Modern Ivory Carving

How to carve authentic looking ivory in materials available today

Carvers have a long history of turning to ivory as an alternative carving material. It holds detail better than any woods, but is much harder than most woods. Ivory from elephant tusks has been outlawed for many years, so carvers are turning to a number of ivory substitutes.

Various plastics and other man-made substances work well for ivory—especially old billiard balls. Antlers and horn, from deer, moose, or even steer, can be used if you take the time to grind and polish the material. The inside of sea shells offers another engravable surface.

One of the more common ivory substitutes is the tagua nut, sometimes called vegetable ivory. Tagua nuts are the seeds of a South American palm tree. Unfortunately, the nut sometimes develops cracks or holes in the center, making it difficult to find pieces big enough to carve.

Beef thigh bone offers the most accessible and least expensive ivory alternative. To prepare the bone, boil it until any meat adhering to it is gone. Then take it outdoors and boil in a bleach solution—one pint of bleach per gallon of water. Use a portable camp stove or put it on top of a gas barbecue grill. Caution—boiling bleach water releases a toxic chlorine gas. You can also soak the bone in the bleach solution for several days to produce the bonewhite color needed.

Grind away the honeycomb material inside the bone with a flexible shaft tool and a carbide burr. If you don’t remove this material, oils trapped in the marrow will bleed through and stain the surface of the bone.

Once you’ve determined which ivory substitute to use, you’ll need to decide on your method of carving. Power
carving burrs are hard enough to shape ivory and ivory substitutes. But hand tools have also been used. Palm tools sharpened to carve hardwoods (by having a steeper bevel) are the most useful. For smaller scale carvings, sharpened dental tools will work as well.

Scrimshaw is another historic art form using ivory and ivory substitutes. Break off the very tip of a hobby knife—the smallest amount possible, sharpen the tip like a miniature chisel, and etch an image on a piece of ivory or ivory substitute. Use a fine artist’s brush to apply a little ink, such as Higgens or Pelikan ink, to the etching and buff off any extra ink with fine steel wool.The resulting image is scrimshaw.


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