Ink Stones
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(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artistsí Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

Natural ink stones are made from slate, and imitation ink stones are ceramic. The ink stone, with water, is used to grind the ink stick into tiny particles to form liquid ink. The better the stone, the smaller and more consistent the particles will be and the denser the ink. A good stone will make a poor ink stick perform slightly better than a good ink stick ground on a poor stone. It is best to have a stone that at least matches or slightly exceeds the quality of the ink stick.

The older the stone that is used to make an ink stone, the better it will perform. Because the geological formations in China are much older than those in Japan, the best stones come from China. Both the Japanese and Chinese make their best products out of the oldest stone that can be found in China. The Japanese term for the best grades of slate used in the manufacture of ink stones is tankai. There are several grades of tankai just as there are grades of diamonds. The very best tankai was found under rivers. Today it can only be found in private collections and in museums. Since China has a long history, all the stones of this quality have already been found. Today's tankai is collected from caves and these lesser grades of tankai can be found even in the West, but they are expensive. Japanese ink stones that are more moderately priced are made primarily from more recent lava formations. The least expensive ink stones are made from ceramic rather than from natural stone. (For colored ink sticks, multiple ceramic stones are used because of the expense and to keep the better stone from being contaminated with residual colors.)

Japanese ink stones are made into a rectangular shape with a well, or deeper impression, on one side to hold the water separate from the grinding surface and to collect the ink. The better natural stones are often characterized by a natural irregular shape, or are encased in a wooden box.

Chinese ink stones are usually round in shape with either a concave or a flat grinding surface. It is also common to find a lid, which covers the stone, made of wood or of the same stone. The moderately priced stones are made of slate. Better quality is sometimes indicated by the irregular shape, a wooden encasement, and the purplish hue of the stone. Some Chinese ink stones have an oil or wax on them to help protect them until purchase. This material should be washed away before use.

Inspecting an Ink Stone involves looking for any hairline cracks that may result in the stone coming apart easily, and checking to see if it is a ceramic stone or a natural stone. If there are any natural imperfections such as streaks that appear to run with the tooth, or grain, of the stone, they are not necessarily to be avoided and are, in fact, sometimes sought after for the character that they give.

Testing an Ink Stone involves three steps of inspecting the grinding surface. The finer the surface, the finer and more consistent the quality of the ink will be. The surface of an ink stone is similar to a saw's teeth, in that there are tiny peaks tilted in one direction that can grind off small particles of the ink stick when rubbed against it. The first step is to test the tooth of the stone's grinding surface. This can be done by rubbing the surface of the ink stone with the tof edge of a fingernail in a direction away from the well. The better the stone, the more distinct and uniform the mark will be.

The next test involves the use of water. If the tooth is fine and pointed in one direction, a small amount of water placed on the (clean) grinding surface will appear to sink immediately just below the surface, but will not appear dry. The teeth will break the water tension and the water will be trapped beneath the tips of the teeth. If the surface where the water has been applied dries out quickly, then the stone is too absorbent and of lesser quality. If the grain is irregular or has imperfections, the absorption will also be irregular.

The final test is to check the flatness and smoothness of the grinding surface. Visual inspection and touching the surface with the fingers or tongue should show a very smooth and flat surface.

Ink stones range in price from three dollars to eighty thousand dollars, depending on quality. A stone of adequate quality can easily be had for between ten and thirty dollars.

A complete inspection should be reserved for the more expensive ink stones. Performing an inspection this thoroughly on an ink stone that is priced at less than ten dollars, is like using a jeweler's eyepiece to inspect jewelry at the corner drugstore.

(Excerpts from ART HARDWARE: The Definitive Guide to Artistsí Materials, by Steven Saitzyk © 1987)

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