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Kakegami project launched! (and will you try some cookies?)
It's taken a while to get going, but the kakegami project has reached the market at last. Printer Tsushima-san was here yesterday, and ran a batch of these confectionery wrappers (now with the calligraphy block included) with no problems at all. This was her first time printing with sumi, and she found that it was not easy to get a smooth impression without having blotches around the edges of the lettering, but she caught on quickly, and got them done.
I delivered that first batch to local shop Arai Confectionery this afternoon. Mr. & Mrs. Arai, owners of the shop, have no more idea than I do whether or not this is going to 'fly', but they are willing to give it a try.
And now ... for something a bit different. By popular demand (well, one person asked!) we're going to put the cookies themselves - including the woodblock wrapper of course - into the Mokuhankan catalogue.
Here's the description from the catalogue page:
Ome Sembei - Box of 12 individually wrapped cookies (each 12.5 cm by 8 cm)
Arai-san's sembei have a kind of mild 'ginger snap' taste. The ingredients list on each package reads: flour, refined sugar, egg, sesame seeds, milk products. There are no preservatives added, and each package is marked with an expiry date six weeks in the future. (We fill orders with freshly-made packages, which we ship the same day, of course. Mokuhankan is not taking any 'margin' on these, and our price is a direct 'translation' of Arai-san's shop price, with the addition of 580 yen for SAL shipping.)
Here's the package as it comes from his shop:
After unwrapping the outer paper and ribbon, the woodblock printed kakegami is visible. It is folded around the cover of the box, which is held down with a decorative tied cord.
Inside are three packs ...
... each package sealed ...
... and each containing four of the sembei (individually wrapped):
Each sembei is made to look like three plum blossoms stacked up, but this is a single biscuit ...
We hope you will consider giving these a try!
Kakegami project - from 0 to '60' in four sessions ...
Time for an update on the kakegami - the wrapping paper for Japanese confections ...
I posted snapshots of Tsushima-san working at her new bench, but don't want to leave the impression that she has been doing that every day. She has three children (and their dad) to 'manage', and has not been able to spend more than two mornings here in any given week. So far we have had four sessions.
I posted the 'results' of her first session at the time, and it certainly looked as though she might be the type to catch on pretty quickly. The second day wasn't quite as successful, because I overdid it and gave her some quite difficult blocks to test (a few from Ueda-san's magnificent stash).
She was back here yesterday and today, and these results I can happily post ...
During the intervening few days, I carved a pair of blocks for a simple plum blossom pattern. All the confectionery makers around here sell plum-based products, as that's the name of our town; Ome translates literally as 'blue plum', which really means 'green plum', a kind of fruit not eaten directly, but used for confections and in the production of ume-shu, a very popular plum 'wine'. (But if somebody offers you some, don't even think of drinking it like wine!)
She had a go at printing it, and the results weren't bad:
The piece of paper is quite wide, and this will be size of our finished kakegami, large enough to wrap around a package of confectionery.
Here's a closeup of the pattern. Not the smoothest printing impression you've ever seen, but this was her third day:
For this morning's session, I prepared a different kind of pigment - something quite a bit thicker and more dense. We're doing this printing on dry paper, remember. (Moistening and then drying would take way too much time on a job of this type, and would simply add too much to our base cost.) And I made the plums a bit more pinkish and cheerful.
I also prepared (with my laser printer) the mockup of the printing that will appear on the wrapper - the address of the confectionery shop, Mokuhankan's info, and the 'title' of the confection (which will of course be interchangeable ...)
A very nice job! Here's a closeup of the same area we saw a moment ago:
She did a run of a couple of dozen sheets (while the Webcam was running too!). They weren't all of the same quality, but overall, it's clear that she is pretty much ready to go. I took a couple of the sheets over to the confectionery this afternoon, and the owner was enthusiastic too ... "Nice!"
He and I discussed what kind of lettering should be on the front and I came home with some samples of the text. I'll cut a couple of blocks for these as soon as I can catch a minute, and Tsushima-san will then run up the first batch for taking to the shop ...
From zero to 'pro' :-) in four days!
The printing bench - details
A couple of people asked the other day about the dimensions of the new printing bench. I'm not sure if it will really be of any use to talk about those, because the whole idea of such a bench is that it is customized to your own 'size', but anyway, here's what we are using.
Tsushima-san sits at the bench on the kneeling stool, with the main part of the bench brought forward over her knees:
The thing is designed so that the angle of her forearm matches the angle of the top of the bench:
This is far and away the most important point about this - her wrist stays straight. This almost completely eliminates any stress on that joint, and she'll never have any kind of problem with repetitive strains, etc. etc.
So here are our dimensions. But again, please don't take this as any kind of 'standard'. Build your own to suit your own dimensions!
Couple of points about the construction:
- despite the perspective effect in the photo, the sides are actually parallel (at the base)
- it would probably be better if there were more room 'front to back'; we've already found she is banging into the paste cup when printing sometimes
- this is 'Mark I'; it's suitable for light work, but isn't heavy and strong enough for vigorous printing on larger blocks. If your work is heavier, you'll need something with more bracing, so that it won't wobble
- It's very important to position the bench so that there is a light reflecting directly onto the surface of the woodblock. It's not visible in those photos, but a bulb is hanging from a ceiling track, positioned to reflect right off the wet pigment.
The newest venture - kakegami ...
OK, enough teasing ... let's see what the new bench is all about, and who it is for! Meet Mrs. Yasue Tsushima ...
And, to immediately answer your obvious question - Is she the new 'apprentice'? - I think the answer is 'not really'; at least not in the sense that she is here to learn how to be a professional printer. At this point, we're not thinking that far ahead.
Yesterday I posted about a recent visit to the local beauty shop, where I had chatted with Abe-san the hairdresser about Mokuhankan. She is basically familiar with my work (and has a display set of my prints in her shop), and I bent her ear about not being able to find printers.
She listened to me, and we started talking about what was involved in the work ... how difficult was it? She paused in her cutting, and showed me some of the decorations in her shop. The place is full of ornamental 'knick-knacks': artificial flowers, origami displays, hand-woven baskets, etc. etc. These had all been made by local ladies, women sitting at home while their husband and kids are out. I'm not sure what the situation is like in other countries, but here in modern Japan, unemployment is at historical highs, and there is a surplus of labour everywhere. And with large numbers of graduates being unable to find jobs, housewives are sort of expected to pull back from the market somewhat, to leave as many jobs as possible open for regular 'breadwinners'. So anyway, the point is that we have a situation where there is a vast pool of extremely competent people sitting around with nothing to do. These women don't want a full-time job, as they have family responsibilities to cover. But if there were a job available that: made use of their 'handy' skills, allowed them to fix their own working schedule, allowed them to stay home when the kid is suddenly sick from school, paid them a reasonable amount per hour, and etc. etc. ... they would be very interested.
OK ... that's one side of the equation, but we're not talking about artificial paper flowers here, we're talking about woodblock printmaking, one of the most difficult and highly trained jobs on the planet. Right?
On the face of it, that is indeed true. My own skills are very hard-won, and when you look over my entire output, you have to admit that this is not something that a 'housewife' can sit down and just pick up in a few minutes.
Here she is again:
You can see scattered here and there among those two snapshots some small woodblocks (and there is a box of them on the desk just above her head). These are old blocks that I picked up in flea markets here and there. They were originally used to print kakegami, wrapping paper for Japanese gift confectionery. Here are a couple of images I just scooped with a Google search, showing modern papers of this type:
And here's a sample from my own collection of one from many years back, when they were still made by woodblock printing (you can see the faint fold marks where it was wrapped around the box of confectionery):
So you can see where we are going with this! Tsushima-san was here this morning for three hours in all. She has never touched a baren before. Here are some quick snaps of her results from a random few of these little blocks (none of these are complete 'pictures' by themselves, they are just single blocks from sets broken up long ago ...):
Clean. Smooth. Precise. After a bit of practice, I 'tested' her by asking her to print the same block twice - the 'ultimate' test of whether a printer is properly controlling the positioning of the paper in the registration marks.
OK, this is all getting a bit long, so I'll try and tie it all up, in point form ...
- presentation confectionery was once upon a time always wrapped in woodblock printed paper
- over the years, the makers all switched to press-printed papers, obviously to keep costs down. The idea that we can somehow reverse the course of history would seem on the face of it not to make sense, but for a few other points ...
- a woodblock printed wrapper would nowadays be a very special - and rare - item. It would add tremendously to the 'value' of the gift being presented.
- We are thinking that X% of the purchasers of such confectionery - if given the option at the point of purchase to pay (say) an extra 100 yen to have it wrapped in a woodblock print - would do so.
- 100 yen? Sell colour woodblock prints for 100 yen? Is that possible?
- Well, in today's first 'test', Tsushima-san, who - as I mentioned - has never held a baren before, did impressions like the ones above in about 20 seconds. (She had no idea I was timing her, but after each little practice session, I asked her to do a 'run' of 5 copies, and quietly timed it.)
- OK, let's be conservative and say 30 seconds each colour; giving around 120 impressions per hour. Let's be even more conservative and knock it down to 100 per hour.
- At a pay rate of 1,000 yen per hour (which is about 300 yen more than the 'supermarket checker' rate common around here), that gives a base cost for us of 10 yen per colour per sheet.
- Suppose we had a kakegami involving 5 colours; our 'factory cost' would then be 50 yen + 10 yen paper (a machine-made paper, of course) = 60 yen.
- Hmmm ...
Something else important to mention. I had the webcam running during our practice session this morning, and just after we finished, and I said goodbye to Tsushima-san (and the friend who had accompanied her), I returned to the workshop to shut it down. As I did so I received a call from a long-time collector who had tuned-in to the last part of the session. (He may identify himself in the comments below ... we'll see!)
As it happens, it is this particular collector that I had been thinking of when mulling over whether or not to try this experiment this week. He owns a collection of quite spectacular woodblock prints of the early 20th century, and I was imagining him saying, "Dave, I kind of see the logic here, but why are you doing this? I thought Mokuhankan was going to produce top level stuff - some really wonderful prints! Why are you fooling around making wrapping paper for 100 yen?"
So when I saw his name on the computer screen, showing me who was calling, I swallowed a bit ... "OK, let's see what he has to say about this ..."
Well, as it turned out, I needn't have worried, as his reaction was not negative at all. I won't try and repeat here what he said, because he may well post something below, but I can encapsulate my thinking as I chatted with him. Something like this ...
"I'm stuck. I can't find printers to work for me - to produce the kind of prints I want to make. It has become completely clear that the only way forward is to get people in here and train them myself. But. The situation that we had in the 'old days' - where each workshop had plenty of work suitable for beginners (wrapping paper, accounting ledger sheets, envelopes, etc.) - is long gone. So I'm going to try to re-create that setup. No, Tsushima-san (probably) has no intention of becoming a pro printer. And Mokuhankan does not want to become a place specializing in such inexpensive stuff. But if this little idea actually does work, and we are able to build a little 'stable' of a half-dozen people to print, along with a bunch of confectionery shops willing to take the stuff, then there we are - we would have a structure in place where the 'would be' printer can fit in. He/she could sit here, get some simple training, join this crew and be 'productive' right away. Some such people may soon quit; some may be happy just making kakegami forever. But some - hopefully - will catch on fire, will dig in, and will develop the strong skill set needed for work on those 'spectacular' prints that we will produce ... one day!"