Fletcher - Woodblock Printing : Chapter II

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Wood-Block Printing

F. Morley Fletcher


General Description of the Operation of Printing from a Set of Blocks


The early stages of any craft are more interesting when we are familiar with the final result. For this reason it is often an advantage to begin at the end.

To see a few impressions taken from a set of blocks in colour printing, or to print them oneself, gives the best possible idea of the quality and essential character of print-making. So also in describing the work it will perhaps tend to make the various stages clearer if the final act of printing is first explained.

The most striking characteristic of this craft is the primitive simplicity of the act of printing. No press is required, and no machinery.

A block is laid flat on the table with its cut surface uppermost, and is kept steady by a small wad of damp paper placed under each corner. A pile of paper slightly damped ready for printing lies within reach just beyond the wood-block, so that the printer may easily lift the paper sheet by sheet on to the block as it is required.

It is the practice in Japan to work squatting on the floor, with the blocks and tools also on the floor in front of the craftsman. Our own habit of working at a table is less simple, but has some advantages. One practice or habit of the Japanese is, however, to be followed with particular care. No description can give quite fully the sense of extreme orderliness and careful deliberation of their work. Everything is placed where it will be most convenient for use, and this orderliness is preserved throughout the day's work. Their shapely tools and vessels are handled with a deftness that shames our clumsy ways, and everything that they use is kept quite clean. This skillful orderliness is essential to fine craftsmanship, and is a sign of mastery.

The arrangement of tools and vessels on a work-table may be as the accompanying plan shows:

When printing on a table arranged in this way the board lying on the sheets of damped paper at B is first lifted off and placed at C to receive the sheets as they are done. If the block A is quite dry, it is thoroughly moistened with a damp sponge and wiped. The colour from a saucer, E, is then brushed over the printing surface thinly, and a trace of paste taken from F is also brushed into the colour. (This is best done after the colour is roughly spread on the block.) The brush is laid down in its place, D, and the top sheet of paper from the pile is immediately lifted to its register marks (notches to keep the paper in its place) on the block. The manner of holding the paper is shown here. This must be done deftly, and it is important to waste no time, as the colour would soon dry on the exposed block and print badly.

Pressure is then applied to the back of the paper as it lies on the wet block. This is done by a round pad called the baren by the Japanese. It is made of a coil of cord covered by bamboo sheath as shown later. The pad is rubbed by hand with considerable pressure, moving transversely forwards and backwards across the block, working from the left to the right. Once all over the block should be enough. The paper is then lifted off and laid face upwards on the board at C. The block is then re-charged with colour for another impression, and the whole operation repeated as many times as there are sheets to be printed.

When this is done all the sheets will have received a single impression, which may be either a patch of colour or an impression in line of part of the design of the print. The block A is then removed, cleaned, and put away; and the block for the second impression put in its place.

It is usual to print the line or key-block of a design first, as one is then able to detect faulty registering or imperfect fitting of the blocks and to correct them at once. But there are cases in which a gradated tone, such as a sky, may need to be printed before the line block.

The complete design of a print may require several blocks for colour as well as the key block which prints the line. The impressions from all these blocks may be printed one after another without waiting for the colour on the paper to dry.

There are many niceties and details to be observed in the printing of both line and colour blocks. These are given in special chapters following. This description of the main action of printing will be of use in giving a general idea of the final operation before the details of the preliminary stages are described.

As soon as the batch of damped sheets has been passed over the first block, the sheets are replaced at B between boards, and, if necessary, damped again by means of damping sheets (as described later in Chapter V) ready for the next impression, which may be proceeded with at once without fear of the colour running. It is a remarkable fact that patches of wet colour which touch one another do not run if properly printed.

For the second printing fresh colour is prepared and clean paste, and the printing proceeds as already described, care being taken to watch the proper registering or fitting of each impression to its place in the design.



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