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.


33 comments:

  1. Hello Jim - I am sorry that I missed this mystery object but I think you must have posted whilst I was away. However, I would never have guessed the correct answer.
    The carpenter who made the lion tool for his own use has lavished lots of care and attention in the details, even down to a really fine set of teeth, and what looks like a row flowers on the mane.

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    1. Hello Rosemary, I also really like the lion's teeth/mouth. I have noticed before how often lions are given oddly human teeth instead of fangs. Perhaps those flowers are really meant to represent tufts of hair--I will have to look into this. --Jim

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  2. Well, Jim, that was a pleasantly confounding puzzle to solve so well done to Anon. for doing so. I failed miserably, of course, but that is part of the fun of these things.

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    1. Hello CD, Mystery objects by their very nature are hard to guess. You should see how many I have lined up that I have absolutely no idea what they are. These were a little easier to recognize, because I have often used chalk lines. --Jim

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  3. I am totally stunned that it is indeed an ink snapline! During the time this wonderful object was posted, I learned about the increased accuracy of the Chinese using ink to mark of lines for tendons, etc. Thank you for stimulating this search! I get to your blog through a now old link to Reggie Darling's blog. This is now the second tine I have ever posted a comment in any blog!

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    1. Hello Anonymous, I am very glad that you did reply. I thought that you must be familiar with these, because you mentioned both ink and chalk. Reggie's blog was great while he kept it going! --Jim

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  4. This would have been my second choice of answer...well, no of course not! i had no idea, but am delighted as always to learn about new things from your extensive collection!

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    1. Hello Columnist, When I came to Taiwan, I had no idea of what most of these things were, either. Luckily, I arrived before the supply dried up, so now I have a small collection of these oddities. --Jim

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  5. Jim--I'm glad you cautioned me not to put my finger in the hole. A chalk line, carpenter's tool. Well, I'll be darn. I would not have guessed it.

    I am sending you an email with a mystery photo. I hope you'll guess what it is.

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    1. Hello Mrs. D., Chinese craftsmen tended to heavily ornament everything with lions, dragons, and other such carvings. The trick to identify them sometimes is to look past the decorations to the basic shape underneath. --Jim

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  6. Interesting. I saw on TV this week how they mark the white lines on a soccer pitch. Guess what? They use a device like this one and I think they chalk the string and that is a guide for the paint roller. I don't think it was very different to your object in principal.

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    1. Hello Bazza, I am glad to know about the soccer lines. I am familiar with these from their use in carpentry, so it doesn't surprise me that they can be used on an even larger scale.

      One advantage of chalk lines is that they can make straight (and parallel) lines of any length even if the surface it is used on has no straight or definite edges. --Jim

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  7. Amazing--I would never have guessed. How wonderful to have such a beautiful object to use for a rather prosaic function.

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    1. Hello Jennifer, I suppose that there is no reason why these couldn't be rejuvenated and still used--in fact, the Japanese version is still in use by some traditional craftsmen. --Jim

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  8. What a delightful if fierce little fellow! But for the string, I might have guessed he was an ink well. It is strange that the artisan gave him the expression of a temple guardian when fashioning this domestic object. One wonders if similar tools exist in the shape of the mythological Foo Dog. Thank you for sharing him with us.
    Best,
    KL Gaylin

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    1. Hello KL Gaylin, Since foo dogs are really the same as lions, this could be considered one, but I know what you mean. Lions are one of the most common figural shapes for ink lines, and many are in the more traditional "foo-dog" like patterns--but look at the curly fur down the back of this one, and its human-like teeth, before you make up your mind. More likely what you are seeing is the skill level and vision of the carver. --Jim

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  9. 原來是墨壺啊!我沒想到。
    Thanks for your good question. I'm waiting for another one. ( ◠‿◠ )

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    1. Hello rtc, Thanks for yet another "Asian" name for these, 墨壺, or ink pot. The "pot(壺)" character I think rather suits the Japanese examples, with their larger container for the ink-soaked fibers. --Jim

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  10. Dearest Jim,
    Wow, who would have thought about an Ink Line?
    Primitive idea but also very practical and clever and no doubt it worked.
    One wonders down in time, how few people will even know about its true purpose.
    Sending you hugs,
    Mariette

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    1. Hello Mariette, At least you didn't have to wait long to find out the answer! I think that people who use tools a lot would get this one, because the principle is universal, if you take away the lion shape. --Jim

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  11. This is a fascinating story, Jim. The only Western tool of equivalent charm that I can recall is a tape measure, where the tape came out of a bird's beak!

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    1. Hello Mark, I have seen Victorian tools that were pretty fancy, but in the sense of extra decoration or curlicues, not the entire tool in a figural shape. My sister collects tape measures--I'll have to ask her if she has one like that! --Jim

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  12. Hello Jim, May 30th is 端午節. What kind of 粽子 are you going to taste? We already passed that day in solar calendar. I didn't eat 粽子 but had 柏餅 a traditional Japanese sweet for this festival.

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  13. Hello rtc, Happy Dragon Boat Festival to you, too. I like the vegetarian 粽子 the best, but on that day I will be back in Ohio, so I will be looking forward to my mother's good cooking. I used to get 柏餅 in Taiwan all the time, but you just made me realize that I haven't seen them in a while. I will be lucky if I get my favorite 樹梅(杨梅) before I leave! --Jim

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  14. 晚上好!I didn't know 柏餅 is sold in Taiwan. I have never seen 楊梅 in supermarkets. I will try to get a chance to taste it.
    Bon voyage!

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  15. I particularly relate to the very last line of this post, Jim. It's a lovely mental image. Thank you.

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    1. Hello Barbara, I think that is true about antiques in general--they link you back to the world that created them, and when they were logical objects to make or use.
      --Jim

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  16. Why is there a curtain hook protruding from the left side?

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    1. Hello Dallas Speicher, You have sharp eyes. That is the crank that is used to rewind the sting, and a clue to the mechanical nature of the string line. --Jim

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  17. All my life a carpenter's daughter, and I'd not have put two and two together, had I seen it when you asked. Just venturing over from CD's lovely blog, in reference to the Witch's Fingers grapes you mentioned---we had our first taste about this time last year, from so plebeian a source as Meier, I believe, but they could have come from one of the plentiful purveyors of all things in the Healthy-Food spectrum, such as Whole Foods or Fresh Thyme, for we love to try the great abundance of wonderful new vegetables and fruits they offer.

    The grapes were a deep-dark purple, with curvy fat fingers like happy babies, grown tight to the stems so that some of the grape-sides were flat like those of peas-too-close-in-the-pod. I found myself shucking them off the stems in places into the washing-bowl, so as to get the water to all the surfaces. One clutch went onto the Halloween table, for we "receive" the rollicking pranksters and fairies and hoblets from daylight til 7:30---usually about two hundred strong---then we turn off the front lights and all troop down to a good hot oven-dinner which has been awaiting us.

    But the chalk line---I'm amazed and delighted at the artistry and thought and custom of the ages wrapped up in such a useful tool. I claim many a day of "snapping the chalk" when I was growing up, for my Daddy believed that girls could just take on any job a boy could, and sometimes pay better attention, besides. That pale blue powder shone on my fingers like fairy-dust as I followed his directions, walked out the line, snapped, then re-wound with the tee-ninecy reel-handle, like a miniature version of the one on Daddy's fishing rod. Ours said BLUE GRASS on its pointy teardrop case, and that was my mantra as I lived those hot Mississippi work-days with sawdust and reel-chalk clouding my skin and braids.

    What an enjoyable post, and I look forward to returning to delve into your lovely archives!

    rachel

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    1. Hello Racheld, You have delightful memories of growing up using tools and chalk lines. My father was not any good with tools, but my brother and I had many tools from our great grandfather and enjoyed using them for various projects. I think that our chalk line was a more prosaic Stanley. The blue of the chalk was a memorable, vivid shade which in my case reminded me of cue chalk.

      You have exactly described the Witches' Fingers grapes. We got them in June or July, but you were lucky to get them in time for Halloween, for which they are perfect! --Jim

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  18. FABULOUS!I would NEVER HAD GUESSED!

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    1. Hello Contessa, I'm glad you liked it. I don't know why the email notifications are not working, but I have let them know about it. --Jim

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