Tuesday, March 27, 2007


On sumitsubo and kanna

Following my previous post "digital camera broken": but I didn't stop woodwroking, far from it...

I pursue here with a new post.

Actually my views on Japanese woodworking tools is somehow broaden, when looking at it from a Taiwanese perspective. Take the sumitsubo from example, the ink pot with a string, used to lay-out straight lines. The tool has become a piece of art in Japan: one can see sumitsubo with finely carved turtles, dragons or cranes, and of various harmonious shapes.
The interesting fact I came accross, is that a native Taiwanese has a collection of several dozens of sumitsubo, that he made himself. I wonder where this native Taiwanese (thus not of Chinese origin) found about the tool... Was it during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan? Probably.
The sumitsubo origins are maybe to be found in China, but this will need to be confirmed by some historical or archeological research (for which I'm not equiped in terms of time).

Now let's compare the appearance of the carved sumitsubo with the so simple shape of the japanese plane. It is a big difference isn't it? The japanese plane's body is just a rectangular piece of red or white oak with no noticeable features (but which result in a tool with high performances). What is noticeable in the kanna is the blade. There, in some cases, goes the artistic part of the tool. I am not diminishing the craftmanship of the dai maker far from it, because the performances of a kanna are intimately related to the quality of the dai and its conditioning. But I want to highlight the difference between the visual impact of the two tools.

I wonder whether the sumitsubo became such a highly worked piece because its usage became rarer... Ancient sumitsubo had a rather "raw" aspect, without much if any carved features as can be found on later sumitsubo. Users of the tool were then considering it for its primary usage, not for its visual aspect. In comparison, the kanna is still widely used, no time is spend to provide its body with carvings or harmonious shapes. However great time can be spent by the bladesmith to forge blades with more and more features, such as the texture of the blade, its shape...But the everyday used kanna, the one for the timber frame builder, the temple builder or cabinet maker has rarely such art-like blade. And this takes us back to Taiwan, where the highest quality blade are of the dogyu brand, a middle range tool in Japan, the white phoenix being the reference against each other plane are compared. The kanna in its simplest form, where usage primes.

I was recently reading a book which features exquisit pictures of ancient tools from France, dating back to the 18th century: the planes were then carved: a heart with 2 letters in it (inviting the reader to think the craftman was then in love), a bird, a sheep, they were of various shapes.

The tool has this particular ambivalance: it is an instument to help accomplishing a manual task (hear: a task where hands are involved), and it is also a piece of art. And this dual aspect of the tool is mayby what gives it its soul.

Heh, great blog. I share a number of your interests in planes. I'm currently living in Hong Kong, though I'm heading back to the land of lumberjacks (Canada) in July. I've been collecting planes on my travels through Asia, and I couldn't beleive what I saw in Japan. Certainly expensive, and so differnent from China. I've purchased cheap planes in India (with saw blades for blades!), Myanmar, Hong Kong, and Japan. I'm particularly fond of the one Chinese plane manufacturer, and was wondering if you'd heard of them. They have some "Taiwanese" planes which I'm not too familiar with. It's Mujingfang. Lately I've been seing models with a dovetailed brass strip at the opening of the mouth. These aren't a traditional feature on planes - but it's interesting because the planes are used so much by finish carpenters here. Anyway, if you've got any suggestions about Hong Kong sources for planes, let me know.
Hi Robert,

Interesting. I know Mujingfang. Have you been to the factory? I'd like to go. A couple of my colleagues and ex colleagues are in Hong-Kong, and I think I'll make the trip soon.
In Taiwan, the influence of Japanese is noticeable. The blades are Japanese and the dai are made locally from Taiwanese red oak which holds its quality against some japanese oak.

Please write me so that we could pursue some exchanges:
hinoki point kuaimu a gmail point com
Replace point by . and a by @.
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