Your warm and moist breath will leave the skin very soft and supple.
Move on to the second page ...