In Favor of Sumi
This post is about the practice of laying out with ink. I love it and recommend it. If you are into timber framing and enjoy doing precise work it is worth giving it a try and see wether it will fit your scheme. The tools I have tried when doing layout on wood are scratch awls, markers, pencils, mechanical pencils and knives but when I was introduced to layout with ink (sumi) it certainly was a revelation. So far knives or pencils were my preferred weapons of choice and although I still use them for certain applications most of the time I use my sumisashi (bamboo pen) and sumitsubo (inkpot) to do accurate layout.
Learning to work neatly with ink can seem like a challenge but it doesn’t have to be. Without some basic instruction it is likely that ink is going to be all over the place, your hands and face smeared in black stuff. Your pieces of accurately dimensioned lumber looking like something that belongs in The Met amongst the collection of modern art rather then a cleanly layed out piece of wood ready for accurate cutout.
Above you can see the Chinese version of the same tools which I encounteredon a building site during my travels true China. Only one of the carpenters spoke some English and I wished I could have talked to them longer. Their work was a bit rough but they where obviously very skilled. The nice work they did with a limited tool set said more than words could have.
This carpenters square tells another story…
It may be one of the first things I have learned during my initial apprenticeship and I remember making accurate notes about it at night to make sure I could refer back to them later. I never did. I have never looked at any of those diaries and maybe it was the process of recording those teachings somehow seemed essential at the time.
Call me neurotic but it gives me a very satisfying feeling to draw fine clearly visible lines on a piece wood. The whole stick is layed out and I review what I have done in a attempt to eliminate mistakes, that unavoidably still seem to slip in somehow. I get excited to cut out the joints. Splitting, taking or leaving the line aiming for that near perfect fit.
So why would you use this method above any other? Here are my arguments:
- the lines are the finest
- they can be removed easily with a slight touch of a hand plane
- your lines are clearly visible
- the sumisashi edge is hard-wearing and remains fine for a long time
- the lines drawn do not disolve with water
- and most importantly; it is just very pleasant to use
Try to erase a pencil line on a piece of wood and you are guaranteed to make a mess, mar the surface or leave a scratch if you use a hard pencil. Instead a light stroke with a handplane will remove an ink mark and leave a clean surface to continue from. If you snap line with a chalkline or use a fat pointed pencil I always wonder where on this 2mm thick line it is you want to cut? It remains guessing at best. The joint will either be too tight or fit like a dick in a bucket. (This is an official English timberframers expression) And since none of the above could possibly be what we aim for we are in need for a fine and neat way to mark our timbers for cutout.
I have noticed that some sumi easily turns the silk wadding of your sumitsubo into a rock. This can be really frustating since it takes forever before your sumitsubo is usable. It has to soak all night and would still remain more difficult to use. At first I was under the impression that somehow acrylic might be mixed into it and causes the hardening of your wadding. I recently learned that some sumi sticks are made by mixing charcoal or soot with animal protein glue and this explains exactly the situation described. So what you are actualy looking for is higher grade caligraphy ink made of charcoal.
You can grind your own sumi from a stick but this takes time. Once upon a time I enjoyed gently grinding the stick of sumi until you get the perfect consistency of ink. I soon found out that I rather spend time on other things than preparing sumi, how meditative it may seem. These days I use prepared ink and I tend to choose the higher quality that is used for calligraphy, also here the lower quality ink contains additives such as gum which is undesirable. If you do choose to grind your own make then don’t make it too thick since it will not run as smoothly from out between the fine cuts you made in your sumisashi.
You need a lid.
Really, a lid for this inkpot, why?
Sumitsubo don’t come with a lid if you buy them. However if you plan to make your own sumitsubo (note the hint) make a lid as well while you are at it. One of the key things to work neatly and accurately is keeping your inkwell clean. There is plenty of dust traveling through the air in a carpenters shop that loves to settle among your sumi and then in turn sticks to your sumisashi. A lid will prevent this but it will also keep it from drying out during the dry season. During sumitsuke (layout) it is your main tool and you get accustomed to keep the right amount of water and ink in there. Make it too wet and things will be a mess but in general you should be adding more water than ink.
Wrap the silk wadding into a piece of cloth this helps to prevent fine strings of it getting stuck onto your sumisashi. I use a piece of old silk underwear that was in the rag bag at the workshop. I am afraid it used to belong to my boss to keep him warm during the winter. Why am I writing about my boss’s underwear?
Like many good things in life it takes some time and practice to become proficient in it. If you don’t want to bother investing some of your time and effort that is just fine too, you can stick with whatever works for you but you might be missing out on a very practical method. You have learned to eat properly with knife and fork so I am sure you can manage to learn laying out with ink. It’s a matter of good habits and muscle memory and the sumisashi will become an extension of your hand.
Here is another provocative statement.
Laying out with a sumisashi and ink is the superior method for timber framing layout.
There you have it, I said it. Maybe you are a furniture maker and believe that a bamboopen is going to be annoying as hell. In that case try a Pilot hi-tec pen. These things are great I was sold from the first moment I tried one. A carpenter and friend of mine Mike Laine gave me one while we were building a house in Nicasio CA. It is a superfine gel ink balpoint pen and brings together the best of both worlds. You have the advantage of ink but don’t have to carry a sumitsubo around to supply yourself with fuel. You can’t drop them on their tip, it ruins them so I always have at least one spare one in my toolbox. The thinnest are 0.3mm so if you are in need for a finer line you need to stick with a sumisashi instead. They come in many different colors which is often handy but only the black ones don’t run out when your marks get wet.
Tricks of the Trade
When accuracy is an utmost must the ink line can’t be too wet. It will splatter or mark a thick line (see the picture above with the layed out mortices). Take a small piece of sponge and fit it into your ink-container just in front of the hole where the line leaves the well. You will note that it helps too keep just enough ink on the line. The picture below shows a clear and thin line about 0.2mm wide, accuracy guaranteed.
Every morning after brushing your teeth clean your bamboo pen and make sure it is sharp and has no dust on it’s edge. If the edge isn’t sharp you just grind it on your #4000 stone take of the burr and it is as good as new.
So in order of preference I choose sumisashi, hi-tec pen and a HB pencil. Knives take a seperate place since they remain indispensable in many occasions.
I was planning to write a post on how to make your own sumisashi but then I found this film instead. Here is a link to some nice footage about how to make a sumisashi or bamboo pen. I really enjoy these little films, they make me want to go straight back to work instead of sitting behind this computer screen.
Pamflets with instructions for laying out with ink have been printed and are being dispersed as we speak. They will be dropped out of airplanes over the western world over the course of the next week. Get your hands on a couple of them and send them to your fellow carpenters if for some reason they have missed this propaganda.