Although Japanese sumi inkstick is a color material known for its plentiful tones of black and the possibilities of creating various expressions by utilizing its affinity with water, it also has a deep connection with inkstones, as it is said that the color of sumi ink changes depending on the inkstone you used.
Inkstones are not just a tool for rubbing the inksticks but can also be visually appreciated as an art craft.
Duan inkstone (端渓硯) and She inkstone (歙州硯) are two types of remarkable inkstones according to their practicality and artistic qualities. However, even with such popular inkstones, it is difficult to choose one as a tool due to their varieties of sizes, materials and designs.
In this article, I would focus on how to select an inkstone for practical use, basic knowledge of inkstones and the main elements of Duan inkstone and She inkstone.
【Stone mortar / Stone】
The most common material used today is mined stones.
The surface of an inkstone made of natural stones has a texture like very fine sandpaper which is called Houbou (鋒鋩) in Japanese, thus sumi ink can be ground on it. The texture and density of Houbou vary according to the stones and it affects Hatsuboku (溌墨), a technique of controlling the color, shade, thickness and smoothness of ground ink. Although these inkstones are fairly steady thanks to their weight, they require extra care while using them.
In Japan, there are inkstones called Touken (唐硯, which means an inkstone made in China) and Waken (和硯, which is an inkstone made in Japan).
In particular, China has the largest stone mines for making inkstone and they have distinctive qualities in terms of their hardness and density.
The quality and pattern of the stone vary depending on where it was mined and sometimes, even the same kinds of stones have different names depending on the cave they were mined from.
Duan inkstone and She inkstone are also inkstones made of mined stones.
【Ceramic mortar / Clay・Porcelain】
There are variations in design in addition to the material characteristics of ceramics and the coloring by glaze.
Ceramic inkstones are softer than stone inkstones and they are suitable for rubbing softer inksticks or Saiboku (彩墨, colored ink sticks).
The following are the names of the main parts of inkstones.
The counters for inkstones in Japanese: Men (面), Mai (枚), Seki (石) or Ko (個)
Names of each part of the inkstone:
Front of the inkstone: Kenmen (硯面, face) or Kenpyou (硯表)
Back of the inkstone: Kenin (硯陰) or Kenpai (硯背)
Side of the inkstone: Kensoku (硯側) or Kenbou (硯旁)
Rim of the inkstone: Kenshin (硯唇) or Kendon (硯純) / also known as the border
The flat surface of the inkstone where the inkstick is rubbed: Oka (丘, hill) , Riku (陸, land/plain) or Bokudou (墨堂, sumi hall)
The spot filled with liquid ink: Umi (海, sea), Bokuchi (墨池, sumi pond), Ike (池, pond) or Genshou (硯沼, swamp)
The slope from the hill to the sea: Rakucho (落潮, ebb tide) or Zetsu (舌, tongue)
*The names to call the parts may vary depending on the country, language and culture.
The rectangular shape with a hill, sea and rim is the most common design for most inkstones, however, they also come in circular shapes, carved animal designs or unique shapes inspired by the natural form of the stones. Furthermore, there is a wide variety of designs, including a round shape with no hills and only a sea; a block of stone with only a hill design called Banken (板硯) etc. Some inkstones are designed for practical use and some are for decoration and admiration.
She Inkstone Shuikeng/ Banken inkstone with the gold star and flower patterns (歙州 水坑／金星金花紋板硯)
In general, inkstones are indicated by their sizes by “ inch / 吋” (1 inch / 1 吋 = approx. 2.5 cm).
Japanese inkstones are sometimes measured in their own traditional dimensions, such as 25 Tabi (度 / degrees); 38 or 42 Sun (寸 / approx. 3.03cm).
Although it depends on the purpose, a small inkstone is basically used for little amounts of ink and smaller brushes, while a large inkstone is used for more amounts of ink and larger brushes.
For example, if you use a large inkstone just to make a small amount of sumi ink, the water would evaporate too quickly on the large surface, on the other hand, if you use a small inkstone for preparing a large amount of ink, you may need to transfer the ink to another palette for a few times and it is hard to create the exact same shade every time you rub a new round of ink.
Therefore, you can refer to the following list to check which inkstone is more suitable according to the amount of ink and size of the brush. The following sizes are the lengths of the inkstones and for more information, please refer to our product page.
3-5 inches... small amount of ink for a small brush
6-7 inches... average amount of ink for a medium brush
8 inches and larger... large amount of ink for a large brush
◾️How to Choose
【For Black Solid Inksticks】
I recommend using a stone-type inkstone for black inksticks which are made from soot.
If you are purchasing an inkstone for the first time, it is best to choose from the ones with a hill and sea based on your preferred size and quality.
The key to keeping your inkstone in good condition is to make sure it is made of a harder material than the inkstick you use. For instance, if you use a hard inkstick on a soft inkstone, it will scratch the surface and Houbou (a special term in Japanese for the sharp surface of the inkstone) will be damaged.
Since Shoenboku (松煙墨, sumi ink made from pine soot) is hard, it is better to be rubbed on a harder inkstone, therefore, finding the right inkstone to match with your inkstick is very important.
Especially for grinding the sumi inks that were made more than 10 years ago, a Touken (唐硯, Chinese inkstone) which is harder than a Waken (和硯, Japanese inkstone) is recommended.
When making solid sumi inksticks for writing, a little extra amount of animal glue is added than what is needed, therefore, you may find them more viscous in freshly made inksticks.
However, the viscosity of animal glue will decrease as time goes on. After 3 to 5 years from when the inksticks were made, the viscosity of animal glue changes significantly, and after a few years from there, it decreases into a more well-balanced state which is suitable for drawing.
As time passes, the animal glue and moisture contained in the sumi inksticks decrease as well. They will become dry and have low viscosity of animal glue and by this time, the ink becomes lighter and the color becomes more transparent. However, they become harder than normal inksticks too.
(※Sumi ink can change greatly depending on the environment. The changes described above are only guidelines when they are stored properly.)
Since an inkstone is a tool that can be used for a long time, it is better to pick the right one based on its characteristics.
【For Colored Inksticks】
White inkstones such as Hakutouken (白陶硯, white ceramic inkstone) and Gatouken (画陶硯, round ceramic inkstone) are recommended for Saiboku (彩墨, colored inksticks) since the colors will be more visible on the white surfaces and they are made of softer materials. Please note that these inkstones are not suitable for black solid inksticks which are harder than colored inksticks.
They are small and easy to carry, so it will be more convenient to have as many as you can if you’re going to use them for different colors of inksticks.
Feel free to contact us or visit our store if you’re not quite sure how to pick the right inkstone.
In the next part, I would like to explain about the two most famous Touken (Chinese inkstones), the Duan inkstone and She inkstone.
◾️Duan Inkstone (端渓硯)
Stone Type: Green Tuff
Mining: Zhaoqing, Guangdong province, China
Stone Name: Roko(老坑), Mashiko(麻子坑), Koushigan(坑仔岩), Souko(宋坑), etc.
Mohs Hardness*: 3.5
Characteristics: Stone quality and characteristics vary depending on the pit
Compatible Sumi Ink: Yuen-boku (油煙墨, oil soot ink) or Shoen-boku (松煙墨, pine soot ink)
Duan inkstone is known as the representative of Touken.
The name “Duan" comes from the ancient name of the Xi River. Thanks to its softness, it is easy to carve and has many decorative designs. There is also a wide variety of types, and the quality and name of the stone vary according to the pit from which it is mined.
*Mohs hardness is a scale for measuring the hardness of materials such as minerals and is indicated from 1 to 10, with higher numbers indicating greater hardness.
Roko is one of the "Three Great Ancient Mines (端渓三大名坑)" and it produces the highest grade of Duan inkstone. It’s located in a cave where a clear stream flows through, therefore, the stones that are mined from Roko create fine textures and the inkstick feels as if it is melting into the surface when you grind it, this allows you to create smooth ink.
The inkstone has excellent water retention properties, therefore, the ground liquid ink will not dry out easily and it works perfectly with Yuen-boku (oil soot ink). The patterns that appear on the stone surfaces are rich and beautiful, and each pattern has its own name.
Unfortunately, Roko is no longer open for mining which makes it extremely valuable.
Koushigan is one of the “Three Great Ancient Mines” as well.
Although it does not have the same adherence as Roko, it is characterized by its extremely dense and smooth surface. Even some stones from Koushigan are said to be better than Roko, therefore, it is regarded as the second best quality after Roko. However, Koushigan is no longer available for mining too.
It is relatively hard and coarse-grained in texture among Duan inkstones. For this reason, it can be used not only with Yuen-boku (oil soot ink) but also with Shoen-boku (pine soot ink) and is convenient for those who wish to use both inksticks together.
Mashiko is one of the “Three Great Ancient Mines,” and is generally considered as producing the most major inkstones among Duan inkstones. Although the quality is not as divine as Roko or Koushigan, it is known for its smoothness when grinding inksticks.
Every Mashiko pit has seriously drained and can no longer be mined anymore, therefore, this type of inkstone is very rare and precious too.
【New Mashiko, 新麻子坑】
Although the cave is different from where Mashiko was mined, it is called the "New Mashiko" because of its similarity in color. Since there are still large amounts of resources, these are more affordable and easy to handle for beginners.
◾️ She Inkstone (歙州硯)
Stone Type: Slate
Mining: Mt. Dragon Tail, She County, Anhui Province (安徽省歙県龍尾山) (now: Wuyuan County, Jiangxi Province)
Stone Name：Gyoshi-mon(魚子紋), Bishi-mon(眉子紋), Kinsei-mon・Kinun-mon(金星・金暈紋星), etc.
Mohs hardness: 4
Characteristics: Hard and dense, but rough in texture
Compatible Sumi Ink: Shoen-boku (松煙墨, Pine soot ink)
“She” is the name of a province that once existed in China and is one of the most famous inkstones along with Duan inkstone.
Since it is harder than the Duan inkstone and has a dense and rough texture like a shark's skin, it is suitable for grinding pine soot inksticks called Shoen-boku.
Moreover, She inkstones are classified according to the pattern of the stone's surface.
Kinsei-mon and Kinun-mon patterns look like shattering a cloud of gold powder in the air and perhaps they are the most well-known signature pattern of the She inkstones.
These beautiful stone designs are very delicate and mesmerizing.
Bishi-mon means eyebrow pattern; it is named because the surface looks like a human eyebrow.
◾️How to Prepare Sumi Ink
When using a new inkstone or an inkstone that has not been used for a while, they need to be submerged in water.
① Pour a small amount of water on the hill.
It is easier to adjust the amount of water by using a water dropper or a Mizusaji (glue spoon).
If the water or room temperature is too low, it is best to warm the inkstone with something like a heater sheet or mug warmer. By doing so, it will shorten the grinding time and help disperse the animal glue faster to create a beautiful ink color.
・Mizusaji (Glue Spoon)
・Suiteki Vessel / Old Copper Genbu
②Grind Sumi inkstick
Grind your inkstick gently in a circular motion or by moving the stick back and forth until the water feels thickened as the ink is dissolved. Remember to try not to apply too much pressure or you might damage the stick.
③Add a small amount of water
To make a rich liquid Sumi ink, it is easier to grind by adding a small amount of water little by little.
Repeat steps ① to ③ until you reach the amount you need.
You can dip your brush directly into the ink on the inkstone, however, if you are using a large amount of ink or using a brush larger than the inkstone, you can create various shades of ink by transferring the ink to separate plates.
Clean the inkstone immediately with water or hot water so that no residue remains. The reason to do this is that using a clean inkstone will help to produce better shades when you grind the sumi ink.
Once it is dry, keep the inkstone in a Suzuri-bako (inkstone box).
In the following article about Chinese and Japanese inkstones, you may find something useful or interesting in it as well.
The inkstones, which embody beauty in both functionality and style, are not only a painting tool.
For some artists, other than exploring the fascinating world of sumi ink to express their sensibility, the beauty of the inkstone sometimes brings in new inspirations too!
Boku-undo Corporation (viewed February 10, 2023)
Sumi Ink and Japanese Stationery (Other)
Nishimoto Kaibundo Ltd. (viewed February 10, 2023)
Translated by Atsumi Okano
PIGMENT TOKYO Art Materials Expert