Warning: This chapter contains a lot of geeky, technical information often going beyond the basics of Japanese-style printmaking. To add context, please refer to Woodblock.com’s extensive Encyclopedia entries.
I apologize in advance if you already know these things… That said, Dave Bull would regularly remind me [paraphrased]: “There are often more ways than one to do these things- you should look, listen, and try one way and then another, and then compare the results. One advantage is to think outside the box”. And he is right as evidenced by his, and others’ work and innovations. So to that end, here are a few things to consider…
Printing Brush Prep
Printing brushes (maru and hanga bake) have stiff hairs for a reason- you need the firmness to move pigment and paste around the blocks. On the other hand, a firm, stiff hair leaves a streak. Usually, mokuhanga requires smooth pigment application, so to get the best of both worlds, the tips need to be softened by a mechanical process of rubbing along a rough surface (sharkskin, ‘dragonskin’, coarse sandpaper, etc.). I was able to compare the “pre-conditioned” brushes from Matsumura and the ones at the print studio and the latter were noticeably softer. Here, I am conditioning a maru bake.
The first step: Singeing the Brush Hair
After you get a new brush, the next step is to form it (see brush profile pic above). The traditional way is to melt the hairs using a hotplate. I made my own setup to fit on top of an electric element. It’s a pretty stinky and hot process. Some folks simply trim with scissors although I find that the melting technique is a bit quicker and easier to be consistent.
The Next Step: The Old Grind
Shark skins have unique properties and are valued by craftspeople for a number of purposes. This angel shark skin features thousands of serrated tooth-like dermal denticles [see images]. 90-grit sandpaper can also work if you don’t have access- large sanding belts provide a longer surface to use. I’ve seen folks use powered machinery, but this really isn’t that much work to me.
The technique that works best for me is to:
- Dampen the brush ends- I use a plate to pick up a few droplets of water.
- Hold the brush flat and push from the tail to the head in long strokes in North>South>East>West degrees for about 50 strokes each direction.
- Then on the side fins, vigorously grind the brushes in short, hard strokes pushing the hairs so that you can feel the hairs grab. It helps me to support the brush hairs from the back with my thumbs to make sure a strong contact against the sharkskin or sandpaper is made.
- It should produce a kinda gross brown powder build-up.
- If hairs protrude, it’s best to trim them with scissors rather than pulling them out since tightly-packed hairs are what’s keeping them in the brush.
When I was shown the process by experience printers in Japan, I aped what I saw. I wasn’t able to get anywhere for many hours. I did successfully rip the tip of my finger open which got me a little mad, [see pic of my finger] but this also got me thinking: I needed to rip the hairs just as I did my finger.
After doing the ~30 initial strokes to roughen up, I finally was able to feel the hairs ‘grip’ the sharkskin- really grip them.
To consider when to stop, look for a light brown color developing on the face of the brush- an almost velvety look indicative of a well-conditioned brush. I also diagnosed the softness of the tips by rubbing it against my cheek.
Problems: The middle of the brush had a slight dip. We concluded that that area had the most contact with the sharkskin.
I asked Kubota-san why the ‘dip’ in the middle and he explained to me that I should rub the brush 50 times FLAT. He said that I should rub each brush in the following directions: North, South, East, West, 45°, 135°, 225°, 315°, the on the ‘CORNERS’ of the brush in all NSEW directions top and bottom. I’m not good at math, but this is 16 angles x 50= 800 strokes. Maybe I’m lazy, but I found that the brushes didn’t need that much attention.
Here’s a short video to get a feel of it:
So, what are we looking for microscopically? There was a bit of deliberation on the question: Are the tips of the brush tapered or ‘frizzed’? Suga-san (who worked at the Adachi Institute for 5 years) and Mr. Kenichi Kubota, master printer at Adachi discussed this. I personally was at a loss with my lack of language skills to comprehend the vast majority of what was said, but I think that ‘tapered’ won out (see diagram).
Brush Jigs for Hanga Bake
Like I said earlier, I use my thumbs to keep the hairs from bending too much while rubbing against the skin (once again, this is a bit tricky to avoid fingers being ground). If you are sharpening a hanga bake (the more ‘paintbrush’ like tool), it’s advised to wrap the brush with a jig and twine so that only the tips are being ground. The printers wrapped them tightly using wooden strips with holes on both sides to keep things stable. If someone knows how to make a jig for maru bakes, please tell me.
Watching a Brush Maker on Asakusa Dori
I stumbled across a brush maker on Moto Asakusa near Ueno Park. I watched Mrs. Miyagawa work and the process looked relatively simple- I’m sure it’s a lot harder than it looks. Hanks of horse hair are cut and gathered, loop light wire through holes in the wooden brush base. The hairs are threaded into the wire loop half way and the hairs are pulled into the holes. I purchased a couple of smaller maru bake brushes and she gave me a small hanga bake. Nice lady! A more in-depth report on the shop can be found here.