This is a somewhat lengthy blog entry investigating some ideas for an effective, affordable printmaking baren for hand burnishing prints.
As I was embarking on a somewhat ambitious print – a hand burnished, 11 colour reduction linoprint of around A3 size – I started to investigate the best tools to transfer the ink to the paper. For all 11 colours and an ideal edition of 50 prints this meant that I was going to be hand rubbing the back of the paper at least 550 times, so I wanted the best tool for the job.
I don’t have a wonderful old cast iron relief press, so hand burnishing each colour was the only real option for me. Although I do have an etching press I have had trouble in the past keeping the image correctly registered when using this for a multiple colour relief print, as the roller can push the paper along (even a 0.5mm discrepancy between layers can be a problem).
For those who may be reading this blog who are new to printmaking, the traditional way to hand burnish a print is using a baren. This is a lightweight, hand-held disk which is used to rub the back of the printing paper after it is placed on the inked block, to transfer the ink into the printing paper. I have a cheap Speedball baren but in all honesty, it doesn’t really cut the mustard, as they say!
One alternative that I use is the smooth back of a large spoon. Rubbed in circular motions (over the back of the paper on the inked plate) this is a pretty effective tool. Another tool I have used most successfully in the past is a porcelain door knob – nice and smooth and easy to grip. However it was pretty clear to me after burnishing the first colour on the first few prints that I was heading for a repetitive strain injury if the spoon/door knob were going to be my main modus operandi for this project.
I started to investigate different kinds of barens and alternatives to a baren and spent a while looking online at what other print-makers were using. A couple of interesting options caught my eye.
The first was a Japanese ball bearing baren which is made from a plastic disc through which up to 612 stainless steel ball bearings are suspended. The balls rotate freely when in use, which delivers multiple pressure points evently across the disc. Bound in black leather with a strong leather handle, this looks like it would have been the answer to my prayers… except the price – around £200 – rather a lot to invest in something I haven’t actually tried.
Some people online have tried making a version of this using drawing pins (metal thumb tacks) pressed into a base, though these would be fixed and not rotate freely as the ball bearings apparently do.
This looks like it might work quite well but not something I was motivated to try.
Another novel kind of baren I came across was made from glass.
It looked easy to grip and I like the idea of using a low friction material like glass. My concern though, with this design, was that the bottom of the baren looks to be completely flat and I wondered about getting enough pressure on thicker papers for efficient transfer of ink.
Thinking about the physics and qualities of a baren that will make light(er) work of hand burnishing, I felt that there were 2 main requirements:
- A lack of friction between the baren and the paper. In my experience barens with a single large flat area in contact with the paper can be quite abrasive (not ideal when the paper must be burnished many times)
- The ability to transfer pressure through a single (or many) point(s) to successfully transfer the ink to the paper. The reason the back of the spoon/my porcelain door knob make a good baren is because the pressure is driven through the small surface area in contact with the paper … but that is also the drawback because that small surface area means a lot of rubbing over an A3 size print! This is why the Japanese ball bearing baren looks like a winner – lots of small areas of pressure combined into one larger area (shame about the price though!)
I was chatting to my teenage son about this dilemma, and the Japanese ball bearing baren, when he rushed to his room and bought out a string of magnetised ball bearings that had been a Christmas stocking present in his youth…
This got us both very excited and somehow we had the idea of arranging them in a spiral (like the Japanese ball bearing baren) on some kind of circular holder (which turned out to be a can of tuna – pretty much the right size, made of metal (to attract the magnetised ball bearings) and with a lip around the edge of the can to hold the ball bearing spiral in place!)… this is our creation – the TunaBaren!
Well I was very excited to try this new idea. It was low friction with many small pressure points and it moved across the paper nice and smoothly. BUT…
The above picture shows the paper lifted back to reveal the lino plate after the TunaBaren has been used for a short time. You can see that on the lino and on the paper, where the TunaBaren has been moved around, there are a mass of swirly lines where ink has been transferred from the many points of contact of the ball bearings. Now, if you repeatedly move the TunaBaren around in lots of small rotating motions these do eventually disappear as every part of the paper is burnished, however there was quite a lot of wear and tear on the back of the paper itself too, and this worried me as I have 11 colours to lay down, which means 11 separate burnishings with the TunaBaren! I was concerned that the paper wouldn’t stand up to it.
It made me wonder if this would also happen with the Japanese ball bearing baren and I was thankful I hadn’t taken a £200 risk. If anyone can enlighten me on this, please do so!
So back to the drawing board it was. I needed to think of something that was equally low friction but with a larger surface area in contact with the paper than the small ball bearings. Mindful of the length of this post, I’ll cut to the chase. Inspired by the glass baren I discovered online, I decided to try to create a baren using glass cabochons. If you don’t know already, these are flattish, glass discs with one flat side and one gently rounded (convex) side. After
hours of investigating possible ideas some deliberation, I decided to glue an arrangement of cabochons onto a wooden half sphere, as this should be a good size and shape to grip.
I bought three sizes of cabochons – 14mm, 16mm and 25mm – and two sizes of wooden half dome – about 80mm and 100mm and experimented with the best layout of cabochons.
And thus… the CabochonBaren
The CabochonBaren is better than the Speedball baren, better than the spoon and better than the TunaBaren! “Better” meaning that the ink transfer was decent and the effort required for ink transfer was markedly less. My porcelain door knob still gives the best ink transfer (but for a lot of effort). With just the spoon and doorknob it took 3 days of printing to get 50+ prints for the first colour. Using mainly the glass cabochon barens, with the porcelain door knob when needed in specific areas, I reduced the time taken from 3 to 2 days to print colours subsequent colours.
The wooden half spheres were lovely to hold and I preferred the larger 100mm size. The jury is still out on whether fewer larger cabochons perform better that more smaller cabochons, though if pushed I would say the latter… I managed to fit 26 x 16mm cabochons and 4 x 14mm cabochons onto the flat face of a 100mm wooden half sphere.
For the record, I am using oil based inks on fairly heavyweight (80gsm), textured and very absorbent (unsized) Awagami Hosho paper for my print, but I am also doing some test prints on thin (100gsm) smooth, wove, Conqueror paper. I think the Hosho was always going to be a challenge without a press as it is so absorbent and quite thick (for a Japanese paper). Although I have read about Hosho having a smooth/rough side, it didn’t seem to matter which side I used as regards the uptake of ink and printing result. One thing I did notice was that the CabochonBaren worked like a dream on the thin smooth Conqueror, so I think with a thinner, sized paper I may just have hit on a winner!
I would love to hear from other printmakers on their experience with various barens. Do get in touch 🙂