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Glue and Sizing questions ...

Posted by Dave Bull at 6:23 AM, May 3, 2011 [Permalink]

It has been nearly a year since I made the decision to take on the job of sizing the paper for my printmaking. As I wrote early last year, the quality of the sizing work from the professional workshop I was using had degraded to the point where the paper was becoming unusable, so I felt that I had no choice. Last summer I prepared some tools and materials, made some initial experiments, and since then have been sizing the paper batch by batch for each particular job that comes up. So far, so good. Problem faced, problem basically solved.

But a couple of months ago I got a phone call from printer Numabe-san that seemed to put me back to square one.

He was calling to let me know that he had just heard that the prime company supplying nikawa ( 膠 ), Japanese gelatine glue [reference], had gone out of business. When I didn't react particularly strongly to this news - after all, I hear that sort of thing all the time - he reformulated it, saying something to the effect of, "Dave, you don't understand. Not just the major nikawa supplier, the only one."

Even so, at first I didn't quite believe him. After all, nikawa is used in many other fields, not just printmaking. It is very important in Japanese traditional painting, lacquer work, doll making, etc. and etc. Surely this was not a case of a company folding because of a lost market. But it turned out that his news was correct. I called Misawa-san - the man who used to do my sizing - and he at first thought that this news was not credible, and that I must have misunderstood. He called back not ten minutes later; it was true. The company, his only supplier, had disappeared, and without giving him a chance to stock up.

That was all some months ago, and since then this news has buzzed and buzzed around the world of traditional crafts in Japan. Nobody seems to know just what happened, but it also seems quite clear that the company isn't coming back. Phone calls to all sources of nikawa all meet with the same response, "Sorry, nothing here".

I have on hand enough nikawa to last me (probably) to the end of the Mystique series, although if I use some of it for the new Senshafuda project, it may not actually last that long. Time for Plan B.

And Plan B might actually be quite simple. A million years ago, give or take a few years, I used to make guitars. As is the habit with violin makers (as I understand it), at least one 'face' of the instrument has to be glued in place with a reversible glue, to allow access to the interior of the instrument for maintenance and repairs. The glue for this has traditionally been one or another of the various hide glues, with 'rabbit skin glue' being the most common. I remember these quite well, and it seems to me that the composition of those glues was not all that different from our nikawa.

A bit of online research seems to confirm this; they are all basically the same thing - animal collagens. When used as glue, they are obviously mixed in a stronger form than we do for sizing, but it certainly does seem to be the same basic product.

So I searched a few overseas suppliers of materials for musical instrument makers, found some hide glues, and placed some orders. A couple of the samples have now arrived, and - here we go again! - when it comes time to size the paper for Mystique #13 in a week or so, I'll have to do some tests with these to see if they seem suitable.

Here's a rubbery five-pound 'cake' of hide glue:

And ten pounds (love those funny units the US suppliers all use!) of a granulated hide glue.

In closeup:

I would certainly like to have a lot more information on just what these glues are made from (as in which animals, etc.), but given that there is no such information available for our nikawa for comparison, I suppose it doesn't much matter. (That granular one in particular is pretty much identical to my packages of nikawa in structure, feel and smell.)

But of one thing I am very glad - that I had a chance to get a good bit of experience at doing my own paper sizing before this crisis developed. If I were now starting completely from scratch, I honestly wouldn't know where to start ...

More later, as the situation develops!


Following comment posted by: Hannah on May 3, 2011 11:14 PM

If you figure this one out. It could benefit a lot of the people trying to sort out an alternate process.

Following comment posted by: Tom Kristensen on May 3, 2011 11:52 PM

Nice work Dave. I have a handful of Nikawa sticks, I guess I'll keep them for museum exhibits. I think you will find collagen from any animal will do the job.

Following comment posted by: Jerise Fogel on May 4, 2011 12:07 AM

Rabbit-skin glue is used all the time by artists who work with gesso. Check out Margaret Krug's book, *An Artist's Handbook: Materials and Techniques,* p. 142-3, for a description of how to create glue from the granules for use as a "sizing" on wood panels.

Following comment posted by: chris on May 4, 2011 3:30 AM

Hi All-
My name is Chris I am the Japanese woodblock professor at SVA in New York. When I was in Japan studying woodblock my professor at the time brought me over to the painting department where he showed me a 55 gallon barrel of Rabbit skin glue. He said to me that you can substitute this for nikawa. In essence a hide skin glue is one of our oldest bonders known to man. It is still readily used in many different industries. Such things as gorilla glue or le pages glue are a hide skin glue. We grew up with them. I have heard that nikawa was either fish skin glue or deer skin glue. I do not know for sure. However it is quite easy for anyone to get there hands on either. Both Talas and Kremer pigments sell a wide variety. The toughest that I am told is the sturgeon glue, kind of a miracle substance (a russian curator once told me they use it in making space suites). It looks like to me David that you have picked the bovine from Talas. I would bet that is the exact same stuff. Since in the past I have seen little flecks of red in my nikawa sticks. It is always a little scary to have to change something in a recipe after years of learning how to do something. But I think this is a minor speed bump in the field of block printing. I would suggest using the purer glues to boil down and leave the bottles on the shelf (who knows what they put in Gurilla glue). I would also recommend whatever you pick to size your paper with that you use the same in your ink. My professor was a big fan of sizing paper - he told me that for every different type of paper you use it will need a different sizing- which of course will vary upon what climate you are in. So his advice about sizing was always make some little test sheets before you size your entire edition stack of paper to print. My own experience shows me that he is right to say that. Sometimes it helps, other times just extra work. But in the end you know that your paper is sized right.

Following comment posted by: eli on May 4, 2011 5:17 AM

Don't forget common gelatin. It's in a very refined, fine powder form, as well as sheets and granule.

The powder type is used by, for instance, by photographers whom make sensitized photographic tissue for making high quality Carbon Prints.

Following comment posted by: Peter Miller on May 4, 2011 11:28 PM

Have you tried using kanten (seaweed)?

Following comment posted by: Simona Hernandez on April 5, 2013 9:35 PM

I was advised to use rabbit skin glue on the edges of my dampened watercolor paper to keep the paper from warping while wet. It was easily purchased from the local art supply store but I must have used too strong of mixture because I had difficulty removing the paper from the masonite board after I completed my painting. I never got all the paper off the board. Good luck...you may want to ask an art conservator about the glue.

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