Pressure Points for Hand Printing

This entry is basic but also can provide some advanced printing and design considerations.

Pressure points are very important for the printer– both in the tools used and how they can be used.

Take for instance the baren. The baren shin, or contact surface, features little ‘bumps’ that concentrate pressure from the hand to the printing surface. The fewer the bumps, the more coarse the baren is because more pressure is concentrated into fewer points of contact.

Diagram 1: It’s a bit of an inverse effect as the baren pressure, the smaller the surface area, the less pressure is needed to print. For large areas, a stronger baren (fewer points for concentrated pressure) is required. Since there are fewer points, there needs to be more ‘scrubbing’ to cover the whole large area to be printed.

Incidentally, a thin paper is much easier to print with since a thick paper dissipates pressure applied through it.

Let’s apply the same concepts to areas to be printed on a block (see right):

  • A fine line will require less pressure and therefore, a weaker baren with more bumps works well.
  • Large tsubushi (flat color) block areas require more pressure, so a coarse baren with fewer bumps is necessary- this requires additional strength and more ‘scrubbing’ to cover the area with fewer contact points.

When I print, I sometimes use two barens for the same impression: One for fine lines and one for large shapes. I also press harder in the middle of large shapes- (see diagram 2 below) sometimes requiring the force of two hands.

Diagram 2: An illustration of the edges around a large shape concentrate the pressure the closer to the edge, especially if the baren isn’t held completely flat. A printer has to concentrate more power and strokes in the middle.


Diagram 3: Heron and Crow keyblock fine lines required careful inking and very light pressure with a ‘weak’ 4-strand baren.

When David Bull graciously allowed me to reprint Koryusai’s Heron and Crow (diagram 3), I had issues with inking (a subject for another day), but I was also ‘manhandling’ the fine areas with too much pressure. This tended to fill in the fine detail.



Too Much Pressure -CAN- (albeit rarely)
Be a Good Thing

Diagram 4: “Roan Mt, TN”
Diagram 6 (left): Light pressure to print opaque titanium white pigment for raindrops. Note the thin lines. Diagram 7 (right): Same amount of enlargement and the same carving width as the thinner raindrops above. Over-pressure ‘squishes’ the paper around the carved lines to produce more transparency and a thicker line.


Diagram 5: Ideally, using slight pressure (left) works best to print thin lines. By over-pressing (right), you can thicken the lines, but at a cost of clarity and opacity in this case.

To break some rules, I have noticed interesting and useful effects of using way too much pressure on fine detail. While recently printing opaque titanium white on “Roan Mountain, NC” (Diagram 4: part of my Appalachian Trail Print Collection), I noticed that I could ‘taper’ the rain lines depending on pressure: At the top of the design, I would just barely apply pressure (Diagram 6). Near the bottom, I applied a lot (diagram 7). This ‘over pressing’ seemed to wrap the paper around the edges of the carved block shapes (see diagram 5) which increased the contact with the ink resulting in thicker and more transparent lines.

Pressure, Shape, and Design Considerations

The principle of pressure requirements can effect the design of the print: One block is designated for fine lines using lighter pressure while another of the same color for larger shapes requiring more pressure.

You can often see a fine keyblock printed in a dark gray- let’s say one those classic ukiyo-e geisha designs that include fine hairlines on a head (diagram 8).

Using moderate pressure, the hairlines print well, but the interior of the hair tends to print weakly since the printer doesn’t want to use too much pressure and ‘squish’ the paper into the areas between fine lines.

Diagram 8: One fine block for fine lines, another block containing larger shapes requiring a stronger baren.

To print a clean black for the rest of the hair, another black block with less detail is overprinted so that a more pressure can be applied. The effect of the two black blocks produces both clean thin lines and strongly-printed large, dark areas.

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