Tools & Trades History Society


Sumitsubo 墨壷

Something different for the New Year: two Sumitsubo墨壷 (すみつぼ) (Japanese ink pots) from my collection.

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The first sumitsubo is a traditional shape, with an ink pot in front and a wnding wheel at the back  10” long, with a turtle motif (traditionally a sign of long life). This sumitsubo is of medium size and would have held around 26tft of line – a unit known as a kake. The wood is keyaki (see below) and The other end of the line is secured on a traditional karuko which is wooden peg with a small pin to fix into the wood.  My example retains its original karuko which is rare.

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I believe the tool  to have been manufactured by a craftsman by the name of Koumyou. The maker’s name is carved on the underside in Kanji:   光明 作 (made by Koumyou). There are records of Koumyou as a maker and similar designs turn up occasionally in shrine sales (like a car boot sale in the UK). I think it may have originated in the southern island of Kyushu, perhaps Nagasaki, but that is only a guess.  Most other examples of Koumyou’s work have more elaborate carvings on the front of the ink cup than this example but whether this makes it an earlier version, or just a cheaper version, I cannot tell.

Here is an oddity.  On the winding handle of the wheel there is an image of a Japanese cartoon character.

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  It looks like a Japanese demon or spirit of some sort but why it should be on the handle I do not know. Can any of my Japanese friends shed any light? Other sumitsubo by Koumyou have the same character on their winding handles so it may be a sort of trade mark. 


The second Sumitsubo is equally intriguing.  It is small, about 6” high and takes the form of a small furry animal.The line is very fine, made of two twists of silk cord and quite short – a little over half a kake.

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 The carving is exquisite and see how the winding handle looks as though it is the animal’s tail.

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The style seems more Korean than Japanese, though I picked it up at a shrine sale is Tokyo.   But what is the animal?

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It could be a bear, or a beaver or possibly even a rabbit.  A racoon dog is another possibility: images of them are very popular in Japan as good luck symbols.   


Sumitsubo are used to create an inked line to mark out timber in the same way as we would use a chalk line. They can also be used as a plumb bob. I have been told that a skilled carpenter can use one to lay down a curved line by pulling the cord at an angle, though this skill has eluded me! Sumitsubo are traditionally carved from mulberry wood, but most are made out of a hard redwood called keyaki (Zelkova, I think). Both my examples are keyaki. The line is usually silk. 

Sumitsubo are more than utilitarian objects. The Sumitsubo symbolizes the carpenter’s profession in Japan. Moreover, because they are used to mark the uncut timber and thus the first step in a project, they have a significance above other tools.  Often they were carved by the craftsman himself and incorporate animal designs.

In his book on Japanese woodworking tools, Odate san tells of the custom that the master carpenter would visit the site on the first day of work and lay down an ink line on a major timber to initiate the project and then disappear. At the end of a project the sumitsubo might be left to the shrine or temple. For this reason, sumitsubo continue to be made to the classic design, often incorporating animal figure carvings and modern examples are still produced all over the Far East.  I have even seen a modern, plastic, line reel in more or less the same shape!   

Their high status does not mean that sumitsubo are unused and one of the drawbacks of collecting them is that it can take many years to remove the encrusted ink to get at the carvings underneath. Think printers' plough planes and you get the idea! 

Bob Evans 

31st December 2017