Two Baren Technique and Stacked Paper

Now that my semester is winding down, I wanted to get some serious printing done. As you might know, I’m in the process of printing 1,600 copies of 14 designs fo my Appalachian Trail print project. Right now, I’m finishing up 200 copies of my first design, “Springer Mt”.

While I was proofing the prints earlier this year, I naturally learned a lot though trial and error plus observation. I had watched other printers use two barens before- it looked as if several simply used one (presumably the weaker baren) to smooth down the paper onto the block and following up with a stronger one for the real work.

While printing very fine-lined blocks in Japan, I noticed that it doesn’t help to always man-handle printing- fine lines (both positive and negative) need finesse unlike large flat areas. This makes sense: When printing fine and/or sparse lines, the pressure from the baren is concentrated into small areas. Too much pressure and the paper is too deeply embossed, under too much pressure, the paper tends to wrap around the inked lines causing blurred edges, etc.

So, I’ve made a video showing a good example of why printers may want to use two barens- the block I feature has both fine lines and large flat areas.

Getting thick stacks ready

In extension to the paper prep entry I posted a few weeks ago, I mention a way to allow for more ease in grabbing paper from the “to be printed stack”by slightly staggering the stack’s leading edge. To do this, gently bend the face-down stack inward in a slight “U” shape. Gently squeeze with one hand and let the sheets naturally stagger. I’ve seen the trick in China where bankers handle stacks of thousands of yuan bills to make it easier to count.

Don’t use this technique with newly-dampened sheets of paper. Dampen them and let them relax for many hours- overnight is preferable before you bend them as newly-dampened sheets tend to stick to neighboring dryer sheets.

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.

Tanuki Print’s Appalachian Trail Series Progress Report

at flipbook1

Sorry that I’ve been pretty ‘mum’ about any prints lately. Since December I have been very busy designing and printing a series of hand-made fourteen 5″ x 7″ (8″x10″ paper size) shin hanga– style woodblock prints featuring an image from east state along the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. This is at least a 2.5 > 3-year project for me!

I was a thru-hiker back in 1980. 38 yrs later and counting, I continue to re-hike sections of the trail which conveniently starts at Springer Mountain- which is about 30 miles from my home in the North Georgia mountains.

Basically, my idea with this project is to combine two of my interests: backpacking and woodblock printmaking. I’d like to think that it mirrors other historical pilgrimage print series such as Hiroshige’s Tokaido Road.

As an added connection with the trail, I am taking soil samples from each site and integrating the actual dirt with the ink!

Proofs are in the pudding

Here are my printed proofs of the first 7 prints. I hope to finish with all 14 proofs by Dec., 2018 (fingers crossed). The remaining images to be designed and proof printed (the last half) are: NJ, NY, CT, MA, VT, NH, and ME. After all of the 14 prints are proofed, I will then print 100-200 copies of each design– no small feat as the average number of impressions for each design average around 20 colors each- the number of blocks are averaging around 11 each design. The 80+ laminated cherry blocks are stacking up already with an anticipated total number of 165 by the time I am finished. The paper is Iwano Kizuki from Kitaro Washi which will cost at least US$5,000 for the final editions…

It’s interesting to note that this printmaking process has been similar to long-distance hiking- planning is important, but mainly keeping moving with one step at a time and ignoring distractions are the key.

The final edition will be 1600 prints: 14 designs, 20 passes each which equals to 32,000 impressions! My guesstimate is that this will take around a total of 140 8-hour days to print- and at least 3 weeks to bind them- about the same number of days it took me to hike the 2,100 miles of the trail. I’m interested to see which is more difficult…

The ultimate goal is to market 100 sets of these 14 prints to hikers and trail enthusiasts- in 2019 to an institution that I hope is interested. At some point, I will make presentation cases to contain them.

As one of my friends once said “I don’t need luck, I have patience”.

It’s getting a bit more efficient and my turn-around time (while working full-time) for a design from start to proof has gone from around 3 weeks to 9 days! I’m pretty pleased at my ability to accurately print the values and coloring of my initial computer designs.


Cover design
Title Page
Intro letter
1. Springer Mountain, Georgia
2. Clingman’s Dome, North Carolina
3. Roan Mt, Tennessee
4. Shenandoah N.P., Virginia
5. Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia
6. Raven Rock Shelter, Maryland
7. Lehigh Gap, Pennsylvania
8. Sunfish Pond, NJ
9. Bear Mt. Bridge, NY
10. Great Falls, Canaan, CT
mt. greylock nightScan
11. Mt. Graylock, MA
12. Killington Peak, VT
13. Fanconia Notch, NH
14. Mt. Katahdin, ME

at flipbook1– .pdf document similar to the animation above.




Bokashi Jig

Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi Bridge, Hiroshige, 1857

I’ve always wanted to to an irregular bokashi or gradation (yes, my desires are irregular).

The classic example of such a thing is Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi. The problem with irregularity is consistency of ink application within an edition.

Shimoi-san dabs sumi with a tokibo at just the right places. Photo courtesy of Yuya Shimoi.

Last week, Shimoi-san of Ukiyo-e Reproductions showed how he recreated the dark rain clouds while he was printing “Sudden Shower”. I asked him if he used a jig and he said “no, jigs didn’t work as well” and posted a few pics showing his technique of directly inking which is probably the traditional way to do it. However, I’m not good enough to trust myself with placing the pigment, brushing, and printing consistently.

This is a photo from Shimoi-san of the irregular bokashi effect. Nice job! Photo courtesy of Yuya Shimoi.

Getting jiggy

I had remembered David Bull using a jig in 2009 to create a very smooth bokashi arc for a fan print he was working on. He used a Lazy Susan to help with the brushing- I thought that was pretty ingenious.

Dave Bull’s curved bokashi jig. Photo courtesy of

I cannot imagine how someone in the Edo period could brush freehand that cleanly and I’m sure there was another trick at the time. Anyway, Dave’s print really looked nice and I squirreled that information away.

The resulting impression of using Dave’s curved bokashi jig. Photo courtesy of

My jig

I am printing a third print of a series of 14 (much more on that much later) and wanted to capture a rainstorm in the mountains.


You can see the similar effect as in Sudden Shower that I am looking for: A dark, foreboding cloud just as the rain has started, but not as undulating as Hiroshige’s design.

For this print, I am using 11 blocks with 17 impressions in the shin-hanga style. The rain, incidentally, is printed with gofun, or Chinese white. The rain is my first attempt of Kyoto-style printing: Unlike the Tokyo/Edo ukiyo-e transparent style (like the rest of the print), opaque pigments require more pigment- under very light baren pressure. In this case, it’s the last thing to print.

I’m at the proofing process and wanted to get everything ‘just so’ for a much larger edition. I know how gradations tend to ‘creep’ over time- a little or too much there cumulatively can lead to a little or a lot too much there. So, to that end, any fluctuations in the bokashi would render the edition too variable and I wanted some help.

I remembered Dave’s jig and made one of my own, albeit not as clever.

Here’s a few pics:

The jig- basically, 3 pieces of wood with an “L” shape on the left to fit around the block’s corner.
Here’s the backside of the jig.
The jig in action- the idea is for the hanga bake (printing brush) moves along the jig’s irregular contour. I normally would use my left hand to held it in place, but I needed it to take the pic.

Given using the zokin, nori, and hanga bake correctly (note in the above photo, the black dot indicating which side of the brush is loaded with sumi), the jig worked well- I had to keep the brush at a consistent angle, but overall, I’m quite pleased with the relative consistency!

18 proof prints- now on the next design!

Thanks to both Yuya Shimoi and David Bull.