The Tokuno Gift -- Tokuno’s Description of Block-Cutting and Printing

Tokuno’s Description of Block-Cutting and Printing

Wood block print, titled “Farmers”

To view a listing of objects without the introductory text, click here.

Gif displaying a series of progressive proofs of a stylized group of leaves and berries from the shrub Nandina domestica.

Print, Nandina domestica

Gif of 35 progressive proofs, Nandina domestica. Designed by Tsubaki Chinzan, engraved by Kotaro Kido, and printed by Iwakichi Yamamoto.

Part of the documentation received with the collection included a report on Japanese wood-block cutting and printing prepared by Tokuno and Shotaro Tsukiyama, his associate in the Printing Bureau. Their notes offer a very clear description of the methods used for Japanese print production in the third quarter of the 19th century. They provided detailed information on cutting and printing the blocks, a practice that was beginning to be replaced by more modern methods. The accompanying seven watercolors probably were commissioned to illustrate how the tools and blocks were made and used by Japanese artisans; they were reproduced in the publication cited below, and they also served as a reference for Smithsonian staff who installed the exhibition that was on view for so many years.

Sylvester R. Koehler, the first Smithsonian Graphic Arts curator, edited a monograph on Japanese block-cutting and printing from the text supplied by Tokuno that was published as part of the Smithsonian’s Annual Report for 1892. This illustrated report describes the wood used for the blocks, the tools and the methods of the block-cutter and printer, as well as the pigments and papers used. Additional remarks addressed the tasks, costs, and production values associated with the design, engraving, and printing of the blocks. Koehler also added some comparative notes on the history of relief printing in the West.

Drawing of block cutter's tools

Drawing of Block Cutter's Tools

1. Ruler for cutting straight lines and for fixing the registering marks on the planks used in color printing. 2. Brush for removing from the plank the chips thrown out by the cutting tools. 3. Engraving knife for cutting out the design. Only one knife, always of the same pattern and size, is used by the Japanese wood-cutters; and with this one knife they perform all grades of work from the coarsest to the finest, the execution depending entirely on the skill of the engraver. 4-9. Chisels for removing smaller portions of wood between the lines of the design. They are used exactly like the engraving knife. 10 & 11. Chisels for correcting unsatisfactory parts (removing parts for “plugging”). 12. Saw for cutting small pieces of wood to be inserted in the plank where corrections have to be made. 13-16. Chisels for removing larger portions of wood. 17 & 18. Semicircular chisels for removing larger portions of wood. 19. Grinding stone for leveling the surface of the grinding stone seen in 20. 20. Grinding stone for taking off the somewhat roughened edges of the knives and chisels, 21. Stone used for sharpening knives and chisels. 22. Oil pot, in which oil of Sesamum orientale is kept, for rubbing the portions of the plank to be cut, so as to soften the wood and make the cutting easier and cleaner. 23. Oil brush for the oil. 24 & 25. Wooden mallets for driving the chisels seen in number 13 through 18.

Drawing of block printer's tools

Drawing of Block Printer's Tools

1. Box, for keeping all the tools and materials required for printing. 2. Boards, for pressing wet paper. 3. Small box, for keeping colors, color dishes, etc. 4. Printing table. 5-7. Brushes, for charging the cut planks with the printing colors. 8. Brush, for wetting paper. 9. Oil of Sesamum orientale 10. Baren, a little shield used to press. 11-13. Chisels and a Knife, used to correct marks if necessary. 14. Agitator, for mixing colors in the basin. 15. Pads of cotton cloth, to be placed under the four corners of the planks while printing to keep them from moving. 16. The five dry colors, in bottles. 17. Basin, for mixing colors.

Method of Using Baren

The direction in the movement of the “ baren ” should be zigzag, but if a very small and isolated part of the design is to be printed, it is better to give a lighter rub with the edge of the instrument. Baren is a little hard shield, consisting of a stiff disk, made of layers of paper pasted together, and turned up at the edge so as to form a very shallow receptacle, and covered with cotton cloth on the outside.

Registering the print

As each color requires a separate cut, each plank must have certain registering marks so that all the sheets may be laid down in exactly the same position to insure the fitting of each color upon the others. No mechanical means are used, the Japanese printer relies simply upon experience.