Thursday, May 4, 2017

Mystery Object Revealed: Lion-shaped Carpenter’s Chalk or Ink Line

This latest mystery object is a carpenter’s chalk line or ink line, used for marking long, straight lines. A string is wound around a reel stored in the lion’s body. It then travels through the cup which is filled with fibers soaked in ink, and on through a hole in the back. (Today blue powdered chalk is more commonly used than is black ink.) A length of the ink-soaked line is unreeled, then held taught above a floor, wall, or board. The string is then snapped, leaving a marked line which can then be cut or have things matched to it, such as floor tiles.

The mystery object, a figural ink-line.

This is such a common tool, still currently used, that I’ll bet a number of you possess one or have seen one used, although today they are in the utilitarian form of a small sealed box that contains both string and pigment. In Chinese these are called da-mo-xian or sometimes mo-dou (打墨線, 墨鬥). In Japan, these are called sumitsubo, and are still sometimes seen in elaborate forms.

Congratulations to the completely anonymous reader who provided the right answer. The other guesses were interesting in that many of you sensed that this somehow had something to do with ink or paint. I think that if some of you had noticed the reel handle and imagined turning it, you would have realized the answer.

Thank you to Mrs. D. who tried several times—I think that you took too seriously my hint not to put your finger in the hole, making you think that this was somehow dangerous. The real reason, of course, is that the hole is filled with inky wadding, and I was concerned about ink getting on your delicate fabrics or the amazing quilts you make. But you must have used chalk lines when restoring your Victorian house.

This side view shows a tiny bit of the string protruding from the back.

Why would such a common tool be made in so elaborate a form? I have seen many of these, in every shape imaginable, but lions, dragons, and geometrics seem to be the most common shapes, so this one is not a fluke. On the other hand, I have rarely seen other tools made in decorative forms. Perhaps this is because ink lines are not used with a great deal of force, so the irregular shape would not hurt the hands or easily get broken.

It seems that many carpenters made these for themselves, as sort of a rite of passage when entering the field. This has been likened to the elaborate masterpieces that Western apprentices had to make to be admitted into a guild, but this analogy is not perfect. Carving is not really a required skill in carpentry, and many of these are made rather crudely, more like a form of folk art. Often ink lines were made of scraps of wood, bent wire, and odd, leftover parts.

Ink lines are also used in feng-shui, for creating sight lines, etc. and feng-shui practitioners might want to use a more dressed-up from of this tool. In that case, the lucky symbolism of a lion or dragon might play a part, as with the lion masks featured earlier.

A top view of the ink line, with centimeter scale, showing clearly the hole for the inked wadding through which the string passes.

Although he is boldly carved, I also like the relative lack of sophistication in this lion, and am amused by how the tail ends up virtually 2-dimensional when it runs up against the ink pot. It must have been fun using tools like these, although when my apartment here in Taipei was recently rebuilt, all of the tools including chalk lines were quite modern. It’s nice to think of a carpenter so dedicated that when the day was over, instead of relaxing in the equivalent of an easy chair, he got to work carving one of these fascinating ink lines.

All photos and original objects property of the author.