A 'High/Low' Carving/Printing Ensemble (entry by John Amoss)

I have been looking at different solutions for hanga printing desks the last few years. Initially, I used a drafting table which I think was perfectly useful, but I never felt like I could stand for hours on end and that I needed to sit down and let my arms do the work.

I therefore started considering low desks - the traditional Japanese style such as David Bull uses in which the printer and carver sits on a floor cushion. I'm not a naturally flexible person, but I jury-rigged a similar desk using books and a piece of wood. After about 15 minutes of working on the floor, I realized that this was not something I could ever get used to.

I then remembered Baren member Matt Brown using a compromise - sitting on a low stool that allows for what I thought might be the best of both worlds: a 'settled' sitting position and yet ergonomically comfortable.

If you are interested in making a bench like this, I would suggest that you make a makeshift version using materials like books, cardboard or cheap pieces of wood. Variables such as leg length, flexibility, size of prints, angle, etc. make for a wide range of possibilities.

You might look at the images here and say I'm complicating things - which is probably true! My enjoyment of woodworking led me to woodblocks and I love projects that include both pursuits. I thought that you can take what you see here and simplify things to suit your needs. An example: I used solid oak - you don't need to of course - 3/4-inch plywood and deck screws would work just fine...

This printing ensemble is made up of three parts:

  1. Suri-dai/Hori-dai - the main printing and carving bench,
  2. Mae-bako - the paper to be printed table, and
  3. Yoko-ita - the printed paper table.

I also am lucky to have an old silverware chest in which I store my tools and place my pigments on top when printing. In addition, I sit on a simple 9" - high stool.

The main bench (as well as the tables) is at a 9 degree slant. The working surface of my bench is 19" by 30". When printing, I have found it helpful to have the surface slant away from me as traditional benches. Once I tried this for a while, it felt right and is supposed to help you apply pressure more evenly. The printing side edge of this bench is 14" high with the carving side measuring 11" from the floor.

As for the carving side, I have bored 2 tapered holes to accommodate bench dogs. These tapered plugs allow the block to have points of resistance when carving. Adding a screw makes for a very tight fit and keeps the dogs from straying. Also, since the surface is at an angle, I added a brass strip to the lowest edge so that my tools won't fall off and stick me or worse, get damaged.

One of the most important qualities of a bench is for it to be rock solid - no sliding on the floor, no rocking, etc. and so I over-built it. However, I also wanted the bench to be broken down, so I used a wooden peg to allow disassembly of the legs and to tighten any looseness in the joint. I also added a set screw for added strength.

This set-up differs from any other I've seen in that all of the work surfaces here (bench, and both tables) are at the same 9 degree angle. That allows for the paper to stay at a consistent angle - this is a pretty minor point, but I like not having to tilt the paper as it is processed.

As for the paper tables, I wanted them to nestle into the printing bench. The paper to be printed table's leading edge overlaps the printing desk so that it can be adjusted front or back. Also, since I work with my back to a wall, I can slide the printing bench away from me when I get up without disturbing anything. To keep moisture from escaping from the paper into the table’s wood, each paper table has a piece of plexiglass on the top.

My choice for finishing was a reddish mahogany oil-based gel stain to minimize the oak's texture and then followed up with 3~4 coats of yellow varnish roughing with steel wool between coats.

I'm happy with how they came out both in looks and in feel. I really feel 'planted' once I'm situated- much like I'm in a fighter pilot's cockpit and can work for hours with everything within reach. In retrospect, however I think that the carving side is a bit low and I wish that I had made the whole ensemble a little higher, but not by much. The cost was a little over $100 with a some varnish left over for my blocks.

Anyway, I encourage anyone who is interested in asking me more questions or comments on the bench, please message me or we can discuss it on Barenforum.

Thanks to: David Bull and Matt Brown for their input.