What Tools Are Used for Carving Netsuke?

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The netsuke was created out of necessity. These tiny sculptures, made out of wood, bone, coral or even whole walnuts, date back to Japan's 17th century. Originally of simple design, netsukes were used to attach the ropes of sagemonos to the sash, or obi, of a kimono.

These sagemonos, or hanging objects, would hold the personal belongings of the wearer and were often intricately carved boxes or woven baskets. The tools to create netsuke vary depending on the material being carved.

Wood Netsuke Tools

Wood is a fairly soft carving material. Artists use trim saws to create the rough shape of their netsuke, and then shape it by using chisels and carving knives. As the details on the carving emerge, smaller and smaller knives are used. As an example, if you were carving a bird netsuke, the general outline of the bird would be finished and the individual feathers carved, then the details of the feathers. A drill is used to make holes for the ivory inlay for the eyes. Polishing with sandpaper gives the netsuke a smooth finish. Finally the wood is coloured, usually by applying black ink and then wiping it off with a cloth. The ink stays in the carved lines. A powder called rottenstone is used to give the netsuke a final polish.

Ukiboi Technique Tools

One method of applying texture to a wooden netsuke is to use the Ukibori technique. Using tools with rounded points, the artist presses the tips into the wood, making dimples. Then sandpaper is used to take the surface down to the bottom of the dimples. Water is applied to the dimples, making them swell. The effect gives the wood a bumpy texture, similar to that of a toad's back. Often artists made their own ukiboi technique tools out of dental instruments.

Ivory, Bone and Antler Netsuke Tools

The basic steps for carving netsuke out of harder materials are roughly the same as for the wooden variety. The difference is that the materials are scraped to create the shapes, rather than carved. Woodcarving tools are not tough enough for these materials. Artists use a series of files or scrapers, sometimes fashioned out of dental instruments. Other options are metal engraving tools. The scraping tips need to be made out of hard steel. Polishing is done with different grades of sandpaper. Ink is also used to bring out the details in the sculptures, similar to how it is used in scrimshaw. Scrimshaw is a carving made out of ivory or whalebone that was often practised by sailors to pass the time during long sea voyages.