I have been working on a netsuke in boxwood of a snail on a chestnut which started out promisingly. This was inspired by the many antique chestnut netsuke with a dark rich stain and patina which i wanted to replicate.
Carving a chestnut is deceptively difficult. One has an assumption that such an item would be easy to reproduce but once you start examining a chestnut, their undulating form, striation, asymmetry and satin gloss finish it quickly becomes a complex task. The second challenge is to replicate the above with exactly reproducing every impression and contour like for like. I wanted it to appear realistic whilst each cut would give an impression of the form, deceiving the eye to make it appear real. The third challenge is replicating the patina and stain of the beautiful antiques I have seen whilst also mimicking the colour and polish of a real chestnut.
Not one stage has gone exactly as I would have liked it.
The shape I achieved I am happy with but it not exactly as I set out to make. The detail is adequate but is not as impressionistic as i would like. I have a habit of trying to carve every detail rather than giving an impression of detail and I need further work to find a method of achieving this which suits me.
The staining has almost undone the whole project. The boxwood i used appears to be very unstable. After a warm bath in yashadama a number of hairline splits appeared and then closed again. I then tried a cold stain and the same happened to a greater degree and the splits did not close as well. After this I tried filling them but then had to find a way of covering them so used urushi to achieve a finish. The humidity in the curing process for urushi caused further splits to appear. I have not yet finished allying the urushi but these pictures show my progress to date. after the urushi is finished I need to to the gloss of the finish and polisg the rest of the piece. I am unsure if this will work and if anything this has been an exhausting learning exercise.
Earlier this year I started a small netsuke based on the traditional Japanese Chidori motif. Chidori are a small plover bird and simple designs of them can be seen on modern and antique Japanese goods. I had a small piece of baltic amber I wanted to use for a bird related design and decided to make a chidori as a short project. It was also an excuse to have a play and combine different materials I have collected.
The main body is sculpted from baltic amber, the beak and feet are made from red coral, the aye is made from mother of pearl and Whitby jet, and the himotoshi collar is made from red dear antler. The detail on the tail was completed using Japanese urushi.
This netsuke is the smallest i have made to date and only measures 25mm nose to tail and is around 8mm thick. I signed it discreetly on the back as it is too small to take a bold signature.
Since returning from my travels in Japan in October 2015 my work on netsuke has not been as prolific I would would haveliked. I have yet to produce a new fox priest after the last one escaped and only now do I feel like I am starting to get back into carving after that setback.
This is one of the netsuke which I have made to keep myself busy since last year.
It id a group of reishi fungi depicted in mountain mahogany which was inspired by the many different fungi and I saw in Japan last autumn (there are pictures of them on my instagram). This has a light staining to finish using yashadama. Spurs on the underside of the fungi heads have been depicted using ukibori technique.
In September of 2015 myself and my fiance visited Japan and traveled to several different locations including Tokyo, Kyoto, Nara, Takayama, and Kanazawa. My most recent netsuke carving at the time accompanied us on our travels. This was a carving of a fox disguised as a priest which gave me great pleasure to make. I was also very pleased with the results and had taken it with me to show anyone who may be interested as I made my way round visiting netsuke collectors and dealers.
Unfortunately the fox priest had better ideas and finally gave me the slip in Kanazawa. I can only imagine now he is completing some pilgrimage or has taken up residence with a kindly Japanese family. Either way I wish him the best.
Here are the only recorded pictures of him, before completion and enjoying the view from the Park Hyatt Tokyo
It has been a long time in the making but I feel I am at a point where I can call this piece finished. A 37mm by 37mm manjū style netsuke made from polished ebony with mother of pearl, abalone, horn, hippo tooth and gold inlay. It represents a dashing hare at night under a clouded moon. On the back can be seen a cut piece of equisetum arvense (horsetail).
When I started this I had a vague idea that a hare and moon were a rather Japanese looking subject matter but it all became a bit more than that. The further along the netsuke got, the more I discovered and the more I added to the design. At first it was just going to have a plain back but I found out from volume one of the Trumpf collection that Hares represent the 2nd month and the hours between 5am and 7am. A happy coincident for my black netsuke but then further reading revealed that in Japanese legend the hare is responsible for keeping the moon clean and shining. A second coincident! I’m on a roll. Not only is my hare running around in the dark at 6am in February but it’s running to clean the moon which is being covered by clouds. The third element helps to tie it all together. The hare cleans the moon with horsetail (equisetum arvense) Which is apparently used as a metal polish because it contains silicic acid. This gave me the concept for the design on the back. So after a lot more work then I originally envisioned, and after cutting and re-cutting each piece inlay 3 times each It is done.
It is by no means perfect. The inlay on the moon is rather ill fitting. Following the original one breaking when it was set in place I had to re cut and each time more wood material was taken out. I didn’t want to attempt to get the inlay any tighter in fear of it getting slightly worse each time. For my first real go at inlay though I’m happy with the results and see this as a good foundation on which to build. It has also bee a learning curve in relation to polish and finishing which has taken many hours.
I have a few ideas for my next piece already and I may get around to taking some better pictures of this one.
For a while now I have been working on a new netsuke. I decided to try my hand at a manju netsuke and do a bit of relief carving. I also wanted to try doing some inlay work, juxtaposing the dark cloudy ebony with silvery mother of pearl.
The photos here show the piece as it currently stands. The basic form is complete and the clouds have been carved so that the inlay could be fitted. I spent a long time deliberating over how the clouds should be represented and sketching different forms. In the end I took inspiration from Manju netsuke attributed to Ryûsa and others by Kou which can be seen here.
The next stage will be to add the critter I’m planning in the bottom right. I’m carving it into the wood to start to see how it looks. If it isn’t defined enough I might try inlaying it in a dark material, possible jet of black horn. The background will require more texture to give more depth and then the base of the manju will be textured to make it more interesting. How long I expect this to take me isn’t clear. I’m working full time in a new job so I don’t expect it to be finished before Christmas really. Once it is it will be posted here, and may be for sale!
I mentioned in my previous post that I was working on a new netsuke of a rabbit (hare) and as I am currently unemployed and seeking work I have had plenty of time to work on it. As a result, it is complete, I think. This represents my 3rd netsuke. I feel I am making decent progress with my carving skills and plan to continue their development.
How It’s Made
Unfortunately I did not think to take any photos of the process of making it but I will give a brief overview now.
The netsuke is made from Hippo tooth. I purchased this from ebay.co.uk from someone selling them as items they had purchased whilst on holiday during the 60s or 70s. Hippo tooth can be difficult to come by as it is a CITES listed and controlled substance. It can be purchased with greater ease in the USA where there are a number of dealers who import it with all the proper permits. The enamel on the tooth is extremely hard and an angle grinder was required to remove it (safety goggles recommended). When doing this you have to be careful not to overheat the tooth as it can cause splitting. Once de-enameled the tooth can be sawed by hand quite easily.
Once I had removed a bit of tooth I decided on a subject matter. I went with rabbit as I quite like them. I’m not that fussed on them as pets but find their form interesting to work with. Once decided I started drawing on my bit of tooth until I had a rough design I was happy with then then started roughing out the shape using a dremel multi tool. This is the only stage along with one small one at the end where I use electronic tools. Once I had the rough shape I started using scrapers and chisels to work over the piece and refine the shape. Once I had the shape right I started on the fine detail (eyes, paws, ears ect.) and when that was completed I used the edge of a fine chisel for creating fur across its entire body. This was something I decided to do toward the end as I had not intended to do this when I started out. I then drilled out the eyes using a drill bit between my fingers (I wouldn’t trust a power drill because if I had slipped it could have ruined the whole thing). I then used the same drill bit to attach some amber to the base using superglue. I then used a file to round the amber off to the same diameter and the drills shaft. Once rounded the end of the amber was squared off and a smaller drill bit was used to create a pupil which was then filled with acrylic paint (drilled by hand again). A second bit of amber was then glued on the end of the first bit (over the pupil), rounded off to the same diameter and then sanded convex. All manner of wet and dry papers and micro mesh were used to polish and finish it.
The last thing I did was drill the himotoshi. I used the dremel again for this and a series of different attachments. I took my time with this as if I had messed it up at the last stage I can’t imagine how annoyed I would get. In all this is probably about 80 hours work I think, but I can’t be sure as I didn’t keep track.
it’s 38.5mm head to tail, 24mm at its widest point, and 24.5mm tall.
Photos! For gods sake yes, photos!
I have spent the last 3 years studying Occupational Therapy at university. This is not my first degree though, my first was Art and Design. I specialised in product design, even though I was much better at fine art and this has always been a curse of sorts as I always want to do something new and different, rather than stick to what I am good at. Between my degrees I worked but design jobs were thin on the ground during the recession so I was a model maker, and then a tax man, and then I lost the will to live and no longer had the time for drawing or creative things. This is why I decided to study occupational therapy, a change of career, something new.
What I had not expected when going to study healthcare was I would go full circle back to fine art. I quickly found on my new degree that writing assignments was not my strong point. For me writing essays and papers it like drawing blood from a stone. As a result procrastination became my best friend and for every major assignment I developed a new interest or hobby. At first this was just drawing again, something a had not done seriously for years. Then it was building models like the one shown on my previous post. In the second year I started designing jewellery and set up a business which is still ticking along https://www.etsy.com/shop/FireTheLaser. I also took an interest in prehistory and started engaging in local archaeology and flint working.
In the third year I had fewer assignments but they were fairly epic in size so I needed something new and really exciting to engage in whilst ignoring my work. This took the form of the Japanese art of Netsuke (pronounced netske or netski). I had recently purchased two netsuke from someone in the local area. I was fairly certain they were authentic and had this confirmed by the International Netsuke Society. This inspired me to have a go at making one of my own as I had some wood lying around from when I was a model maker and from my first degree.
My first netsuke was done slightly blind. I hadn’t done any reading up on netsuke or subject matters and just started carving. It turned into a rat and was mainly carved using a scalpel and some needle files. It tuned out ok but wasn’t the amazing result a had imagined it would be when I set out. However feedback I received on it was positive and encouraging so I started on something new whilst writing my dissertation.
I decided to go down the route of more modern subject matter for my next piece but with some traditional elements. I have always loved the movies produced by Studio Ghibli and I especially love Spirited Away so decided to base my carving on one of its characters. In the movie some of the frog men can actually be seen wearing netsuke and inro. I chose No Face. This is a character I am always unsure if I like or not. I don’t get how some people think No Face is cute or a ‘nice’ character. It eats other creatures to gain their abilities and does so by deceiving them, I am unsure on how this is cute. I had some offcuts of ebony and decided to use this for his main body. I had purchased some more tools at this point as well, larger files for shaping, sand papers and some offcut bone from ebay to use for his mask. I also found some guides on carving forums about making your own small chisels so also did this. Carving and finishing the piece took some time and was a major learning curve. Getting a good finish is hard when not using any polishing products but well worth it. Learning about composition and the attention to detail for a flawless finish is also not something I have done before. I was also taught to consider other non visual sensory aspects of carving such as the feel in the hand (netsuke are supposed to be handled) and the temperature of the piece from the materials. Fortunately I was given some expert advise on this. Essentially there are no shortcuts in producing good quality work. After a couple of months of working on No Face I think I can say it’s finished now.
Here are the final results and some of the process shots. It might be worth explaining what I have done a little. I have tried to give the impression of No Face’s mouth under its mask. I started by doing a wooden mask but didn’t like how it looked so used bone instead. I then inset the mask and made a impression round the back of the head to allude to something holding the mask on. The last few pictures show the finished result. At this point I have made a matching ojime with a mask showing a different expression on each side and both have been connected using silk inro chord passed through the himotoshi holes.
Also, it is worth mentioning I did pass my degree in Occupational Therapy and am now looking for a relevant job but I think my love of carving is here to stay and I am already working on several more pieces.