Koboku (old ink stick) (古墨)

Koboku is the ink stick that has gone through the years among Bunboshiho (four stationary goods for calligraphy; writing brush, ink, ink stone and paper), and is recognized as a good quality ink stick. Usually, Chinese ink sticks produced up until the Qing period and Japanese ink sticks until the Edo period can be called koboku.


Although there are several theories, freshly made ink sticks are sticky and their color is dull. As a rough guide, the ink sticks that have gone through from 20 to 100 years of age show the best ink black. Also, as the conditions of koboku, it is necessary that the ink sticks have been made using good materials and with proper manufacturing process. Therefore, if the materials of the ink stick that has gone through many years are coarse and are made with cutting corners, it cannot be called koboku. It is said that the ink sticks produced during Ming and Qing period have the highest quality, and the quality deteriorated gradually afterwards. Especially, it is said that Chinese ink sticks produced in and after the Cultural Revolution in 1966 are bad in quality.

Major characteristics
Its ink black is beautiful

With the ink stick it is easy to write words with smooth brush strokes.

The difference between the part where the brush has moved and the blurred part on the paper become clear when it gets dry.


It was in Han Dynasty in China that the solid stick type appeared. Its materials were soot of burnt pine and graphite, and gelatin and perfume were also used.
(Graphite was not used after Han period.)
The time when smoke black began to be used is not clear, depending on Tang or Sung Dynasty. In the Ming Dynasty Chengjufang and Fang Yulu, who were called masters of making ink sticks, appeared, and the form of ink sticks became the one used in these days. The quality of the ink sticks in those days was excellent, and this period is called the peak of making ink sticks. Therefore, the ink sticks in this period are especially prized. During the Qing Dynasty the ink sticks with high quality were also made, and long-established stores like Cao Sugong and Hu Kaiwen opened and they still exist now.

The history of making ink sticks using smoke black
The ink sticks made from burnt pine were popular until the Ming period, and ink sticks made from lamp soot were rare. With the reversal of conditions, in Qing period the ink sticks made from lamp soot became common and the ones made from burnt pine rare. However, because the method of making ink sticks until Ming period was primitive, the quality of the material (soot) was so good. But, after that, as the smoke from mineral materials such as heavy oil and lamp oil came to be used, the quality of ink sticks considerably deteriorated. In addition, not to mention the smoke from mineral materials, the making of ink sticks using smoke from burnt pine and plant-derived smoke was mechanized, and as a result the ink black became monotonous and the luster deteriorated.


The main ingredients are soot and glue with a little perfume.

In order to obtain the soot, first make a dent on the trunk of rather old pine tree with an ax. And then wait until pine resin oozes (it takes three to four months). Then cut the tree into split firewood about the size of a thick paper weight and burn them. As burning much firewood at a time makes the soot coarse, burn three or four pieces of firewood patiently. Catch the soot with a small dish like a lid, then gather the attached soot with a bird feather by scooping. The farther the position of the lid from the fire is, the better soot can be obtained. But, the farther the position becomes, the less amount of soot is obtained. When the ink stick made from burnt pine becomes old, it produces the beautiful bluish black color. The ink sticks made from lamp soot can be obtained by burning canola oil, sesame oil or camellia oil with a lamp wick in it. With a thin wick, and the farther the position to catch the soot is, the finer soot with good quality can be obtained.

Glue is as important as soot in terms of quality of ink sticks, or more important. The smooth brush stroke, which is the absolute condition for good ink stick, largely depends on the quality of glue. Glue is made by boiling the skin, bones and intestines of animals or fish. In Japan the material from animals and in China from fish is often used. The effects of using glue are as follows.

The stickiness of the glue makes scattered soot particles into one, and makes it into the shape of an ink stick.

The effects of the glue is to agglutinate, permeate and attach the ink on paper, wooden board and cloth.

Using the glue makes the ink black lustrous, brilliant and transparent.

Making ink with ink stick produces nice smell, which is why the ink stick contains perfume. It is also to remove the foul smell of the glue. Musk as animal perfume and Borneol as plant perfume are prized.

How to make ink sticks

Making ink sticks is done during winter when it is cold. This is because the glue gets rotten when the temperature is high.

Kneading up
Mix the soot with hot liquid glue, and knead it thoroughly again and again. The mixture was pounded in the mortar with mallet in China. Pound and knead it again and again. While kneading it, add perfume little by little. Put the kneaded chunk into a wooden mold, pull it into shape and compress it. It is said that this kneading work determines the quality of ink sticks, and the quality largely depends on the techniques of skilled ink stick maker.

Then remove the ink from the mold, and dry it. Put the ink stick in ashes and let the ashes absorb the moisture of the ink. At first use rather damp ash and replace it with less damp ash every day. Extreme caution is needed in replacing the ash so as not to crack or bend the ink sticks. This drying process continues for from ten days to one month, depending the size of the ink stick.

After the drying process, the ink stick is bound by straw and hung to dry like making dried persimmons. This natural drying process continues for two to three months. Polish the thoroughly dried ink stick, and draw gold or silver patterns on it, and all the process of making ink stick is finished.

The quality of ink stick continues to change even after its completion. Especially for the first two to three years, the quality is unstable. Because of this, if the ink stick in this period is used, water and ink does not mix well and the blur becomes rather worse. Therefore, it is common for manufacturers to age ink sticks and then ship them.

The present day industry of making and selling ink sticks

The time and labor consuming traditional way of making ink sticks mentioned above is rarely seen nowadays when the price-reduction by mass production is needed, and the successors of the industry are few. Meanwhile, Naraya Honpo, in 2000, started to produce and sell the handmade ink sticks made from burnt pine, and it still sells the ink sticks.

[Original Japanese]