The way of the carpenter is to become proficient in the use of his tools; First to lay his plans with true measure and then perform his work according to plan. Thus he passes through life
Miyamoto Mushashi – Go Rin no Sho
In the previous article in our series about the Sumitsubo, we examined some traditional wooden examples, and a plastic version of the same.
In this edition we will take a look at the modern version sold in hardware stores around Japan.
In the previous article your humble servant mentioned that this style of sumitsubo appears to have been designed by Cylons, the chrome-plated red-eyed nemesis of the Battlestar Galactica and her brave crew. Gentle Readers must decided for themselves whether or not alien machine lifeforms from a far galaxy were engaged in the design process or not, but I have no doubts on the matter (シ).
The Design Concept
These modern sumitsubo function much the same as traditional wooden sumitsubo in that a line, stored on a reel, is spooled out through a reservoir containing absorbent material soaked with ink, becoming partially saturated with ink. The wet line is then secured to the material to be marked at one end using a “karuko” bob with a needle. At the opposite end of the material, the line is aligned with another mark, tensioned, lifted up and released snapping against the material and leaving behind a line of ink.
Besides the intergalactic alien design influence, the most obvious difference between these modern sumitsubo and the traditional ones is that the line, the reel, and the ink reservoir are entirely enclosed in a cleverly-designed, tough and lightweight plastic housing which not only keeps the ink from drying as quickly, but permits the tool to be dropped into a tool bag or toolbox without risk of getting black ink all over everything. Much more convenient.
The ink reservoir is concealed under a little plastic hinged door that one opens to add ink to little sponges. In the better sumitsubo this reservoir has rubber seals and special slits to prevent ink from leaking. This combination of sponges and seals works quite well so long as one doesn’t add too much ink. But everyone does this at least once…
In the case of automatic sumitsubo, as are the examples shown, a coil spring enclosed in the reel mechanism automatically spools the line back onto the reel in preparation for the next snap. Some versions lack this spring and must be rewound by rotating the reel using one’s fingertips.
Please note that this spring action, while quick and convenient, is not 100% blue bunnies and fairy farts because the karuko’s sharp little point can give the user a serious boo boo if control is lost. To prevent embarrassing injuries (i.e. leaky eyeball syndrome), the karuko sold with most of these sumitsubo are designed to automatically retract the needle safely into a plastic housing when released.
As someone who has unintentionally initiated one or two haphazard tattoo patterns on hand and arm over the years with flying karuko needles, your humble servant highly recommends Gentle Readers “stick” with these retractable needles. And don’t forget your safety glasses.
Changing the line of the modern sumitsubo is much easier than with traditional sumitsubo because there are no holes to thread the line through. All that’s necessary to change a line is to open the ink reservoir, remove the reel, tie the new line to the reel and karuko, replace the reel, lay the line through the reservoir, and close the lid. Eazy peazy japaneazy.
Gentle Reader may recall from the previous article that, when using the traditional sumitsubo, one must simultaneously press down on both the line and wadding in the ink well with a bamboo sumisashi as the line is spooled out to ensure an adequate amount of ink soaks into the line. This is not possible in the modern sumitsubo with its covered ink reservoir, so instead, one pushes down on a rubber button while spooling out the line to achieve the same results. This rubber button in turn presses down on the line and sponges transferring ink to the line.
Major Brands of Modern Sumitsubo Available Today
There are two major brands of sumitsubo on the market in Japan today: Shinwa of steel square fame and Tajima best known for its tape measures.
Two of both brand’s most popular models, in various states of undress, are shown below.
When it comes to sumitsubo, Shinwa is the older and more experienced of the two, but Tajima has more eye-catching products and a powerful marketing department with a nation-wide distribution network.
Your humble servant, being gleefully addicted to trying out new tools, owns both brands of sumitsubo. Perhaps I need a 12-step program and a good detox to mitigate my tool-based delirium tremens? In any case, I’m convinced Shinwa products are perhaps a little superior in performance, but the Tajima sumitsubo are undeniably good too.
As I wandered around a construction project in Chiba Prefecture I’m in charge of last week I paid attention to the sumitsubo workers were using and observed that Tajima products were in greater evidence. Not a scientific study by any means, but more accurate than the flyblown tripe the hopelessly corrupt World Health Organization calls science lately.
A few weeks ago I visited a local hardware store I do business with regularly. Although it’s not the first or even the second building that has housed this business at this same location in Suginami Ward in Tokyo, the family that owns it has been selling tools and building hardware to contractors and professional craftsmen for over 100 years. Inside it has tools and building supplies literally stacked to the ceiling, much of which is cantilevered precipitously over the narrow, crowded aisles between steel shelves to the point where entering the store and moving around is not a simple task. A death trap should an earthquake strike, I fear.
The current owner is 90+YO with a warm smile and honest habits who is easy to trust. I asked him which sumitsubo products are most popular among his professional customers. His answer was that they seem to buy the Tajima products more, although he couldn’t give a single reason why. I suspect the fact his shelves are full of Tajima products with nary a Shinwa product in-sight has something to do with their selections.
Tajima’s distribution network is hard to beat.
The lines used in sumitsubo were once all made from either hemp or silk fibers, I’m told. Nowadays, hemp can’t be had for love or money, but silk is still available. Modern fibers made from polyester and nylon are most prevalent of late. Better lines contain kevlar or spectra fibers for extra strength.
I am fond of thin (>0.4mm) lines for cabinetwork because they make cleaner marks, but skinnier lines are less durable and the marks they leave are less visible from a distance and on rough surfaces, so for construction projects, although 1.0~1.5mm lines can be purchased, 0.6~0.8mm lines are what most people use.
I am fond of the simple, elegant, antique appearance of the ichimonji-style wooden sumitsubo.
I have used the more modern Genji-style wooden sumitsubo for many years, and like them enough to have one mounted inside my toolchest for good luck. Like many older craftsmen, I appreciate the appearance of a tool beautifully hand-carved from attractively figured colorful wood, and think the traditional wooden sumitsubo feels better in the hand and adds dignity to the work.
But the modern Cylon-designed plastic sumitsubo is cheaper, tougher, and much more convenient, which is why I reach for one when I need to snap a line. Who was it that sang: “The times they are a-changin?”
Which style do you prefer?
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.
Please share your insights and comments with all Gentle Readers using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, thuggish Twitter, nor a US Senator’s Chinese girlfriend and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May my karuko ravage my family jewels if I lie.
The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.
This is the second article in our series about the Japanese Sumitsubo.
We’ve discussed this tool before, but this time we will examine historical examples as well as an example of an actual sumitsubo ink pot (墨壺 pronounced sue/mee/tsu/boh) currently in your humble servant’s possession. Certainly not a comprehensive explanation by any means, but hopefully it will be informative and mayhap even interesting.
Although the Western chalkbox is now available in Japan, and the Japanese version of this tool is a big improvement over the ones my father taught me how to use when I was a slender “ute,” in Japan the inkline has only been augmented, not replaced, by the chalkbox.
Let’s begin by considering if the sumitsubo is a tool of value to the professional woodworker.
Why Use a Sumitsubo?
Carpenters, woodworkers, steel fabricators, masons and those in many other trades need to mark straight lines for layout and cutting purposes, but what is the longest line one can accurately make using a steel or aluminum straightedge? 1 meter? 4ft? Do you own a truly accurate 1 meter long straightedge or a 4ft long drywall square? How much did it cost? How fragile is it? Will it fit in your nailbag or tool box?
The laser is becoming more and more practical for layout work, but such electronic tools are still not small, light or inexpensive and certainly won’t leave a permanent line. And they have those pesky and expensive batteries that must be constantly recharged and periodically replaced. Very profitable for the manufacturers, of course, but they inevitably end up as poisonous landfill stuffing. When a permanent line is needed for layout or when making long rip cuts with handsaw or circular saw, the snapline is the only viable portable option.
Indeed, the snapline has been the tool for making long, straight layout lines by humans since before recorded history. Sometimes the line has been coated with chalk or limestone dust, sometimes with red soil dust, sometimes with charcoal dust, and in Asia, with a wet ink made from the soot of burned pine tree sap. But humans have such short memories, so most craftsmen younger than 30 years old have forgotten this tool.
The problem with the chalkbox and dry colorants such chalk, charcoal dust or soil is the wide, fuzzy, unclear line they produce.
By comparison, the inkline snaps a relatively narrow, clearly delineated and easy to follow mark on wood, stone and masonry. Not as perfect as a line drawn with a technical pen, of course, but no wider than a laser line and much better than a chalk line.
The second advantage of the inkline is that the line it produces will never get blown away by wind, or be easily smudged. And if you use waterproof ink, one that can be washed away while still wet but becomes indelible once dry, even rain isn’t a problem. And sumitsubo ink has long been available in many colors, including psychedelic hues. Groovy, man!
Does the inkline have downsides? A few, of course. To begin with, you need to be careful to keep the ink bottle tightly closed so it doesn’t leak. Yea, I’ve done that (シ)。
Next, you need to add enough ink to the inkwell to wet the line but not so much it sloshes out making a mess. To paraphrase the ancient Greek poet Hesiod: “Moderation is good.”
And finally, while it can be minimized or even avoided with caution and practice, using an inkline involves getting a bit of ink on at least one fingertip. Fortunately, the Japanese variety doesn’t stain skin like fountain pen or ballpoint pen ink, but washes off quickly and cleanly.
It used to be that a craftsman had to make his own ink by rubbing a stick of sumi ink on a stone with water, a tedious task. Some miyadaiku carpenters still make the ink they use for the first layout lines on important projects in this time-consuming traditional way as a sort of meditative, purifying ceremony, but nowadays, handy ink that won’t separate or mildew is sold cheaply in sturdy plastic bottles. There are of course other ways for a carpenter to obtain Satori.
In any case, your humble servant believes the sumitsubo to be a tool with concrete advantages diligent craftsmen should consider for the toolkit they carry along the sawdust and shaving-strewn path to woodworking enlightenment.
Let’s next next turn our attention to the main subject of this post, the classic, hand-carved wooden sumitsubo.
A Couple of Antique Styles
Not long ago the sumitsubo was a tool each craftsman made for himself by his own hand, giving him incentive to use unusual, even fanciful shapes as an expression of his personal woodcarving skills and artistic sensibilities. Can you judge the skill of the craftsman by his tools? Perhaps not, but it is human nature to do so nonetheless.
Besides the shapes shown in this article, wooden sumitsubo have often been made in the image of animals such as squirrels, rabbits and frogs, insects such as snails and grasshoppers, and even vegetables and plants, not to mention religious images and mythical shapes such as dragons or baku. Many were made to resemble musical instruments such as the three-stringed shamisen, or even boats. Human imagination combined with willing wood and sharp cutting tools can produce fun things.
In the next section we will examine three historical styles that more-or-less illustrate the development of the tool over the centuries.
The Split-tail Sumitsubo
The first style your humble servant would like present is called the “Split Tail” sumitsubo shown in the image below. We discussed this well-preserved example in this post.
I have never owned or used this style of sumitsubo, but friends who have tell me that the excellent air circulation it provides to the reel and resulting mildew reduction is its biggest advantage.
Despite its unique appearance, this style is obsolete for good reasons. Its first design problem is the small inkwell not suited to easy use with a sumisashi pen. And then there’s the total lack of a waist making it easy to fumble. And don’t forget the relatively weak legs and fanciful details easily damaged if the tool is dropped.
The “Ichimonji” Style Sumitsubo
The second style of sumitsubo we will examine is a simpler, more compact one called “ichimonji” 一文字, which translates directly to “The character one” and refers to the shape of the tool being a simple line as in the number one, or “一” as it is written using the Chinese character.
This antique style is compact, easy to make, visually uncluttered, classy and appealing to many craftsmen that make their own sumitsubo, even nowadays. But it too has fallen out of general use for good reasons.
Like the split-tail, the ichimoji sumitsubo has a slab-sided body and no waist making it clumsy to grip in one hand, fine inside the workshop but less than ideal on a construction jobsite.
Another problem is the tiny inkwell which runs out of ink quickly and is clumsy to use with a sumisashi pen.
The reel is obviously on the small size too holding less line than is sometimes needed.
And notice that more than half the reel’s surfaces are enclosed within the body, and that the body has no piercings to encourage air circulation, making mildew growth a problem. At least that was the case before the advent of commercial mildew-resistant ink.
Despite these shortcomings, it is a style appropriate to a workshop environment where the lines snapped are shorter, fumbling is not a concern and the smaller size is useful.
The Genji-style Sumitsubo
The sumitsubo in the photos above and below was hand-carved from zelkova wood (keyaki 欅), a wood popular in Japan for architectural work, carving and furniture. Most exposed woodwork seen in Buddhist temples in Japan is zelkova. It has a pronounced grain, nice color, carves nicely, and is fairly rot-resistant, although not nearly as much as Hinoki, the wood preferred for Shinto shrines. The brandname of this example is “Tsubo Gen” 壺源 .
Back in storage in the US I have a medium-grade wooden Genji sumitsubo I bought in Japan and used for many years, but I purchased the tool pictured here in Tokyo 9 or 10 years ago and have not used it at all, as you can tell from its pristine condition.
It was finished with lacquer when I purchased it so I refinished it with Cashew brand natural urethane last year just for vanity’s sake.
I normally mount this tool inside the lid of my toolchest to please the eye, attract good luck, and fend off malevolent iron pixies. It has accomplished these tasks well probably due to the noble efforts of the scowling little turtle; The crane doesn’t seem to impress them, I fear. We will discuss the lucky aspects of this tool below.
This is a Tokyo version of the Genji sumitsubo as witnessed by the brass crank used for spooling in line. In Western Japan, cranks are not as common, so craftsmen pass the palm of their hand over the top of the reel to spool in line. I’m not sure which style is most efficient.
It is a clever design evolution that resolves the shortcomings of the older designs. I see the following six advantages in this design.
The first advantage to the Genji design is the narrower waist between the reel and inkwell that makes it much easier to securely grip the tool in one hand while at the same time tensioning the line or even braking the reel with the same hand. This is a huge improvement over all older styles.
The second advantage is the wider, larger-capacity inkwell which stays wetter longer and makes it easy to use with a sumisashi for applying layout and designation marks on timbers. It also provides a stable place to rest the sumishashi when not in use without setting it down in the dirt or stuffing it in a nailbag pocket (and making everything else in the pocket wet with black ink).
The third advantage is the larger-diameter inkline reel which contains more line while at the same time being quicker to reel in.
The fourth advantage to this design is the improved air circulation to the line stored on the reel thereby reducing mildew growth. Not only does the wooden reel project further out of the top of the body, but it is also pierced with carved spokes exposing the sides and even the underside of the line on the reel. In addition, the body is pierced at the sides and even the underside to further improve air circulation and reduce weight.
The fifth advantage is that, despite the larger-capacity inkwell and reel, much unnecessary material has been carved away making the tool relatively lighter in weight.
And finally, the sixth advantage of this design is the lucky symbols frequently carved into the body. We all need a little luck.
Typical of many things Japanese, a lot of thought went into these subtle design improvements.
One of the most common lucky symbols in Japanese mythology is the crane, said to live 1,000 years and bring good luck, prosperity and happiness. The Japanese love these tall cranes with their little red caps and graceful mating dances. Here’s a link to an interesting video about them.
The turtle, especially the sea turtle, is also considered extremely lucky but for a longer 10,000 years. The turtle carved into sumitsubo usually has a trailing skirt of seaweed flowing from its shell, as does mine, evidence of its great age and accumulated wisdom.
Dragons, Chinese Lions, Baku and other mythological creatures of good fortune are also used.
I’m not a superstitious guy, but I’ll keep my crane and scowling turtle close by just in case, thank you very much.
The First Modern Variant: The Plastic Sumitsubo
The first sumitsubo I owned I bought in the city of Matsuyama on Shikoku Island in 1978. Having few funds, I was unable to afford the hand-carved wooden one I admired, so I bought a plastic version of the Genji-style wooden sumitsubo identical to the photo right.
Being made of plastic using molds from a hand-carved wooden model, it looks exactly like the traditional wooden sumitsubo except for the color, texture and weight. Offsetting the marvelously unsatisfying feel in the hand, this tool has several serious advantages.
The first advantage is its low cost. It can be purchased new for around ¥2,100.
The second advantage is the toughness of plastic. A wooden sumitsubo will at least be dinged and dented if dropped and may even break, but this one will take a likin and keep on tikin. I have seen one survive being run over by a truck.
The third advantage is the certain fact that the inkwell will never develop cracks or leak, unless you notch it with a circular saw or melt a hole in it with welding sparks (yes, I’ve seen that done too (シ)).
And it still has the elegant lucky crane to bring happiness and productivity and his snappy little turtle buddy to keep Murphy away. What more could you want? Egg in your beer?
The classic wooden sumitsubo may not be the most practical tool in the field, but it is the one selected by master carpenters when doing layout, not only because of the tactile experience it provides, but because the tool reflects on the craftsman that uses it. Face it, like a light-blue polyester leisure suit worn with white belt and white shoes, the plastic sumitsubo may be practical but it is simply undignified.
We will discuss some other Modern Variants in a future post.
How to Use the Sumitsubo
The image below is not only historical, but instructive in ways to use the sumitsubo. It depicts an ongoing construction project at the Kasuka Shrine during Japan’s Kamakura period (1192~1333) where carpenters are preparing lumber and timbers to be incorporated into the shrine.
Please notice the “Split-tail” sumitsubo resting on the ground near the feet of the carpenter on the bottom-left, and in the hands of both carpenters to the right.
The team of two carpenters in the lower half of the image are using an adze to keep the log from rolling away and their squares to layout plumb lines on both ends of the log. The carpenter on the bottom right is orienting his square in the vertical direction by squinting at a plumb line made using his inkline and sumitsubo, while the carpenter at the bottom left is matching his square to that of his partner by sighting along the horizontal short tongue of his square. Winding sticks? We don’t need no stinkin winding sticks!
In his right hand you can see the bamboo sumisashi ink pen he is using to mark the plumb line, not doubt with ink from his sumitsubo’s inkwell.
The carpenter and his helper in the upper half of the image are using a sumitsubo to mark the edges of a split plank. The scruffy helper at the left holds the line in place to a mark, while the carpenter in the fancy hat lifts the line with his fingertips and releases it to snap a line of ink onto the plank.
Maybe it’s his hat, but he appears to be laughing like a maniac at some joke I wish the artist had recorded in this image since there is so little humor left in our dry-as-dust politically-correct world ruled by willfully brain-dead, corrupt zombie scolds. No doubt Gentle Reader has met a few of these zombie scolds who tried to suck every ounce of joy from him. Never fear, because I am convinced friend crane and friend turtle can discourage them from climbing the tree to get at us.
The steps to using the wooden sumitsubo are described in the photos below.
Here are links to a few GooberTube videos of guys using sumitsubo. My old master would have been disappointed with their techniques, especially with how they let the sumishashi get in the way, with one guy even sticking it in his mouth to free his hands (egads!). But there’s no denying they are getting the job done. Video 1,Video 2.
Both of these gentlemen are using sumitsubo without cranks, strongly suggesting they are located in Western Japan and not the Tokyo area.
I’m sure Gentle Reader will agree that the hand-carved wooden sumitsubo adds class and dignity to a craftsman’s work, and maybe even a little good luck.
In the next post in this series about the Japanese sumitsubo we will take a look at the most recent evolution of the tool. They look like something designed by Cylons, but they are serious, effective tools nonetheless.
Until we meet again, I have the honor to remain,
If you have questions or would like to learn more about our tools, please click the “Pricelist” link here or at the top of the page and use the “Contact Us” form located immediately below.
Please share your insights and comments with all Gentle Readers using the form located further below labeled “Leave a Reply.” We aren’t evil Google, fascist facebook, thuggish Twitter, nor an Assistant Director of the FBI and so won’t sell, share, or profitably “misplace” your information. May my scowling lucky turtle nip notches in my fingers if I lie.