Hand Burnishing with the Lawrence Ball Bearing Baren


Judy Csiky

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A Ball Bearing Baren is a fantastic tool for hand printing lino & vinyl as it applies a more even pressure than spoons and traditional bamboo barens. We are hoping to bridge the price gap between professional Ball Bearing Barens by offering a more affordable solution for printmakers and students alike. In this post we are testing the new Lawrence Ball Bearing Baren by printing a Japanese Vinyl design onto Kizuki Monme and BKF Rives paper, using Speedball Water-soluble Relief Ink.

What's Hand Burnishing?

Hand burnishing or hand printing is a relief printing process where you manually apply pressure to transfer your image onto the paper instead of using a press. Presses come in all shapes and sizes and they apply varying degrees of pressure. When using an top-roller driven press, you can expect a lot of pressure which makes the transfer easy and the resulting print sharp and saturated, regardless of paper thickness or weight.

On the other hand, when printing without a press, you have to adjust your process to accommodate for the fact that you are not able to apply as much pressure as a press. This means that the ink won't transfer over as easily to the paper and, if you use a thick paper, you might not be able to achieve crisp results.

This should not be a deterrent though as you can print very successfully onto lightweight paper and you'll soon discover a whole new world of possibilities: Japanese, Indian and other hand-made papers that are designed for this specific purpose. There's an incredible variety here in terms of colour, texture and thickness from delicate tissue papers to the fibrousness of Nepalese Lokta.

This is where barens come in, they are tools you can use to apply pressure by hand. Traditionally, people used the back of wooden spoons and barens made from natural materials such as bamboo leaves. In modern times we have a lot of different barens to choose from. 

Whilst they are all successful in helping you transfer your image, ball bearing barens are considered the best as they are much better at applying an even pressure throughout the print, eliminating problems such as blotchiness. 

The Lawrence Ball Bearing Baren

The Lawrence Ball Bearing Baren is 80mm diameter wide with a round handle you can rest your palm on whilst applying pressure in a circular motion. It comes in 4 colours (black, blue, red and green). You can print any size with it, however, larger prints take more time and effort so this tool is aimed at A4 or smaller prints.

The tool features 45 stainless steel balls which means you have 45 points where the pressure is evenly distributed as you move your hand around. The body itself is made of a firm plastic using 3D printing technology. All the parts are made in the UK and the baren itself is assembled locally in our Hove warehouse - this means it has a reduced carbon footprint which is great for the environment.

The Lawrence Ball Bearing Baren is a sturdy tool that will last you a long time. To look after it, you can rub some oil onto the ball bearings using a cloth or piece of leather from time to time. It can also be disassembled and the ball bearings can be replaced. We are more than happy to supply replacements if and when they need replacing.

Testing the Lawrence Ball Bearing Baren

To test the baren I selected a 10 x 15cm Japanese Vinyl plate - I prefer this to traditional lino because the black core makes for better visibility of my cuts. I used a snowflake design and a couple of small Pfeil lino tools, a 12/1 V tool and a 9/2 gouge. When I was finished, I degreased the plate and prepared my printing surface: spread out some Speedball ink on a glass inking slab using a small Essdee rubber roller. This roller is actually designed for fabric printing but because it's highly absorbent, it was the perfect tool for this task.

I decided to test a lightweight tissue paper, the Kizuki Monme (24gsm) and a thicker one, the BFK RIves Blanc (115gsm). I expected the tissue paper to be easier to print, but I also wanted to see results from a medium weight one.

The next step was to ink up my plate and I have to admit I did not get it right the first time. The trick with hand printing is that you need to use a lot more ink than you would using a press, which is again due to the decreased pressure. 

When your plate is inked, gently place your paper on top. You can use a barrier - some people use freezer paper, or another smooth paper that reduces friction - I just used a sheet of Kizuki with its smooth side up. Despite it's 24gsm weight, it is an incredibly hardy paper and it didn't tear under the pressure at all.

The next step is the printing itself - I grabbed my baren and started moving it around in a circular motion whilst applying pressure. The thinner the paper, the more it shows through and the easier you can tell if any areas need a bit more work. I would recommend paying close attention to corners and edges as they are slightly harder to get to. 

Keep going for a few minutes and try checking by partially lifting the paper away from the plate. Be careful not to reposition the paper or your design might move out of place and ruin your work.

Here's a short video of printing onto the Kizuki Monme paper which turned out beautifully.

The Results

I found the printing process simple and fun, the ball bearings did their jobs perfectly and my design came out sharp on both papers. I did have to do a few tries to learn how much ink the plate needed (more every time), how long to keep going (a couple of minutes and less time when the plate was inked correctly). It is important to note that the water-based ink I used dried quicker than oil-based ones which meant the plate was thirstier too. Here is my honest process going from first to last print on both papers.

As you can see from the circular marks, the first print on the BFK Rives was under-inked and underworked with the baren. The second print shows that the inking was close to optimal but I still needed to pay closer attention to some areas like the edges of the plate. Apart from a few missed spots, my third attempt was very successful on the medium weight BFK Rives printing paper and the black ink looks uniform and sharp.

I was able to achieve even better results on the tissue paper. This was partly because I could see the ink show through as I was working the baren so I could go back to areas I would have otherwise missed.

I definitely recommend a lightweight tissue paper or another Japanese paper for this purpose. You'll save on ink (a medium weight paper needs more for an even coverage) and you'll spend less time printing with the baren.

Some Key Takeaways 

  • hand burnishing is a great alternative to printing with a relief or etching press
  • barens come in many shapes but a ball bearing baren increases the chance of success due to having multiple pressure points
  • ball bearing barens are longer lasting than other types of barens
  • when handprinting, use more ink to ink up your plate
  • experiment with lighter weight papers for best results
  • a lightweight paper in combination with a see-through barrier increases your visibility
  • use a circular motion and apply pressure, pay attention to edges and corners

We hope you enjoyed this post about the Lawrence Ball Bearing Baren and the general introduction to hand printing. Should you have any questions, you can contact us at artbox@lawrence.co.uk and we will be more than happy to offer advice.

Lastly, here's a list of all the materials mentioned in this article: