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Our first blocks!
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 1:04 PM, June 18, 2016
I posted a couple of weeks ago about hunting for cherry wood for making blocks, and that project has moved forward well recently. In fact, as I write this our young carver Kawasaki Noriko is using new 'Mokuhankan' woodblocks for the print she is working on this week - the September issue of this years Portraits subscription series.
Let's have an overview of how the colour separation process works for these prints ...
Kawasaki-san finished up the key block a few days ago, and I pulled a few test impressions; it's pretty black, so doesn't show well in a photo, sorry ...
And here's the special 'double layer' paper I use to make the colour transfer sheets - they are made from a layer of very thin gampi paper tacked to a backing sheet of stiffer paper:
The transfer sheets ('kyogo-zuri') are printed the same way as normal print impressions, with the paper carefully placed in the registration marks, and the impression pulled as normal:
I take as many of them as I think will be required for colour blocks. (Can you tell what game characters are appearing in this print?)
I use a yellow highlight marker to mark off the areas I want to be retained on each blocks (the reddish one is for corrections ...):
Working from Jed's Photoshop master image, I carefully colour in one sheet for each colour block:
And here are the first three blank blocks fresh from my new 'press', and scraped smooth, ready for carving:
The blocks are of course not 'perfect', and have small knots or imperfections here and there. So it's important to try and match them up with the colour transfer sheets, arranging things so that imperfections will fall in areas that will be cut away. It's a bit of a puzzle to find the 'best' orientation ...
The sheets get pasted down into freshly-carved registration marks ...
... and the back paper gets peeled off ...
... to expose the design ready for carving:
Here are three faces ...
... and flipped over to show the other sides:
At this point, the carver will get busy, but she of course knows nothing at all about what colours will be applied to these blocks once they are finished. And indeed, we may change our mind once printing starts. She is simply carving 'shapes' ...
Just to finish off this post, here's a quick shot of some paper hanging to dry after being sized ...
... in our new sizing 'machine'! (More about this later ...)
Doi collaboration video - Part 5
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 2:33 PM, June 8, 2016
Sizing machine - proof of concept?
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 9:14 PM, June 7, 2016
A few weeks ago I made some posts on this blog outlining problems we were having with both our wood supply, and the paper supply.
As you have seen, we are on the road to working out a completely new supply of wood for ourselves (I'll be reporting more on that in a few days ...); today, I can show you something that we have been working on that might help with the paper situation.
Through comparison of our own experiences with that of other workshops, it has become clear to everybody here that the problems we are all having with the paper recently (heavy feathering, etc.) are inherent in the paper itself, and can thus be completely solved only through action by the papermakers. But during the time over the past few months when suspicion was falling mostly on the sizing, I experimented with dozens of different formulations for applying size to the paper - stronger/weaker mixtures, different ratios of glue/alum, different brushing methods, etc. etc.
Among the things I tried was an attempt one day to dip the sheets of paper into a tub of size, instead of brushing it on. The results were interesting - although I ended up with sizing that was a bit on the 'heavy' side, the application was much more even across the sheets. I didn't push the idea too much, because I found it next to impossible to hold and dip the paper without destroying it in the process (paper that wet is of course very difficult to handle).
But the other day, as I got the system for our new woodblocks up and running, I began to think about a setup for 'dip' sizing, and began to gather some materials together.
Here's a photo I showed a few days ago, while laying out the wood for cutting. Do you see the items scattered at the back of the bench?
Let's take a closer look ...
I had an old Epson laser printer in the Ome workshop, one that had come to the end of its life and which had been replaced by a newer model. Luckily, the city garbage collection won't pick up those things, so it had just been stuck in the back of a closet. I hacked it apart and found a few interesting rollers inside. I also took apart the last toner cartridge we had used with it, and found more rollers in there.
Two of them seemed particularly interesting:
The top one there has a firm spongy texture, and is mounted on springs, while the other one has a smooth and hard surface. Although they are from different parts of the printer, there are gears that match up ... Hmm ...
So, let's give this a go! Today is Tuesday here in Tokyo, and that means I can lock the shop door and spend the entire day upstairs in the workshop playing around with this. Can I actually figure out a way to make this happen?
To start with, I prepared a 'base' piece, and cut notches and holes that matched protrusions on the sponge roller:
Here's the roller 'plugged in' to the base plate:
I then made two end pieces for the assembly. Here's the one at the left end, with a plastic socket (of course also scavenged from the laser printer) that is ready to receive the blue roller:
I can't use a similar socket at the other end, because - as we will see in a minute - the blue roller has to be removable. You can see here the 'pin' that will hold it in place:
Putting it together ... the blue roller slides smoothly into its socket on the left, and its gear meshes with the one on the sponge roller:
With the other end in position, the wooden pin is advanced to lock it in place:
There is a slot cut into the pin, and this is to allow a metal pin attached to a lever handle to do the opening and closing ...
Here is the setup in the 'open' position:
With the lever pushed, the pin advances, holding the blue roller in place:
Let's see how this is going to work ...
The base unit goes into the sizing tank. Liquid size will be poured in just deep enough to cover about half of the sponge roller.
Each sheet of paper to be sized is held by a carrier (made from a stick of wood with four clothespins):
The paper goes in place on top of the sponge roller, with the rest of it dipping down into the liquid:
The blue roller is then placed into its mounting; this will be about half-in, half-out of the liquid ...
The locking pin is then advanced into position with its lever:
With everything ready, 'all' that is left is to pull the paper through the system, keeping a steady movement. The two rollers mesh together, with the smooth blue one (against the front surface of the paper sheet) lightly pressing against the sponge roller on its springs.
The paper dips down into the size, and passes up between the rollers, where - in theory - it has the excess moisture lightly squeezed out. It is then taken directly to the hanging strings stretched across the ceiling.
The lever is then flipped, the blue roller comes out, and the next sheet is laid into place. Our sizing station has two of these deep trays, so I'll keep the other one also full of warm size, and pour it bit by bit into this one to keep the liquid depth at the correct level as it gets used up sheet by sheet.
So there we have it ... 'Sizing Machine Mark I' is ready for testing! The next couple of days are pretty tightly scheduled (new video coming tomorrow!), so I'm not sure when I can get back to this, but I'll report back as soon as I've had a chance to give it a try!
Love child of Bob Ross and Jim Henson ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 12:55 PM, May 29, 2016
That video a week ago has really turned out to be something special. At 28 minutes long, I hesitated before uploading it; I couldn't imagine that people would actually sit there and watch the whole thing. Break it into two parts? I considered that, but thought that this would be worse, that people just wouldn't move on to Part 2.
So, I just uploaded it and sat back to see what would happen ...
What happened was that within a few minutes of it being online, somebody posted it to the 'Documentaries' section of Reddit. And I sat there and watched the 'as it happens' information on the YouTube page, as the viewer count began to climb and climb.
By the end of the first day it had climbed to over 30,000 ...
... and it's still climbing as I write this, a week later.
But what has really turned out to be fun about this one are the comments!
There have been literally hundreds of them posted, both to the original YouTube page, and to the thread on Reddit. Now Reddit comments can sometimes be ... shall we say, 'difficult' ... but this has not been my experience there. A number of my videos have been posted on Reddit over recent years, and the comments are usually quite polite.
Here are a few goodies from this recent video:
- Hello David, Thank you so much for the story. I'm having trouble at work and the words ' It's just a hobby for you' hit my heart. I see the light now and will go back and do what I should! :)
- I've never commented on a Youtube video ever in my entire life. I just want you to know that I feel my life has been enriched now that I've heard this story. Thank you for taking the time to share. That was truly wonderful.
- You need to do a whole story series, you're an exceptional narrator and the stories you've told just in this one part kept me hooked until the end.
- I don't know how I got to this video, I don't know what woodblock carving is, and I had no intention of watching a 28-minute video when I sat down; I thought I'd spend 30 seconds on this, max. Watched the whole thing. What a great story.
- I don't normally comment on such things, but you are a WONDERFUL speaker. I skipped through the video for the "gist" and had to go back and re-watch everything from the start because your story-telling was so engaging.
- Thank you for sharing this with the world. I can only hope to live as skillfully.
- ... love child of Bob Ross and Jim Henson.
And hundreds more ... This is so much fun; thank you very much to all those who are enjoying this as much as I am!
(But now I'm nervous about the next one ... What do I do next?)
New woodblocks ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 10:38 AM, May 27, 2016
The wood block adventures continue ... and seem to be moving along well!
In a previous post, I described a trip to a lumberyard in the Shin-Kiba district of Tokyo, and we have now had a chance to move ahead with the wood we found there. They hadn't had free time for it that day, but the other day (by appointment) we went back there again, to work with them on getting the plank re-sawn.
They have an ancient band saw with a carriage that holds the logs in place and moves them past the blade.
The carriage is guided by a laser system shining down from above, and you can see the green light on the back of his shirt ...
He had prepared a freshly sharpened (and thin) blade for us, in order that we would have as little waste as possible, and this was greatly appreciated. The cuts were quite thin, and the face of each plank as it came off the saw was not too badly gouged up.
Once we got them home, I tied them up tightly for the final drying:
The main plank had been dried quite well, and it didn't take more than a couple of days for these thin boards to dry quite thoroughly. I then grabbed one, and started to lay out a good way to chop it up.
I had to avoid bad places, and tried to maximize the useable area, laying out the standard sizes that we need in our work:
I got ten useable pieces, in three different sizes.
Lee-san had previously ordered up some high-quality shina plywood (precut in the dimensions we need):
For our initial experiments with this, we're trying a very strong epoxy glue, and here I am measuring it out in equal amounts.
OK, with the sandwich now glued up, how are we going to get it firmly clamped together? A couple of weeks back, I took a look around the 3rd floor of our Asakusa shop, trying to figure out a way to do this, and I noticed this little unused space under the stairs that lead to the roof. Concrete stairs. Hmm ...
After ripping out the floor in that spot, I found that there was only a single (and not so strong) joist in that space, but a couple of hours work left me with two good strong 'joists' bedded onto the concrete floor. Here will be the base for our 'press':
I next prepared two plates - base and top - each one made out of two pieces of 18mm ply bonded and (heavily) screwed together:
To help keep things lined up, I built partial 'walls' around the base plate ...
... and then solidly screwed it down onto the joists.
So here we go - the epoxy sandwich goes dead centre over the base plate:
The top plate goes in place:
And you can now see how this is going to work - a 4-ton bottle jack!
A heavy brace takes the pressure up to the concrete stairs, and a few pumps on the handle force that sandwich flat!
After the epoxy set, and the sandwich came out, I could see that I had clearly used too much glue, as there was a lot of squeeze-out, but a bit of experience will show me how to handle this.
As the band-saw marks were very shallow, it needed only the very slightest pass through a small desk-top planer to leave the surface flat.
A bit of touch-up with a cabinet scraper left the surface very smooth, and ready for carving.
So there we are, our first 'in house' woodblock. I think I'll keep this one untouched (and I also am not perfectly confident about the glue bond just yet), but over the next few days will make some more, and those will go to Kawasaki-san our carver ready for use in the next Ukiyoe Heroes Portraits print!
Remembering traditional woodblock carver Susumu Ito
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 7:08 PM, May 23, 2016
The Wood Question ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 11:34 AM, May 4, 2016
Lots of people offering assistance here ... there's not much our overseas friends can do about paper, but a few people have suggestions about the wood supply ...
Lots of people offering assistance here ... there's not much our overseas friends can do about paper, but a few people have suggestions about the wood supply ...
Let me give a bit more background about our wood. Modern printmakers - trying to get different effects in their prints - can of course use 'any' wood, but for us, it would only be as an absolute last resort that we would use something else. Given that we are trying to make prints equivalent to what was produced in the Meiji-era, the 'best' approach is to try and use tools/materials that are as close as possible to the original materials.
From our point of view here, there are a few things about the wood that are absolutely critical:
- it must be yamazakura; simply no other species gives the same effect when printing (more about this below)
- it must be selected ... some wood is of a suitable density and grain, some is not ...
- the way that the raw material is cut from the log is very important to the results
- it must be very carefully and properly dried
- it must be planed and dressed to an absolutely smooth mirror finish
These days, it's very common to hear of some resource that has been 'fished out' (whether fish, or whatever ...) ... and the product is simply unobtainable. Somebody who wants to utilize that resource simply has no choice; they have to find an alternative. In our case - the yamazakura - it's exactly the other way around. It's not that all the 'good' trees are gone; there are plenty of them up in the mountains, living out their normal life-span, and falling over when they get to the end of life. The problem is that with so little demand for the blocks for traditional woodblock printmaking, the supply chain has disappeared.
In the previous post, I wrote about making a trip to the lumber markets back in 1999 after Shimano-san passed away. I was looking for some yamazakura, and I came across this pile of wood in one of the wholesaler's warehouses (it's hard to get the scale of this photo; these things are big - about 4 meters long ...):
He said it was yamazakura, and that it had been there for 'at least a couple of years'. I paid him 400,000 yen (around $3500) for the plank at the bottom of the pile (the widest one), and he ran it around to a local re-saw shop and had it sliced into 4 planks.
We trucked it out to my home in Hamura (moving it to Ome later), and there it sat, being occasionally turned and re-stacked. There was no 'panic' to start using it, because by then Matsumura-san had jumped into the wood business, and we began to use his products.
But as I wrote in the previous post, the quality of his products over the years really began to decay steeply, and sometime around 2014, one of the batches of wood we received was so bad that we decided to go ahead and use one of these planks, now very nicely aged indeed. We chopped it up into manageable pieces, and sent them out to a carpenter who had good skill with a plane, who could dress them for us.
He returned them to us a few days later, "I don't know where you got this stuff, but you do know that it isn't yamazakura, right?"
Umm. It was clearly cherry, but the grain patterns were a bit different, now that they were visible. We tried it anyway ... and no, it was unusable. The pores in this sub-species were so large and fat that each of the planed pieces had a palpable series of grooves on the dressed surface, and these grooves showed in our test printing.
400,000 yen ... and nearly 15 years of drying time ... wasted. Whether that dealer knew it wasn't yamazakura - and took me for a ride - or whether he too didn't understand, I'll never know. Anyway, back to square one.
Before I move on, to talk about what we are going to try next, let me show you an image I have copied from a book on traditional printmaking techniques published in about 1929. It shows the proper way of cutting slabs for making ukiyo-e prints from a large cherry log:
This cutting pattern gives the maximum amount of wood with a 'flat' grain. These days, of course, no lumber dealer in their right mind would cut a log this way. These boards tend to warp a lot (immediately after being 'released from the log), and their customers - furniture makers for the most part - want straight grain, which is more stable and more decorative. They want wood that has been quarter sawn - like this (image borrowed from an Australian lumber dealer here):
Great for furniture, awful for us. What we need are the wide areas of smooth clear wood that result from flat-sawn boards. We deal with the warping by cutting them fairly thick to begin with, then dressing them down to requirements after they have dried and stabilised.
So do I have to try and find an entire cherry log, then saw it up in the old way? There is absolutely no way that I can invest the many thousands of dollars that would be required to do such a thing - even if we could find such a log on the market.
But we are lucky in one respect that most of the work we are doing here at Mokuhankan these days is of a fairly small scale. We don't need the wide boards that are required when making typical ukiyo-e prints. Our current subscription prints need only 15 cm in width, Jed's Ukiyoe Heroes prints need boards of about 18 cm, and our HangaClub editions use wood just under 12cm wide.
So we have come up with an idea. I don't need a 'log', but if I can find a chunk of good-looking yamazakura of somewhere around 20 cm x 20 cm, and about 25 cm long (or longer) ... not an impossible task, I think, we could get it sliced in this pattern pretty easily (sorry, this quick sketch isn't scaled very well, but you get the idea ...):
This would give us a handful of thin flat-sawn boards, with no vertical grain at all. We could then dry these thoroughly in a fairly short time (as they are so thin), then bond them to a strong birch-ply base, and dress the surfaces ready for carving and printing.
Next step - as soon as I can get away from the shop for a day - over to the giant lumber market at Kiba and start searching!
How are we doing? Part three ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 5:13 PM, April 30, 2016
OK, here we go with the next instalment of our update, and as I mentioned in the previous post, we are encountering some major problems with our materials.
OK, here we go with the next instalment of our update, and as I mentioned in the previous post, we are encountering some major problems with our materials.
Let's start with the easy one - woodblocks. The background is simple to lay out for you: up until late 1998, I (and all the other carvers in town) were using cherry blocks prepared for us by Shimano Shintaro, who was the last hangi shokunin (block craftsman) in town. Late that year he died unexpectedly of stomach cancer, much younger than anybody had expected, and we were all suddenly faced with a real crisis.
Within days of hearing that news I was on my way to the wholesale lumberyards in a search for some cherry wood. I knew that I wouldn't find any 'ready to use', but felt that I had to get started on finding some. (I wrote about this on this old web page years ago.) As it turned out, it wasn't necessary for me to use the planks I purchased that day, because Shigeru Matsumura (the man who runs 'Woodlike Matsumura') stepped up to the plate and began to sell blocks of a laminated construction pattern - cherry wood facing on a strong plywood core.
Since that time, we carvers have been using his blocks, but over time they have become less and less satisfactory. His main customers are people making prints as hobbyists, and they are using shina plywood. He gets very little in the way of business for cherrywood; it's a sideline for him.
Shimano-san had a pipeline through the lumberyards up to the guys in the countryside who could search out suitable trees for woodblock printmaking. Matsumura-san is not part of that world, and indeed, the pipeline - the supply chain - is now long gone. There are now no longer any men with the knowledge of what makes a particular tree suitable for this use. Matsumura-san is just using cherry milled for furniture makers, and their requirements (mostly quarter-sawn straight grain) is diametrically opposed to what the woodblock carver needs.
So I don't intend this as an insult to him or his business, but the wood we have been receiving from him in recent years has become unbearable. Our young carver Kawasaki-san thinks I've lost my marbles when she sees the blocks I send her to use for our Portraits prints; it's wood that would have been suitable for nothing but the stove back when Shimano-san was around.
And then when the carved blocks get to the printing staff, they too look at me ... "Is this the best you can find? Really?" The grain patterns show in the print, there are uneven spots here and there, it doesn't absorb the moisture in the proper way ... in a word, the stuff is just junk. There is no other suitable term. It makes their work so much more difficult! And what makes this whole situation worse is that they've recently seen such nice wood - the old blocks from Doi Hanga - so they have fresh experience of what this stuff should be like!
What to do? Staffer Lee-san and I need to get out to the wholesale lumberyards, dig around to try and find some raw material that looks like it might work, then figure out how to get it sawn in the orientation necessary for our needs (at 72 degree angles around the log - a pentagonal pattern that will be very difficult to persuade a lumberyard to take on), how to dry it properly (how many years will that take?), then how to dress it down to proper thickness, where/how to find a hydraulic press to bond it to a core, what kind of adhesive to use, how to get the resulting blocks basically planed, then how to get them surfaced to the proper mirror finish ...
And only then - only when one of these blocks is on my carving table ready to cut - will I know whether or not we have selected a good log! If not ... it's back to the beginning. And even if it does turn out to be suitable, we then have to find the next one, and the next one ...
It's a solvable problem ... given enough resources, namely time and money.
Hah! Like I have any of either of those two things left ...
Anyway, enough warmup, let's get to the main point of these recent posts. I have to bring you up-to-date with a situation that can really only be described as an existential crisis for our venture.
It's our printing paper. I'll try and tell the story as concisely as I can, but I do have to give you a fair amount of background too, so you can get a sense of how this has been playing out.
The paper we use is the washi known as Echizen Hosho and it comes from one small geographical area of the country, and indeed, one small village, up in Fukui Prefecture. They have specialized in this paper since way back in the Edo period (longer, actually), and it is this paper on which most of the classical high-quality ukiyo-e were printed. (Lesser quality paper was of course used for cheaper editions, but hosho was the unequivocal choice for good work.)
But with the gradual decline in traditional printmaking over the course of the 20th century, the number of workshops in that village declined steadily, and for the past couple of decades, there have been only two families specialising in this work.
One family, the acknowledged 'leader' in the field - and whose head member has been named a Living National Treasure (as was his father before him) - has supplied all my paper for the past 25+ years. We use no other.
Now the paper as it comes from their workshop can't be used directly for printmaking. It must first be sized with a glue mixture to give it enough strength to stand up to the vigorous treatment we give it during the printing process. That has traditionally been done by a specialised craftsman, and during the entire time that I myself have been active in this field here in Japan, all of this work has been done by a single person, as all the others retired as the volume of work decreased.
I had no complaint with his work, but sometime back between 5~10 years ago, the quality of the sizing declined. There were cases when an entire batch was badly done, and other times when the quality within a batch was extremely uneven, making the printer's work very difficult.
Given this trend, plus the fact that there was only one man doing it (and elderly, to boot) I decided to try and learn how to size the paper myself. I won't recap that entire project here, but there are a number of posts over on my Woodblock Roundtable that cover the progress I made. I wasn't very good at it at first of course, but did gradually get better, and in recent years sizing has no longer been an issue for us; I have become quite capable of producing decent results.
Until last fall.
My printers - all of them, both in-house and the professionals working at home - began to give me feedback that the recent paper I was providing to them was sized quite weakly, with the surface fibres easily pulling up while printing.
Everybody involved, all the printers as well as myself, assumed that the problem was me. Although I had been gradually getting better at this, applying size is an extremely complicated job; the amount of glue in the mix varies with the season and the humidity in the air, the depth of application needs to be different depending on the particular job at hand, and the glue itself varies from batch to batch. There is nothing trivial about the work at all, and my lack of experience seemed to be the problem.
I responded as well as I could to their suggestions, increasing the glue level and/or the saturation, but the problem continued. The more experienced among the printers could sometimes get the paper under control, but our in-house printers lost a huge number of prints to bad paper.
The situation became critical in January, when our most experienced printer, Kubota-san, lost two entire batches of the Great Wave (60 sheets in each batch) to 'poor sizing'. The publisher normally doesn't pay the printer for rejected sheets, but given the uncertainly about the roots of the problem - was it really my fault, or his? - I had to pay him for all those prints even though they are unusable.
But as we moved into spring, and the weather warmed up, making it easier to apply size to the paper, things didn't get better, they got worse. But there was an interesting development - we heard from our printers that they were encountering the same problem with paper from other publishers as well, paper from that same maker, but which they had either sized 'in house' or sent out to that same sizing craftsman.
I finally thought it might not be a bad idea to talk to the paper maker about this, so called them up, asking - not accusing - whether there had recently been any changes in their material or procedures. I explained that I was having a great deal of difficulty with the paper, and was starting to wonder what was different. The man I spoke to, the son of the 'national treasure', denied any change at all, and when I suggested that other people were encountering problems, he said that he had heard nothing at all from anybody ...
But no more than a day or so after that phone call, I was speaking to a young junior printer who works at another shop (perhaps Japan's most famous traditional publisher), and as we compared notes on this problem he mentioned that because they were having such trouble with the paper, his boss had taken a trip recently up to the paper maker's workshop to discuss the issue ...
So here's where things stand at the moment:
- something fundamentally structural has changed in the paper. It's not just a question of raising the 'strength' of the nikawa sizing to stop the fibres pulling up. With too much nikawa the size simply won't blend properly into the sheets, and they become impossible to print.
- we have now talked to a number of other people (printers/publishers). Without exception, all are having the same trouble. All fingers are pointing to the same place ... something has changed in the paper from that particular workshop ... Whether it's the raw materials, or their procedure, none of us can say.
- Ayumi-san has been sent home for a while; we have no paper on which she can make prints ...
- Kanai-san has been told to wait until we can find some paper for her ...
- Kubota-san - with whom I have a gentleman's agreement to guarantee at least $3000 worth of printing work every month - has had nothing from me for months ...
- our other printers have been working on whatever scraps we can scrape up from older stock ...
- the Doi Hanga project is of course completely on hold; YouTube subscribers are emailing ... "When is your next video going to be ready?"
- we have the May and June subscription prints in the Portraits series ready, but no paper for more ...
- I am sitting on more than 1,300 sheets of unusable paper, for which I have paid well over $17,000 ...
- the papermaker denies any problem ...
The workroom upstairs is strewn with all the samples and test batches that I have made over the past couple of months, as I repeatedly try to find a particular 'recipe' that will bring this paper to useable condition.
We even sent a batch of paper - anonymously via a third party - over to that same sizing craftsman I used years ago; minutes after it came back, two of our printers eagerly tested a few of the sheets ... feathering everywhere.
All this has been taking place in the environment of the Asakusa madness of the past couple of months. I've done X number of Print Parties and dealt with all the visitors each day, then headed upstairs in the evenings for more sizing tests.
So. What I am going to do?
Well, long term, I know what to do. Paper making per se is practiced all up and down the length of this country. Very few of those papers are suitable for the physically intense procedures of traditional printmaking, but it seems to me that if I could find the right workshop/person, I could work with them to adapt one of their papers to our requirements, or even better - convince some eager young person to take on the challenge of re-creating the wonderful kind of paper we used to have back in the old days. It wouldn't be easy, and it would take years, but it would be doable I think.
That doesn't help me though, in the here and now. I have collectors around the world waiting for our prints. I have printers who need work to pay their bills. I have blocks galore ...
But I have no paper, and no prospects of getting any.
It has been a long time indeed since I found myself in a situation where I simply don't know what to do. Whatever problems have arisen in recent years were all solvable with a 'Plan B' approach, or the application of enough hard work.
Anyway, enough for tonight; I have to get back upstairs ... I'm going to try some tests this evening by dipping the paper sheets into the sizing mixture, rather than brushing it on. Perhaps that will give this defective paper enough 'body' to print properly without feathering.
I'll keep you updated ...
How are we doing? Part two ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 1:16 PM, April 30, 2016
Today's post is more difficult than yesterday's. We've got some problems here at Mokuhankan, and one of them in particular is pretty serious ...
Today's post is more difficult than yesterday's. We've got some problems here at Mokuhankan, and one of them in particular is pretty serious. At the moment that I sit here and write this, I can't see a way clear, and whether or not we will find one is still an open question.
So let's get to it! Let's start with lesser issues ... the ones I know we can deal with.
Ever since I sent my first print out into the world - back in 1989 - I have made a living based on a subscription model. Making prints - especially the complex and detailed kind that I love - is a very time-consuming and intensive process, and it is just not possible to spend one day carving, interrupt that for exhibiting, then back to printing, etc etc. So I separated the making from the distribution. For over 20 years, I held an exhibition once a year to collect subscribers for the coming 12-month period. The remaining 11 1/2 months were devoted to intensive printmaking work. Sticking to this system turned out to be a very good idea, and I was able to raise my family, keep food on the table, and even purchase a home, all by woodblock printmaking.
So when I 'opened up' a few years ago, and initiated this Mokuhankan venture, I was determined to make subscriptions an important part of our affairs. We began with a set of 'Chibi Heroes' designs from Jed Henry, as part of the Ukiyoe Heroes prints he and I make in collaboration, and have continued since then with other designs.
Here's a graph (at the same scale as yesterday's graph) of our revenue from the Mokuhankan subscriptions:
The Chibi Heroes did well - as a kind of trial balloon - and then when we began the Portraits set the following year, things just took off. This is what gave us the revenue to get the Asakusa project under way (which we 'topped off' later with the Great Wave Kickstarter campaign.)
But as you can see from the graph, we haven't been able to sustain that level of subscription income. The current Portraits series (the 2nd set) are coming out very nicely, and the set has well over 100 subscribers, but we're not even at 1/2 the level of popularity that the 1st set reached.
This is quite a big problem for me as the owner of this place, because having a good strong 'base' of subscription income lets me cover the payroll at the end of each month. As you saw from the previous graph yesterday, other income can be wildly variable, and it is very difficult to find cash to pay the staff sometimes. A healthy subscription base makes it possible for me to do that.
With this in mind, we've now begun to add some more arrows to our quiver. Beginning next week, the series of prints that I created a few years ago, but which has been out of print for some time - the Mystique of the Japanese Print - will be available in a brand new Mokuhankan edition, printed using my original blocks by our most senior staff printer Mr. Kenichi Kubota.
We've got the first four prints done and on the shelf, and are now in the final stages of getting the packaging ready. We expect to be ready to begin sending out the first print (and paulownia case) once our two shipping ladies return from the Golden Week holiday period next week.
Kubota-san is going to work using my original version as a reference, and the prints should be visually identical. These new ones will be distinguished from my older version by the new 'Mokuhankan Baren' seal impressed on each one:
There is more information on the web page here, for anybody interested.
I'm quite hopeful that this 'new' series will help us close the gap in our revenues; there have been dozens of people asking me for it in recent years, and I'm very proud of the set. It provides a wonderful survey of the traditional Japanese print over the years, and I'm very happy to have it come back to life like this.
As many of our followers of course know, just at the end of last year we took a lease on the 3rd floor of the Asakusa building, and began building a new workroom for our printers up there. Staffer Lee-san worked hard on this through December, and got it ready for action just as everybody was off for the year-end break.
The two main benches near the window were prepared for our two full time 'in-house' young printers - Kanai Chiharu and Ayumi Miyashita - and the other two spaces were available for other staff members to use when and as they had time.
It hasn't turned out that way. Kanai-san came to me on the morning of the first day back after the break with the news that she was expecting a baby. A half hour later she was gone, something I should emphasise right up front was not my idea, but hers. We haven't lost her completely, as she will be doing work from home when she is able, (and we saw her here recently for a one-day 'drop in' to do some proofing work) but as far as intensive daily work on stacks of prints go, it's game over. It has been very frustrating to have this happen just at the same time that we took on the project of reprinting many of the old Doi Hanga Company blocks.
And it gets worse. (Although I have to apologize to Ayumi-san for putting it that way.) Just a couple of weeks after that, Ayumi-san came to me with her news. Not a baby ... at least I don't think that's happening just yet. She's at the first step ... she'll be getting married in June. She says she intends to stay and work for the immediate future; but she can't promise how long. Her new husband is a junior policeman, and is likely to be posted here and there over the coming years ...
So our two main in-house printers - both of them after years of training finally able to do top-level complex work - dropping out of the game is a huge blow for us. I suppose I should have been ready for this; when hiring young women this is the sort of thing that comes with the territory, but I simply didn't expect it to happen this way, and so soon. (Kanai-san is in her late thirties, and Ayumi-san only 22.)
It gets worse. For the past few years, we have been using the services of three professional printers who work in their own homes: Kenichi Kubota, Shinkichi Numabe, and young Hirokazu Tetsui. Kubota-san is still around, standing by waiting for work (more about this below). Tetsui-san has told me he will be unavailable to us for the foreseeable future, and the reason behind this is particularly painful for me.
Many of you have perhaps seen publicity about various new 'Ukiyoe Pop Culture' work now on the market. Not quite sure where they could have got the idea from, but a number of enterprising publishers have jumped into the field to put out hand-made woodblock prints based on popular culture themes: famous rock bands (Kiss, Iron Maiden), manga/anime (Lupin, Naruto, Doraemon), manga/movie (Ghost in the Shell), and iconic movies (Star Wars). The field has exploded, and carvers and printers all over town are working overtime. Tetsui-san ... is busy.
As for Numabe-san, he is also 'off' our work for a while. This is not because of the pop culture boom. Numabe-san's main work (other than what he has been doing for us) is for two publishers: Shobisha (who own a dozen or so Hasui block sets), and the Yoshida family (reprinting Toshi Yoshida's designs). Both of these sources have now put so much work on his desk, that he is booked through January next year. Why are they suddenly ordering so many prints from him? Because over the past year a certain little shop in Asakusa :-) has sold so many of their prints that inventory of their most popular designs has run out, far sooner than they had expected and prepared for.
Here's a shot of Numabe-san working on the Hasui print 'Shiba Benten Pond' from the Shobisha catalogue (we've sold dozens of these over the past year ...):
We'll be happy to have all those prints back in stock once they are available, but having Numabe-san unavailable for our own work is a tough blow ...
OK, that's enough for now. I'm not finished with this 'State of the Union' update, and there is yet some much more difficult news to bring you, but let's save that until tomorrow ... Right now, I have to get upstairs for some more dosa (paper sizing) testing ...
How are we doing? Part one ...
It’s time for me to try and bring our fans/community up-to-date with some very important things happening here.
Time for a catchup. The past few months have been ‘extreme’ for us here at Mokuhankan, and I use that word as a noun, not an adjective. We’ve posted a bit now and then over on our Facebook page, but it’s difficult to talk more deeply about any given topic on that platform. Facebook is for the quick update, not for anything approaching ‘analysis’. So it’s time for me to try and bring our fans/community up-to-date with some very important things happening here.
I have so much to include that I’m going to break the content up into more than one post here on the Conversations blog, and I’ll divide it by ‘thumb direction’ :-) Let’s begin with the ‘Thumb Up’ side … the positive news. Tomorrow (or when I can), I’ll look at the other side. Just which will be longer I can’t say just yet … :~)
Might be best to start with a little chart:
This shows the monthly volume of business in the Asakusa shop since opening day (October 31st 2014). And right there - in the rightmost two columns - you can see why we haven’t been posting much recently. We’ve been run off our feet this spring.
When you look at the pattern over the course of a calendar year, you can see that our shop is going to have a very clear seasonal pattern. Spring and Fall - cherries and maple leaves! - are going to be our peak times.
March 2016 was more than 5x March 2015, so as we moved into April we were terrified of what might be about to hit us. ‘Luckily’ things settled down a bit and the pattern this year was a bit different … April was only 1.5x the previous year.
What is coming up over the next few months is completely unknown to us, but it’s looking pretty good we think. We're getting huge benefit from the Lonely Planet coverage and from our ‘perfect’ rating on Trip Advisor, and with a general organic growth on top of that, we’re going to be steadily busy it seems.
Seen as an independent ‘line item’ in our overall financial structure, the Asakusa shop is still in the red, as employee costs and construction expenses are still substantial, but with this kind of growth, profitability is just a matter of time.
I mentioned Lonely Planet, but it’s not just overseas guidebooks that have paid attention to our venture. We’ve been picked up by various local guidebook publishers as well. “The Tokyo unknown by the Japanese” was one such book, and it features locations well-known to foreigners, but less so to the locals … which perfectly describes us!
All through 2015, we had very few domestic customers. The shop is up on the 2nd floor of the building, with a very small entrance, and although this street is extremely busy almost every day of the year, we get very little walk-by traffic in the shop. We’ve tried various combinations of signs down at the entrance, but those stairs are a huge barrier to potential visitors.
We knew that this would be the case when we started; indeed it’s the main reason why the rent is manageable (as compared to the 1st floor). But this is now beginning to change, and the main reason is that over the past months, we’ve had a very nice run of domestic TV coverage. We had been sending out letters and flyers to a lot of media outlets ever since we opened, and it only takes one or two of these to hit the target to start a steady ‘run’ of results. Once one TV program covers us, other channels see that and approach us in turn. We had seven programs cover us in 2015, and already this year there have been three or four, with more asking …
This has made a tremendous difference in our domestic traffic, with far more people now ‘venturing’ up the staircase than before. There is also another effect, in that when I sometimes go downstairs and stand on the sidewalk outside our front door, just to watch the flow go by, I frequently get recognised by passers-by, many of whom approach me … “We saw the program the other day … gambatte kudasai!” Fun!
So that’s an overview of how things are going in Asakusa these days … But there are a number of other parts to our business: subscriptions and online sales, not to mention the actual printmaking itself. Let’s talk about those tomorrow … :~)
Doi Hanga collaboration video - Part 4
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 11:51 PM, February 23, 2016
Video part 4 ... a print comes to life!
Kamisuki proofing ...
Posted in General Interest by Dave Bull at 3:37 PM, February 21, 2016
Proofing the new 'Mashup' print ...
What are these three people so intently interested in?
This! It's proofing time for the 'new' set of blocks for the 'mashup' Hashiguchi Goyo / Hatsune Miku design!
Carver Chung-san, his partner and printer Rei-chan, and our staff printer Kanai-san (on the left) spent most of the day today going over the block set and testing different colour combinations, etc.
I said 'new' blocks, but what is that about? Didn't that couple bring a finished set of blocks a few weeks ago?
Well, yes they did, but those blocks had a huge problem. They are magnolia wood, not cherry, also very thin, and also carved on both sides. This 'triple punch' put us out of business. When I started to do a test session with the couple a while back, the key block started to 'dance' within a few seconds of being moistened for printing. This total lack of stability simply makes the block set useless.
But we had a way forward. Two of the blocks had nothing carved on the back, so I proposed that we get out some glue and laminate these to a sturdy piece of plywood. As for the two blocks that were carved on both sides, we could sacrifice one side each, and bond them to plywood in the same manner. Chung-san could get to work and re-carve the two sacrificed sides.
So we did ...
Because Kanai-san can't do a full day's work at present (we'll explain later) the proofing wasn't completed today. They'll be back at it sometime soon, and I'll update you then!
And just because it came out so nicely, here's a shot of Kanai-san during the work ...