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Tsukumogami: The Soul of the Tool | Quackenbush Woodworks

Tsukumogami: The Soul of the Tool

Voices from the Past

Stepping through the streets of many Old World cities, you can’t help but feel a spiritual link to the past when you see, touch, and enter the buildings which have endured through centuries and millennia of war, weather, and abuse. Atlanta is too young for this, and I so cherish travel.

I can experience this through another means, however. Pick up an antique tool, and listen. If you don’t care, you won’t catch it. But if you try, and you can almost hear the whispers of something. And no, I don’t do drugs.

Cooper and Young Plane
Cooper and Young moulding plane, one of a few known to exist

Some Japanese folklore holds that after one hundred years, a man-made object (tools, toys) develops a spirit. Yōkai spirits are generally crazy little buggers, causing havok and disruption. Tsukumogami means “tool soul.”

I love the variation on tsukumogami folklore which believes that as a tool is used, it develops a soul. Each time you move your jack plane across the work piece, a bit of you is put into the plane, and by extension, the item you make. This builds over time to give a life to the tool.

A.C. Cook left his mark

Past owners leave their marks on a tool. Sometimes this is manifest in a literal stamp of their name. Other times it is sadly seen in abuse and misuse, a lack of care. As with those who abuse their own lives, gunk and sadness can infect a tool and cause rot and decay.

Visibly, we call the effects of time the “patina” of the tool. Patination could be discussed at length; in short, as a tool ages, it develops a natural darkening or other coloration from use, sunlight, oxidation, hand sweat, dust, grime, and more.

What Does This Mean to Me?

The practical applications are two-fold. In the most obvious, let us treat the tools in our care as if they have a life. As discussed in The Price of Immortality, our tools will live longer than we will when treated well. Ensure that those who come after you will have opportunity to use the tool as intended and to add to the soul of it.

Perhaps more importantly, though, take care when restoring & cleaning a tool. There must be a balance in wanting to clean the tool to a usable state and not attacking the patina, the soul of the tool.

Sandusky Bead Plane

We humans pick up gunk, dirt, and grime in our souls and need to clean them out occasionally through methods like reconciliation. These don’t leave us shiny and spotless, but they do breathe life back into us. A shiny soul is inhuman, perfect; a stripping of life.

In the same way, let us seek to restore our tools in a manner that isn’t focused on the shiny, the perfect. Yes, the iron’s edge and the plane’s bottom should be keen and prepared for use. But abrasives should rarely, if ever, touch a wooden part of an old tool. They do little more than damage it.

The voices of the tsukumogami are there. Stop, and have a listen.

Do you have any topics you’d like discussed? Let me know!


Author: Jordan

Jordan Quackenbush is a hobbyist tool restorer (focusing on moulding planes) and 100% unplugged woodworker. The tactility of woodworking contrasts perfectly with his mostly-digital day job, Creative Director for a Video Marketing Agency in Atlanta, GA, USA. He lives in metro Atlanta with his family. He is on the admin team at the Unplugged Woodworkers & Antique Tools Buy-Sell-Trade Facebook groups.

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