Alternative Ideas for a Printmaking Baren

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!

types of printmaking baren

Speedball baren, large serving spoon and porcelain door knob!

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.

ballbearingbarenThe 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.

power_baren_bottomSome 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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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…

magnetised ball bearings

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!

TunaBaren 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

alternative printmakers baren


alternative printmaking baren


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 🙂





25 thoughts on “Alternative Ideas for a Printmaking Baren

  1. Great ideas, you should start up in competition with “which” , reviews for printmakers. Might get some free stuff to try lol.
    Next time you are at carboot or charity shop investigate old glass decanter stoppers. Some big ones make a good glass “frog” but with curved edges like your doorknob ☺

  2. I’ve used the expensive ballbearing baren. A friend who does moku hanga let me try hers out because I have problems with my dominant arm and wrist. It worked beautifully. The baren had enough weight itself so that I didn’t have to add to much pressure. The ballbearings really do rotate quite freely so there was very little friction and the coverage was good. If I did more hand printing I would have definitely saved up for it!

  3. I’ve only made a few hand-pulled prints in the past two years. In that short period of time I’ve used four items as barons and finally settled on one.
    First, as most people do, I started with spoons. Initially a wooden spoon, then a metal spoon and later the back of an antique ice cream scoop. I still use the scoop when I want to focus my pressure on a small area, but my go-to baron is the lens from one of those magnification lights. You know, those big magnifying glasses on an adjustable arm you can mount to a desk? I had salvaged the magnifying glass from an old one, and noticed as I was using a new one while carving my block, that the convex shape and smooth glass surfice may work for a frictionless movement across the paper, and it did. Also, the size was pretty easy to grip. I’m going to try gluing a handle to it next. I’ll send a picture if you want.

  4. Such interesting ideas! I hand burnish all my prints and use oil based inks and print on fairly thin Japanese printmaking papers. I have a favourite wooden spoon, sometimes for fine carved detail I use a metal serving spoon. I also have various barens which are good for a light pressing or for the initial burning to smooth the paper onto the block. I also have a small cylindrical ceramic jar which is easy to hold and does a great job – tis was inspired by seeing a Chines printmaker who uses short lengths of hard plastic pipe to burnish his prints.
    To prevent friction and damage to the paper I often use a sheet of oil-paper under the baren/spoon/burnishing tool.

  5. I use Ategami paper to back my printing paper and protect it from my bamboo baren. It’s pretty cost effective and low friction. In a pinch I’d just use grease proof/baking paper from the kitchen. It doesn’t last as long for moku hanga because of the damp paper but for Lino I don’t see there would be any issues.

    Great ideas though. Got to be creative sometimes.

    • If you just search online for wooden half sphere and glass cabochons you should find plenty of options… My glass cabochons were from an eBay seller and the smaller wooden balls were from … can’t remember where i got the larger one but it wasn’t too hard to find a supplier via the above search… hope that helps and best of luck

  6. Bamboo barrens are great. Cheap and easy to replace. Usually a plastic disc with a handle and covered with bamboo. Flat and smooth and a bit flexible. Easy to work as the pressure is even over the whole batren area. Make sure you use a piece of cheap paper between the barren and the back of your printing paper. Also the types of ink makes a difference a less sticky ink with transfer easier than a tacky one.

  7. Thank you for doing this research! Like you the price of theses barens are too restrictive when you haven’t been able to test them. I am certainly going to give the glass cabochon a go.☺😚

  8. Thanks for this great post. I am just getting some tools together as a beginner and might get one of these deep tissue massagers as a barren. Worth a try I think! I live in France but there must be something similar in other countries.

  9. Thanks for writing this!
    I too have an engraving press and am looking for a top notch baren for reduction prints.
    I am probably going to invest in a Japanese ball bearing baren. I asked the talented Ian Phillips, who makes big reduction prints, his view and he smiled and said “They’re worth every single ball bearing”

  10. Hi. Never having worked on lock or lino but with an interest, I was watching a youtube vid of David Bull. He uses a bamboo bayer but covers his delicate washi paper with a paper that resembles cake tin liner.

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