Words long forgotten and never known — On rare terms of book printing and printmaking

Words long forgotten and never known — On rare terms of book printing and printmaking

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In the July 2020 issue of Science and Life, a popular Russian-language science monthly published in Moscow, an article appeared which was devoted entirely to the leather ink balls. It turned out that not only the tool itself is no longer in use, both the word and the concept have all but disappeared. This web publication provides an abstract of the Science and Life paper, and makes use of the materials covering the similar printing tools which were excluded from the paper due to space limitations.

Briefly about ink balls

One of Johannes Gutenberg's inventions, once a readily-recognizable symbol of the trade, leather ink balls have faithfully served typographers around the world as an indispensable tool of letterpress printing and printmaking for nearly four centuries. Their design, size, materials, manufacturing techniques, and storage methods varied considerably from one region to another, but the key features remained invariant — a pair of specially treated leather pads with a smooth and clean surface, neatly rounded, tightly stuffed with horsehair or wool and attached to wooden handles.

The tool turned out to be an ideal solution for a specific technical problem — to spread the printer's ink into a uniform thin layer and to apply it to the raised elements of a letterpress form or a woodcut block. The ink balls entered the public consciousness, became an ubiquitous attribute of typographic signs, printer's devices, professional guild and personal heraldic emblems, and even playing cards.



A pair of ink balls resting on the marble slab where the ink is mixed.  Photo: Karen N. Gerig (Basel), 2016.

Three, seven, and ace from a deck of playing cards with the ink balls as a suit symbol. Jost Amman. Nuremberg, 1568.

And then the 19th century brought about the industrialization. In England, a new material, a predecessor of rubber, was invented. It became known as a composition — a mixture of molasses, tar and glue. When solidified, this material forms a hard but elastic substance (which became known as масса in Russian). At first, the composition just replaced the wool-stuffed leather pad, so that the ink balls retained their traditional shape. But very soon people figured out how to shape the composition into a solid seamless cylinder. Thus a composition roller was born. The era of the leather ink balls came to an end.


The Russian word for ink balls, along with many other printing terms, has the Italian origin. Among the two printers working at the printing press, the one who inks the moving type is called баты́рщик (from Ital. battitore), the other one who directly operates the press is known as тередо́рщик (from Ital. tiratore). The Italian word mazza, which means a bat, got adapted into a Russian ма́тца. It is in this form that the word appears in the historical texts up to the mid-19th century. While the tool itself remained in business and the word was in active use, it naturally required all the declension forms and derivatives: nom. sing. — ма́тца, nom. pl. — ма́тцы, gen. pl. — ма́тец, adj. — ма́течный. But once the tool became obsolete and the word only needed the nominative form of dictionary entries, the letter T got dropped. In Vladimir Dahl's famous Explanatory dictionary, the word appears in the form ма́ца. That is, except for the vocal stress, it became an homograph of matzah (Rus. маца́) — a dry unleavened flatbread which belongs to the traditional Jewish cuisine and is an integral component of the Passover celebration.


Der Buchdrucker (The printers). A woodcut from <em>Das Ständebuch</em> by Hans Sachs and Jost Amman. Frankfurt-am-Main, 1568.


After the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the Soviet authorities did their best to completely write off the ink balls in an attempt to "renounce the old world" (quoting the opening line of the Russian Communist adaptation of La Marseillaise, the French national anthem with the original lyrics by Claude Rouget de L'Isle). Thus, the word is absent from the key explanatory dictionaries of that period, as well as from the Great Soviet Encyclopedia. Forgetting something does not require much sophistication. Starting form about mid-60s, some scientific papers on history of technology contained a discovery: "To ink the movable type, a printer would use a маца, that is, a large leather glove." However, this is not the limit for a confusion. Today, in multiple traditional and online publications (appearing under different names, so crediting the original author may not be easy), the instructions how to prepare the ink balls for a work shift appear to have been copied verbatim — from the kosher culinary books giving delicious recipes of dishes with matzot!

Nevertheless, through the efforts of living history museums and early printing enthusiasts around the world, the ink balls — this culturally important object — survive even today. One can see them in operation or even try oneself in the art of printing working as a beater (aka батырщик or battitore). On the illustration to the right, Gary Gregory, the founder, president, and director of The Printing Office of Edes & Gill in Boston, MA, demonstrates the operation of a press during the period of American Revolution. Whereas this video link would bring the reader to the printing demo at the Crandall Historic Printing Museum in Alpine, UT, founded by Louis E. Crandall in 1988.

Gary Gregory, the founder of The Printing Office of Edes & Gill in Boston, MA.

The Italian word mazza (a bat) is functional. In many other languages, as in English, the corresponding term points to the round shape of the implement: German — Druckerballen, English — ink ball, Dutch — inktbal or drukkersbal, Finnish — väripallo, French — just balle.

In Ukrainian, one of the names of the tool is батирка which is derived from the name of the profession: батирник (many thanks to Vitaliy Pavlenko for pointing this out). While it most often appears in the 19th century and applies to a composition roller, it is rooted in the earlier times and first denoted the leather ink balls. For example, in a record dated 1801, "Для шрифтаря купують дві залізні мисочки, для друкарні купують: 4 дубові дошки, оливи 4 1/2 ф., губу грецьку, шворки, ниток несуканих, ирхи овечой за батирки, 7 щоток, бичовки на шнури, ниток суконих, сукна сермяжного, криці косної для ножів у друкарні, олова для літер, словолітейщику 4 вози вугілля..." (Бібліологічні вісті, 1–4, Львів, 1999. С.59.)

A closeup of an ink ball held by a beater. Photo: http://www.imprimerie.lyon.fr/

We shall now focus on the other applications of relief printing and the tools that are used in such applications.

Printing on fabric

Printing on fabric is ubiquitous in many cultures around the world and can trace its roots to by far more ancient times than book printing. A printing block with raised pattern is covered with ink or dye (to apply to the fabric in the direct printing method), etchant (to remove color from the already uniformly dyed fabric), or resist (such as wax, to prevent color transfer to the specific areas in the course of subsequent dyeing). Then the pattern is transferred from the printing block to the fabric, and fabric is subjected to any post-processing, if necessary. The most ancient examples of printed fabrics within the realm of the former Russian Empire are dated back to approximately 11th century. Those had been discovered in 1874 by a prominent Ancient Rus archeologist D.Ya. Samokavsov (1843–1911) during the excavation of the burial mounds near the village of Lenivki in the Chernihiv province in Ukraine.

There are two basic methods of image transfer onto the fabric which are described in the literature. The first method is more universal. The printer spreads the fabric on a flat surface, places a printing block on top of it, and taps the block on top with a hand or wooden mallet. In present-day Russia, the ink or paint is applied to a printing block with a help of a chassis, that is, a wooden box or a container, which is partially filled with a thick substance (загустка) to create an elastic base, covered with a layer of a waterproof material and a cloth saturated with paint. When a printing block (called цве́тка or ма́нера) is lowered into a chassis and pressed against the cloth, the paint is transferred to its raised elements. In this way, for example, the Pavlov Posad shawls are made.


Printed fabrics from the Lenivki near Starodub city, province of Chernihiv, Ukraine. Source: В.Прохоровъ <em>Исторiя русскихъ одеждъ.</em> СПб, 1881.

The second of the methods described in the literature is used largely in Ukraine. A printing block (Ukr. лице́ [litse]) is mounted horizontally with the carved surface facing up. The fabric then is placed on top and either tapped or rolled in from above. To task of applying ink or paint to the surface of the block is solved with a pair of leather pads known in Ukrainian as товку́ши [tovkushi]. "Tovkusha, -shi, fem. — among fabric printers, a tool for applying the paint to the pattern block: a square board with a handle on top and a leather pad below." (Словарь української мови: в 4-х тт. / За ред. Б. Грінченка. К., 1907–1909. V. 4. P. 270.) There is a direct analogy between tovkushi and typographic ink balls. "The paint is applied to the two stuffed leather pads (or tovkushi). These pads are attached to the rectangular boards with handles. First, they are beaten against each other to spread the paint uniformly, and then beaten against the carved pattern board to cover it with paint." (Н. Дубина «Откуда есть пошла»... печать по ткани.)

An example of the pattern block for fabric printing with the miniature design elements is shown in the illustration on the right. Its design suggests that, most likely, the paint is supposed to be applied to it with an ink pad (tovkusha) rather than by pressing against a paint-saturated cloth. The block is made by wood carving and embellished with multiple copper inserts — in the form of plates and wires, — that allow creating of fine and sharp pattern lines.

Stone rubbing (China)


Carved wooden print block with fine copper inserts. Photo by the author.

A fragment of the carved wooden print block with metal inserts. Photo by the author.

Since the ancient times, it has been a tradition in China to immortalize in stone the most important canonical texts: Analects by Confucius, works of classical poetry, Buddhist sutras, calligraphic masterpieces, and so on. Stone, or stele, relief cutting has become a special plastic (i.e., three-dimensional) art form. With invention of paper in the second century C.E., it became possible to create copies of such reliefs for public and private libraries, which led to the birth and development of a new kind of graphic art. This graphic art form is nowadays denoted with the character 拓 (tà or tuò) and is known in English as stone rubbing. It is believed that its history goes back at least one and a half thousand years.


Мастер тушевого оттиска за работой. Фото: http://www.longquanzs.org/

Making a rubbing imprint on paper involves the use of an instrument known as 拓包 (tà bāo) which looks very much like a typographic ink ball. The second character means a packet, a wrap, or a dumpling. The name of this tool is commonly translated into Russian as тампон табао, or, literally, a tabao pad. A moistened sheet of paper is laid over the inscribed stone surface; then a special brush is applied to tamp the paper into every depression on the surface. Thereafter the artist uses one or two tabao pads (on a vertical or horizontal surfaces, respectively) to apply the coloring pigment to the exterior side of the paper sheet. In doing so, the depressed areas remain uncolored. As a result, an imprint of the inscribed surface is formed on the paper, which, unlike the letterpress or engraving print, is a direct copy of the original form, rather than its mirror image.


Making a stone rubbing imprint (1). The Beilin stone stelae museum in Xi'an. Photo by the author.Making a stone rubbing imprint (2). The Beilin stone stelae museum in Xi'an. Photo by the author.
Making a stone rubbing imprint (3). The Beilin stone stelae museum in Xi'an. Photo by the author.Making a stone rubbing imprint (4). The Beilin stone stelae museum in Xi'an. Photo by the author.

For many centuries of its history, the art of stone rubbing has developed numerous styles and directions. The most obvious classification criterion is based on the type of coloring pigment: the 墨拓 (mò tà) type imprints employ back ink, whereas the 朱拓 (zhū tà) type imprints, the cinnabar or other bright red pigment. Also, already more than a thousand years ago, the distinction emerged between the imprints of "golden-black" style made in the saturated shiny black tone (烏金拓, wūjīn tà), and the imprints of the "cicada wing" style with light translucent shades, which form what can be called a graphic rhyme (蝉翼拓, chányì tà). A more detailed description of the stone rubbing can be found in the Russian-language paper by V.G. Belozerova. In addition, a small-form demonstration at the Taiwan Historical Museum in Nantou City (Taiwan) covers all stages of making a rubbing imprint in a short time.

Not only is the art of stone rubbing alive and well today, but it also continues to develop new forms of artistic expression. As is the case with the ink balls, the tabao pads are made by the artists themselves. A wooden disk, with lumps of cotton, sheep's or camel's wool laid on top of it, is covered in several layers of silk or fabric with wide edges. These edges, gathered from the opposite side of the disk and wrapped in twine, form a tabao handle.


A fragment of a cinnabar 朱拓 (zhū tà) imprint. Photo: http://xuenpei.blog.sohu.com/

Wang Xizhi. <em>Orchid Pavilion</em> (353 г.). The "cicada wing" style imprint of the closing lines of the Preface made from a 6th century stele.

Polychrome xylography (Japan)

It would be unfair not to say a few words about yet another member of the instrument family that includes ink balls, tovkushi and tabao. In Japan, a tool called báren (ばれん) is used to make prints and in particular, polychrome woodcuts. It has the shape of a disc with a flat handle and, unlike the tools described above, does not come into contact with the ink or paint. After applying paint to the printing block with a brush and placing a sheet of paper on top of it, the Japanese artist rubs the sheet to the block using a baren, which thus serves as an equivalent of a printing press. A demonstration at Takezasa-do studio in Kyoto explains the creation of a polychrome print using as an example a modern reproduction of the famous "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" engraving by the Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760–1849).

It is interesting to note the difference in the approaches to copying printing blocks in the Japanese and European xylographic traditions. In Europe, the master who carved the new block rarely achieved - or set the goal to achieve - an absolute similarity, so that the impressions pulled off such blocks are easily distinguishable. (Copying copper plates is a different matter.) In Japan, on the other hand, making copies of the woodcut printing blocks with exceptional accuracy does not seem to be anything unusual at all.


The author would like to express his heartfelt gratitude to Dr. Jun Shan Wey (Seattle) for an introduction to and a tour of the Beilin Museum in Xi'an and for her involved participation in preparation of this article.


Baren. A modern version.

Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). "The great wave off Kanagawa". A polychrome woodcut print (1820–1831).