Four Patent-pending Paper Preparation Ponderings

This post kind of confirms (and consolidates) several techniques I have learned from other people in order to prepare paper for mokuhanga.

heron crow
Heron and Crow- carving by David Bull


1. Go with the Grain

While I was printing in Tokyo, I was having a terrible time with registration issues while printing the “Heron and Crow” design by Koryusai (1735–1790) . Dave Bull cut to the chase and asked how I had cut the paper.

I explained to him that all I really ever considered was to be most efficient with the dimensions because of cost and mitigating waste.

I was embarrassed to hear that I should always cut the long dimension with the grain (see diagram for reasons why). Apparently, the Heron and Crow paper grain was at odds with the wood which compounded problems greatly. I also mixed and matched in that I had the grain going horizontal in some and vertical in others which amounted to insanity. Dave explained to recognize the grain direction and just “go with it” for all of the printing steps.

©2018 Tanuki Prints

2. Protect the Corners

No huff this stuff

When prints require numerous colors- my current prints average 20 impressions, the corners that fit into the kentos (registration guides) take a beating. When I watched Dave Bull print in Ōme, Japan during Dec., 2002, he showed me a trick for printing shin-hanga– using nail polish to strengthen the corner. I use two coats of SuperDry® nail polish from the local DollarTree store- 95¢ and is DA BOMB!

I must admit that fingernail polish aroma adds a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the studio.

3. Keeping Track

I also number the prints on the verso using pencil. I can’t tell numberingyou how many times this was come in handy- especially during printing the first impression which allows me to orient the paper correctly since there is no previously-printed image as a guide.

4. FLAT is Where It’s At

I have come to the conclusion that conditioned maru bake brushes are good, smoothly-ground pigments are very nice, and a good hon baren is a treasure, but second to using a quality paper- having flat woodblocks and flat paper are the key to getting smooth impressions.


About year ago, I have discovered (and extolled) the virtues of a flat wood block. An uneven or unsmoothed block allows for splotches and woodgrain (unless unintentional). In a nutshell, my prep process is as follows: (1) planing (2)rough orbital sanding- 120 grit (3) fine sanding -1500 grit (4) wet sanding (5) fine sanding-1500 grit (6) bluffing with rouge to a near-mirror finish.

drying washi
drying new washi on wood boards


As a printmaking grad student, I heard about flattening the paper to prepare for printing, or, calendaring. I thought at the time that that must be a complete waste of effort. I later heard letterpress printers talking about the presses “kissing” the plate- meaning that the paper made a gentle contact with the inked block to retain sharp printing. Such finesse just couldn’t happen with a a rough paper.

To get a good impression with Japanese-style woodblock, the same is true- if not more so.

“In mokuhanga, a smooth paper is even more important.”

Apparently, washi– even the highest quality- is getting rougher as the years go on. The planks that the paper is dried on are eroding without easy replacement and instead of planing them smooth, the old, rough boards impart their rough surface to the paper.

goma-zuri from light printing with no paste on rough paper

A not-smooth paper gives a non-directional blotchiness similar to goma-zuri (sesame printing) that results from light printing and not using paste.

If you want a pronounced goma effect, you might print the goma first, then calendar the paper- although this may stretch the paper resulting in bad registration… maybe- I’ve never attempted it…

Initially, I had first smoothed the prints with a beta (clear color impression) block using a ball bearing baren. This worked OK, but really didn’t get the paper very smooth and I ran the risk of baren suji (printing marks).

While working at Mokuhankan for a month, I saw David Bull use an etching press. I tried this recently and yes, I don’t think that any human can compete with the utter silky smooth results.

Here’s a video of me calendaring paper (with a groovy trip-hop soundtrack):

The process takes a while, but unlike the ‘younger me’, I am sure that it will save time in order to get smoother impressions.

NOTE: I would also add that several folks over-size (re-coat the paper with animal glue and alum) with dosa. The present John is too chicken to do this.

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