Printmaking Baren Alternative Ideas

English printmaker Debbie Kendall has been investigating some ideas 
for an effective, affordable printmaking baren for hand burnishing prints.
I thought it was a really useful article, especially to show alternatives to having a press at home.

"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).

Hand burnishing each colour was the only real option for me.
For those who may be reading this 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!

I was embarking on a somewhat ambitious print – 
a hand burnished, 11-colour reduction lino print 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.

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.
Barens with a single large flat area in contact with the paper can be quite abrasive,
which is 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. 

Types of printmaking baren:
Speedball baren, large serving spoon and porcelain door knob!

One effective tool I have used is the smooth back of a large spoon,
rubbed in circular motions on the back of the paper (over the inked plate).
 Another tool I have used most successfully in the past is a porcelain door knob,
which is nice and smooth, and easy to grip. 
These work well as the pressure is driven through the small surface area in contact with the paper, 
but that is also the drawback as it means a lot of rubbing over an A3-size print!
After burnishing the first few prints that I was heading for a repetitive strain injury, not good.

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:

Japanese ball bearing baren

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 evenly across the disc.
 Bound in black leather with a strong leather handle, this looks like it would have promising,
lots of small areas of pressure combined into one larger area...
except the price – around £200 – rather a lot to invest in something I haven’t actually tried.

Drawing Pin Baren

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 do.
This looks like it might work, 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.

I was chatting to my teenage son about this dilemma with 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 "Tuna Baren"!

Debbie's invention, the "Tuna Baren"

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…

TunaBaren print shows  

After the TunaBaren has been used for a short time, 
you can see where the TunaBaren has been moved around on the lino and on the paper, 
there are a mass of swirly lines where ink has been transferred 
from the many points of contact of the ball bearings. 
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.

So back to the drawing board...
Inspired by the glass baren, I decided to try to create a baren using glass cabochons,
(these are flattish, glass discs with one flat side and one gently rounded (convex) side. 
After hours of investigating possible ideas some deliberation, 
I glued an arrangement of cabochons onto a wooden half sphere, as this should be easy 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 "Cabochon Baren".

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 a 100mm wooden half sphere.

The winner was... the Cabochon Baren!
The ink transfer was decent and the effort required was markedly less. 
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."

I think these are great ideas, and I'm keen to give this a try myself!
If you have any other feedback or suggestions about barens
or printing without a press, we'd love to hear about them.