Printing from old blocks - Part 1 - Shrunken colour blocks

(entry by David Bull)

Many, if not most, modern artist/printmakers do not have much chance to deal with old woodblocks, as they make generally small editions and then have no intention of re-printing that particular design. Their blocks are sometimes defaced, or perhaps simply thrown away. In the traditional Japanese printmaking world however, once a woodblock was carved, it was used time and again to make prints, for as long as there was demand for that particular image.

Printers in this tradition thus have to become proficient at taking editions from sets of blocks that have been stored away for quite some time: years ... decades ... even in rare cases, centuries, as happened recently when a set of blocks for a Hokusai book was unearthed in an American museum, and contemporary craftsmen were commissioned to pull an edition from them.

Many problems arise when dealing with old blocks. This page deals with one of them - shrunken colour blocks ...

Traditional Japanese prints were nearly all carved on yamazakura, the Japanese mountain cherry. This wood is quite stable (if dried and cured properly), but like any wood, it absorbs and releases moisture as the humidity in the air around it fluctuates, and thus changes size as time goes by.

The key block and the colour blocks are usually carved on slightly different types of cherry. Heavy and dense wood is chosen for the key blocks, as these commonly contain fine lines. The colour blocks on the other hand, do not usually have much detailed carving, and must be selected for their ability to print clear smooth colour. These blocks are thus less dense, and usually considerably lighter than the key blocks.

One consequence of this is that as the years go by the colour blocks - no matter how carefully they were dried and seasoned before use - tend to shrink more than the key blocks. Such shrinkage nearly always occurs across the width of a plank; the length never seems to vary much.

When doing the first test printing on a job using such old blocks, one frequently finds that the registration is off by two or three millimetres across the width of the block. There are two solutions:

1) If the design is broken up into separated sections, these can be printed separately, with the kento being adjusted to suit. Print the sections of that particular colour block that lie on the half of the board nearest you first. Then, when all copies are done, re-cut the kento as needed, and print the same colour again, this time on the half of the board away from you. This method will obviously not work if the design contains continuously joined sections that span the entire block.

2) Immerse the shrunken colour block in warm water, being careful to keep both sides equally wet (the bathtub works just fine ...)

Measure them carefully before you start, and then check each half-hour or so to see how they are doing. The two boards you see here took just about two hours to reach printable width ... being flipped over every half-hour or so.

My bathtub is sometimes 'home' to all manner of things ... blocks of cherry wood ... bamboo skins ... shark skins ... I wonder how they did it in the old days, when they only had a neighbourhood bath?