Japanese Woodblock Printmaking Tools

Written by erin maurer
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Japanese Woodblock Printmaking Tools
Water-based ink is rubbed over carved wood to create a woodblock print. (bottle of ink image by Alfonso d'Agostino from Fotolia.com)

Buddhist monks began using woodblock printing techniques in the eighth century, as Japanese monks learnt the tradition from the Chinese. According to the Druckstelle printmaking studio’s website, traditional prints are still made using the same basic tools. The art of "moku hanga," or printmaking, has become a respected Japanese art form. Shapes, designs and words are carved into blocks of wood. Water-based ink is then applied to the wood block using a brush. The inked designs are then applied to thin Japanese papers.


Traditionally, Japanese woodblock prints were made by carving blocks of cherry wood, according to the Druckstelle website. Cherry wood is still regarded as the best medium for Japanese printmaking. Check local lumber yards for clean, straight blocks of cherry wood. Avoid wood that is warped or full of knots.

Cutting Tools

Several types of traditional tools are used to carve intricate, clean designs into the wood. According to the McClain’s Printmaking Supplies website, printmakers should purchase a set that includes a hangi to, komasuki, aisuki, sankaku to and tama to. These traditional Japanese tools each serve a specific purpose. The hangi to is the traditional wood carving knife, used to cut the outlines of a design. Detail work is done using the U and V gouges known as the komasuki and sankaku to. The aisuki chisel and the tama to circle carving knife help create fine lines and further details.

Ink and Pigments

While many woodblock printmakers use an oil-based ink, the Japanese style has historically used water-based inks, according to the Druckstelle website. Ink is applied to the wood block using a brush. Printing paste is also applied by hand, and the products are mixed to form an even layer. Coloured inks can be created by mixing powder pigments and water, according to the David Bull’s Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking website.


Japanese print makers use traditional, thin, humid paper for creating woodblock prints. According to the David Bull’s Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking website, hosho paper is the most commonly used Japanese paper. These papers can be ordered from Japanese retailers and are sometimes available in craft stores. Keep in mind that Japanese papers come in dimensions that differ from papers found in the United States.

Printing Tools

Perhaps the most important printmaking tool for moku hanga is the baren. The baren is a circular printing tool, traditionally made from bamboo. According to the David Bull’s Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking website, the bamboo is braided and coiled together. Barens are pressed and rubbed over the paper to transfer the inked design evenly.

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