The Japanese Sumitsubo Inkpot 墨壺: Part 2: The Classic Version and the Modern Variant

The purpose of literature is to turn blood into ink.

T.S. Eliot

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.

A variety of hand-carved antique sumitsubo

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.

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The so-called “Split-tail” sumitsubo. This example is estimated to be nearly 700 years old. Notice the metal ring located in front of the reel intended to facilitate using the tool as a plumbline of sorts.

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.

A modern ichimonji-style sumitsubo in daily use in the workshop. A simple, elegant design easily fabricated. I know a miyadaiku who uses a similar tool daily in the temple construction work he performs in his workshop.
An antique ichimonji-style sumitsubo. The inkwell was replaced with a wooden insert sometime in the past, probably to deal with ink leaking from the crack visible on its side.
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Another antique ichimonji-style sumitsubo with tasteful gold-leaf decorations. A compact, simple, and attractive version of this ancient tool.

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

A side view of my hand-carved Zelkova wood Genji sumitsubo. Seen from this angle, the crane carved into the prow does not pop out, but his right wing wrapped around the hollow inkwell is clearly visible. The crane is looking towards the heavens, while the angry-looking turtle with his long kilt of seaweed is focused more on keeping the inkline under control, evil pixies at bay, and Murphy feeling hung-over. He’s a serious little fella not prone to small-talk. In Japanese mythology, storks and turtles are considered extremely lucky creatures with the crane said to live 1,000 years and the turtle 10,000 years.
A view of the sumitsubo’s prow. Please notice the unused blue inkline entering the inkwell from the reel to the right and exiting the inkwell at the prow on the left. Please also notice the ceramic thimble inlet in the end of the tool through which the inkline passes and keeps the line from wearing a large hole in the wood. There is a similar thimble where the line enters the opposite end of the inkwell. Sometimes these are made of brass, and other times glass, but fired ceramic is considered the best material for the job. A sumitsubo without thimbles simply won’t last.

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.

Propitious Symbology

The Japanese Tancho Tsuru crane

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 components of the typical Genji-style sumitsubo. The body, shown from above, is in the lower half of the photo. The inkwell is coated with a shiny elastomeric polymer to prevent ink from soaking into the wood. The blue polyester line can be seen passing through inkwell, exiting at the prow where it connects to an ebony “karuko” with a steel needle at the far left. When in-use, the pristine natural-color silk wadding above the body is stuffed into the inkwell where it surrounds the inkline. When soaked with ink, this wadding shrinks in volume to half, and wets the line as it passes through the inkwell. The inkline and wadding in this photo have never been used and so are not blackened with ink. The reel, carved with pierced spokes in imitation of the classic Japanese wagon wheel motif, is above and to the right. Notice how the inkline is exposed on both sides and towards the center of the reel improving air circulation and reducing the growth of mildew, not a real problem with modern commercial sumitsubo inks. The brass insert in the reel’s side receives the threaded end of the crank, connecting reel to crank and retaining the reel in the body. The spring on the shaft of the crank is one I had laying around the shop that I added to take up slop, but it’s actually unnecessary. Easier to disassemble than a Glock 19.

The First Modern Variant: The Plastic Sumitsubo

An economic and durable plastic version of the Genji 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.

An excerpt from the “Kasuka Gonge Genki E” scroll.

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.

One adds ink to the inkwell from a plastic bottle of commercial ink as shown in this photo. The sumishashi ink pen is resting securely across the crank with the wider business end in the inkwell. In this position, one can carry the sumitsubo and sumishashi securely in the left hand with little risk of fumbling or dropping either tool. An excellent design!
The bamboo sumisashi pen is indispensible not only for operating the sumitsubo but for also marking layout and designations on boards and timbers. In recent years, pencils, ballpoint pens and capless marking pens have become popular for these marking tasks. An important role of the sumitsubo is to retain the sumisashi pen in a handy orientation when the sumitsubo is not in use, as shown above. This sumitsubo was carefully designed specifically to retain the pen in-place as shown, and my scowling little lucky turtle considers it his job to keep the pen from running off and getting lost. He hates pixies with a deadly wrath, BTW, and has snapped off the legs, wings, arms and even the heads of many of the pernicious creatures who were bold enough to get within reach of his jaws. I think you’ll agree he does a great job, and never complains. And because of his natural lucky powers, Murphy can’t interfere.
The first step is to wrap the inkline around the needle in the end of karuko. Please note that the line in this photo is dry. When making an actual snapline, the inkline must be wet with ink.
Next, push the sharp needle into the wood to be snapped with the line carefully aligned with a mark. No mark is shown in this image, but if snapping an actual line, one makes the mark first.
This sumitsubo in this photo does not contain ink and so the raw silk wadding is still white and fluffy and the line is blue, but ink is of course necessary to actually snap a line. To persuade the line to soak up ink, one must press down on the wadding and the inkline simultaneously with a sumisashi pen as the inkline passes through the inkwell and out the hole in the prow. The sumisashi and sumitsubo are a team. One controls the tension on the line by pressing the heel of the left hand against the side of the reel, or the pinky finger against the underside of the reel, an operation the design of the Genji-style sumitsubo makes easy, unlike earlier styles. I have my right hand on the crank in this photo, but that was just to take up extra line. To spool out wet line, simply pull the sumitsubo away from the karuko and its needle as the crank spins free, while controlling the tension on the line with the heel of the thumb, and simultaneously pressing down on the line/wadding with the sumisashi. There are two ways to manipulate the sumisashi at this point. Some people hold the sumitsubo in the left hand and pull it to spool out line while using the right hand to press the sumisashi down on the line/wadding. Many people prefer smaller sumitsubo, but the kindly gentlemen that taught me how to use them insisted that the sumitsubo’s inkwell must be large enough and shaped so that the sumisashi can be laid across the line, pressed onto the line /wadding, and securely retained in this position by the left thumb alone as the line is spooled out, as shown in this photo, leaving the right hand entirely free to control the inkline and/or the board being snapped. It’s also much safer when working at any height. Give it a try and you’ll see what I mean. The Genji style sumitsubo is the only one that makes this more efficient and safer technique possible, entirely by design.

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,

YMHOS

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Other Posts in Japanese Sumitsubo Inkpot Series

6 thoughts on “The Japanese Sumitsubo Inkpot 墨壺: Part 2: The Classic Version and the Modern Variant

  1. I really enjoy these deep dives into the details of how this ancient tool is held, just how the cord is snapped, and where the craftsman holds the marking brush. It’s so different from the dusty blue chalk of the western tradition, and yet it carries the same literal tension of the careful measurement and the energy of the release. For century upon century this was the way tree trunks turned into planks and beams. Thanks for explaining the sumitsubo so completely.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. There was comment made by a friend of mine whom is a surveyor and as his occupation dictates concerned with accuracy. It ran along the lines of general comment rather than preference for the laying out of lines and the various tools utilised.

    Firstly , the exponent of the laying out was critical . If they were not then whatever they used amounted to nothing more than a hill of beans. Secondly, a line delineated by a taut string did not lie, although in my experience sagging and bending with the wind can be a nuisance (it was on top of the ridge of an old stable on top of a hill with zero windbreaks and a howling easterly , not the best experience for resheeting ). He had been surveying a new housing estate and been somewhat bemused by the fencing companies using lasers, not installing the fence lines to the laser line or simply not setting it up in the correct position and rectifying this by moving the boundary pegs to make the fence appear correct placed.

    I’m glad the sumitsubo ink washes off the hands cleanly. The last lot of chalk I purchased has all sorts of disclaimers as to whether or not it could possibly be removed full stop from any surface! Thanks for the info and background Stan.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gav: I agree about the important of accurate layout. I work in the construction industry and can tell you from experience that lasers are handy, but the beam has width and is subject to diffusion. Optical theodolites or transits are far more accurate, and a line is just as accurate as a transit at a tiny fraction of the cost and weight. Cheers!

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  3. I will share an embarrassing revelation about learning to use a sumitsubo. Because we are all friends here, right?

    I carefully measured the center of one end of a beam/timber, and carefully measured the center of the other end. Then set one end of the ink line at one center, and pulled the line taught and set the other end of the line at the other center mark. Then I tried to pick up the line toward the middle to snap it. But I couldn’t grab the line since it was lying tight and flat on the board and my fingernails are short. So I ended up smooshing the ink line around and making a mess of the board and my fingers.

    After doing this a few times I realized that I could use one had to grab the line for snapping BEFORE I pulled it taught and set it at its second point with my other hand.

    I would have slapped my forehead but that would have gotten ink all over my face, too.

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    1. Gary: None of us have ever done anything like that before! Wait a minute, what are those dark black smudges on my nose and forehead!? Your revised technique is perfect. But because you may still have ink on your fingertips, you may want to refrain from picking your nose or scratching your derriere (no doubt with admirable grace) after snapping the line. Of course, that’s just another thing your humble servant has never done …..(シ)

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