Introduction: How to Carve Bone Jewelry: Tools and Materials

Picture of How to Carve Bone Jewelry: Tools and Materials

The original tutorial was published here on Bone Jeweler.

This bone carving tutorial is a large summary of what you need to begin carving bone and similar materials. The hobby itself of bone carving holds an allure to many creative people and it is not uncommon these days to stumble into someone just starting in the craft. My own history dates only as far back as my mid-twenties, not yet ten years ago. I will share tips and tricks to carving bone here in this blog. I don’t mind giving beginners a leg up on their skills, as I had often wished I had someone guiding me back then.


In this large post I will cover:

  1. must have tools
  2. peripheral tools, and carving on a budget
  3. bone carving safety
  4. setting up a carving space
  5. bone carving materials and renewable alternatives

Step 1: Safety First!

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Safety gear! Don’t even get started with out these two bad boys: hearing protection and a respirator. One will prevent you from going to bed after a long day of carving and laying in bed wide awake because all you can hear in the quietness is a high pitched whine “eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee.” The other will help your face not be hit and keep your lungs clear of the harmful bone dust. They are both 3M products: a full face respirator, and hearing protectors. Remember to buy a few packs of filters. When I change my filters out, I write the date of when I installed them new on the mask. There is no hard and fast rule on when to change the filter, the best ways to tell are: is it becoming hard for you to draw breaths in the mask? Or are you smelling burning bone? Both signs mean the filter is finally clogged and ready to be changed.

Step 2: The Tools You Will Want for Bone Carving

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Tight Budget?

A nice basic set up to start cutting your teeth on will cost you under $200 depending on what brand and accessories you want to start with. My entry could help you get started.

Tools

You don’t need much to begin carving. First, get yourself a Dremel or a Foredom: read that guide mentioned right above to help you decide.

Adding the flex shaft to the dremel makes it feel like you are drawing on the bone. It gives you some freedom in the maneuvering department.


Okay, you have the most important part: the engine. Now how about the wheels? I would recommend obtaining an assortment of the following: Lamps to see with. A carousel of carving burrs to help organize your burrs and have them easy at hand.

An assortment of various cut-off discs, aluminum oxide abrasives, silicone polishing wheels, and sanding bands.

An assortment of sand papers running from 80 grit to 2500 grit. At 400 grit, I switch to water sand paper. I will run a tutorial on how to properly use sanding paper with bone later.

A jewelers saw with some spiral wax saw blades. The name is misleading, as the blades are capable of sawing anything from soft wax to hardened shell.

Liquid lubricant. Not only for the saw blades, but for the carving burrs. Everyone likes a little cool down during such heated friction. Seriously, the lubricant will help smooth the experience of carving. Otherwise, you will just prematurely wear out your tools.

See the large polishing wheel? I forgot, get some of those too! Polishing buffs and cloth wheels are a huge must have to execute the last two steps in finishing a pendant: polishing, and more polishing.

Just one more important thing: improvise where you must. I use a fan to blow the dust away from landing on me and clogging up in my filters faster than I’d like. This also helps by clearing dust away so you can continue to see your carving instead of having to shake dust off of it.


Try to have a dedicated carving space. This is quite important. In order to develop your skill, you should be able to be able to return to your projects on a whims notice. For most of my carving years, I was only able to carve 3 months out of every year. I carved in an outdoor shed that did not have heat. In 2013 I moved into another place and have my own tiny corner; it doesn’t take much space to carve but it does need to be comfortable.

Step 3: The Materials You Will Want for Bone Carving

Picture of The Materials You Will Want for Bone Carving

These are examples of all the types of carving material I keep on hand to carve.

  • My WIPs drawer (bottom) and skull drawer (top) keep my queue of pendants and skull (engraving) supply.
  • Monkey skull, fresh nut and horn ring.
  • Bear jaw bone and cougar jaw bone.
  • Cow bone and three kinds of ivory (all legal).
  • Water buffalo horn and human skull cap.
  • African lion jaw and various types of antler.

Note also the colored pencils in the back ground (that would be your thinnest carving yet!), the cigar box and tagua nut. The tagua nut is a great alternative to ivory. Tagua nut resembles ivory enough that it is known as ivory-nut. Also recall that deer shed, or lose, their antlers every year. Can't get more renewable than that!

As you expand your carving skills you may also want to try giraffe bone.

Step 4: Remember to Enjoy

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If carving is in anyway stressful, it may not be for you. If you've tried, share your results! And remember, you'll only get better the more you carve.

Comments

Tangski (author)2015-02-03

Ivory, unless petrified Mammoth kind, is usually illegal to get now due to all the Elephants, rhinos, even whale ivory, and other animals being killed for it. You can usually tell old ivory by the color, as it tends to get rather yellow as it gets older, which is why one had to polish piano keys to keep the ivory white. You could also wear out the keys doing that too! Ever notice on old pianos how it tends to split into long lines and even chip off the ends of the keys? Rarely are aged pieces exempt from splitting and yellowing. I have small pieces from the 60's and turn of the century that are yellowed from age. Ivory can take a higher polish than bone, and greater detail. However, there is a fake ivory out there that looks like the real thing, but is a form of resin. It can also be a 'nut' which is the Tagua nut, and is also used to fake people out as the 'real thing', but is a vegetable ivory. It is hard like ivory and carves just as nice. It has a hollow centre, and only so big since in is after all a nut, (the largest I have seen is only about 2.5" inches long and 2" wide which can make it more difficult to carve animals etc as you also always have to work around the centre hole. Again, since it is organic, it can have similar cell structure to that of ivory, which is an interesting characteristic.

After you hold ivory, plastic is a very different feel. Bone always tends to be more porous. Like sandstone, it absorbs water. A drop of water on bone is like water on sandstone, it holds the wet. However, where there is more enamel on the bone the less it absorbs, so one has to use other methods to check it. Plastic does absorb water etc. Since one does not always want to chemically test a sample, a magnifying glass can help you know organic from plastics or resins. Ivory and bone both have cell structure, regular lines and patterns, while resins etc do not. Bone tends to have a stubble look to it under magnification. There are ways to get more clinical in identification, which is important information if you are investing in such items, especially art work. True carved ivory does not have a bottom to it that does not show the grain...as that is the key identification factor to show it is 'real' and not made from fake materials.

Another interesting thing to note is that at room temperature, natural objects like bone and ivory tend to be warmer to the touch than things like plastics and resins. Not to mention one has the organic smell, while the other may have no smell at all. You can certainly tell that once you are carving...bone and ivory, well, don't smell great when you are carving them!! Not my fav smell in carve city. OH well, you have to put up with something to get quality!LOL

Hope this note helps! Check the fish and wildlife site for more information to identify these things.:)

spark master (author)Tangski2015-02-04

At a huge flea market I had a gent try to tell me that he was not sure if the Scrimshaw I was looking at was real, I whipped out a Sewing needle and a lighter he asked for what I told him that a red hot pin will go right in, if it is Ivory it will not do anything at all. He went a tad nuts so I put it down. I then told him he sold fakes and he knew it. and moved on. Tagua nuts while very ivory like, are relatively small. Maybe one day I try a burn test. Ivory that can be PROVEN to be pre 1974 is safe to use. Walrus tusks can be carved, (here is the kicker), but ONLY BY NATIVE TRIBES OF THE ARE.

So, you can buy a tusk legally even carved, but it you carve it it is illegal. Now the last time I looked up the regs was about 5-10 years ago, so they may or may not have changed them.

bonejeweler (author)spark master2015-02-05

It is my understanding that I can carve tusk, I just cannot sell it. :) I would not sell anything that was illegal to sell. I use ivories and tusks to make gifts for loved ones.

Odd Jobs (author)bonejeweler2017-06-11

I'll bet you can sell very expensive boxes, that happen to have a bit of tusk in them.

aebe (author)spark master2015-02-13

Why would someone allow a stranger to be burning holes in their work ?

spark master (author)aebe2015-02-14

he was telling me it was a real, and old whales tooth, he made nothing. He was selling it as an antique, it was not. IF it were a real whales tooth as he said, the hot pin does nothing, NOTHING, unless you then proceed to scratch it like you want to destroy it. But a Hot Poke in the bottom when it sits ( it was vertically carved), would do nothing to it. He was upset as he got found out.

spark master (author)aebe2015-02-14

he was telling me it was a real, and old whales tooth, he made nothing. He was selling it as an antique, it was not. IF it were a real whales tooth as he said, the hot pin does nothing, NOTHING, unless you then proceed to scratch it like you want to destroy it. But a Hot Poke in the bottom when it sits ( it was vertically carved), would do nothing to it. He was upset as he got found out.

What I read a number of years back was.... you can buy a walrus tusk, carved or not, but YOU may not carve it... It must be carved by a Native, now that was nutty then and I can't see it making sense now. .
It does not matter if you give it away or sell it.

aebe (author)Tangski2015-02-13

Good advice . Some states ( California) go nuts over things like cougar , especially , and the state has been known to attack people who have killed them in self defense . So do check with your state's Fish and Wildlife dept. , and maybe the feds , as well . Selling , or personal use need to be thought about , also .

bonejeweler (author)Tangski2015-02-05

I am sure it helps others who look at comments. :) As for ivory, the schreger lines are very clear most of the time. As in this photo of a gift I carved for a friend.

robinjhorton (author)2015-02-03

I tried wood carving, so I've got the tools, but I totally suck at it. I end up with either too deep a 'carve' or really rough edges that I can't seem to smooth. Is it easier to carve on bone?

bonejeweler (author)robinjhorton2015-02-05

Bone is very different from woods. I wouldn't say it is easier, though I find it easier. You can pick up a cleaned beef bone from your local pet store to try carving on bone. :)

robinjhorton (author)bonejeweler2015-02-06

I didn't even think of that. Would my local grocery store's meat department have that too, do you think? (Nearest Pet Store is about 100 miles from where I live - which is out in the toolies!) Is there anything I have to do to 'prepare' the bone for carving? And do you have any tutorial videos on, say, YouTube I could watch to help me along? Thanks in advance!

Odd Jobs (author)robinjhorton2017-06-11

Bones have to cure, same as wood.

bonejeweler (author)robinjhorton2015-02-06

Some grocery stores have a tiny pet area... does yours by chance?

Tangski (author)bonejeweler2015-02-13

You might want to try soap stone too just to get a feel of working in harder material. But just keep at it. Some woods are more difficult than others to carve. What you learned the first time around you will know not to do next time. It takes a few try's to get the results you may want. Don't give up! :)

robinjhorton (author)bonejeweler2015-02-06

The only 'pet area' they have is where they sell the dog and cat food.

I don't know where you are Robin, but if you are in the USA there may be a carving club near by. I carve walking sticks or any piece of wood if I am bored. I have even made bone stuff using hack saws dremel roto-tools. There are many good books and tutorials on wood carving and stick making. Stuff here on line is great, but a physical book is nicer. Tangerman is the author of many many books on the subject. He is long dead and was a member of the club I belonged to for years, on Long Island. Once you have the technique down it is a question of imagination and practice. Try making a simple ant or butterfly walking sticks, draw them and reduce the wood around them, for ant legs and feelers use a pyro burning pen . One gent on SCWW (yahoo groups) did an ant stick, simple and very very cool. One day I will make one. I have carved bone and used it as an inlay, nice as well.

Simple geometric designs are nice on a stick, but any stick you make will be light years ahead of wrapping it with leather drilling it for a loop.

enjoy

AlStone made it! (author)2015-06-18

This is only the second piece I ever made. Made from an Elk Horn Tine. 6/18/15 HAnd Carved By; Al Stone

AlStone (author)2015-06-18

maKACS made it! (author)2015-02-05

Nice guide, thanks!

I like both wood and bone. Recently I made a feather shaped bone earrings and wooden earphones with bone caps and a bone guitar pick. I plan more similiar little projects.

DIYDragon (author)maKACS2015-02-22

Those are some fancy earbuds. I need to make those like right now. How good do the guitar picks sound? : D

maKACS (author)DIYDragon2015-02-23

Thanks! Just do it! :)

The picks are loud and crisp. Nice to touch. Worth to make and have one.

bonejeweler (author)maKACS2015-02-05

The ear buds are NICE, sir! I am inspired. :) Do you have a website, facebook, or something?

maKACS (author)bonejeweler2015-02-05

Thanks! I made instructables about it, You can find it on my profile. I'm blogging on my GPlus and there I documented the earphones a lot detailed way:

https://plus.google.com/u/0/s/%23DIY%20%20%20%23bark%C3%A1cs%20%20%20%23csin%C3%A1ldmagad%20%20%20%23CoolerMaster%20%20%20%23earphone%20%20%20%23fejhallgat%C3%B3%20%20%EF%BB%BF

It is written in Hungarian but feel free to use the translate button.

I'm curious about Your future projects Sir, You have a new follower! :)

maKACS (author)maKACS2015-02-05

I think I'm lost. Forget the „Sir". :D ;)

aebe (author)2015-02-15

Hello , again
bone pyrography . I reckon I was bit abrupt , excuse me . Anyway , google that , there's some nice work to be seen .

aebe (author)2015-02-15

Hello
I'd been thinking that hot needles had been used on bone also , as they were in woodburning . I reckon not .

Azzurro (author)2015-02-03

nice nice. i miss the actual carving tho. :D

bonejeweler (author)Azzurro2015-02-05

That will come. First, you need the carving THINGS. Next, I'll do a series on skills. :)

Azzurro (author)bonejeweler2015-02-06

Oh, okay, okay i'm looking forward to it. :) I have made a couple of things of bone, two rings and a cross pedant. They are nice, but i felt confused some times, for example when the cross broke in two while carving... Luckily i could superglue and polish it, so nobody notices that it was broken once. :) Still, i would be glad to read about techniques and tricks.

bonejeweler (author)Azzurro2015-02-06

How thin was the cross? What material? Nice save though! :)

Azzurro (author)bonejeweler2015-02-13

It was cattle leg bone, the cross itself was thick, around 7-8 mm, but i cut holes throughout it so the material thickness was around 2 mm. if i find it i take a photo and post it here. :)

Tangski (author)bonejeweler2015-02-05

wonderful! Love the pics above of macKacs carvings. I will try and post mine one day....:) Anyway good to know more is coming, and look forward to seeing peoples work...the more we share the more we expand our own talents:) Cheers everyone! I so enjoy this site!

bonejeweler (author)Tangski2015-02-06

I wish I would have joined this site earlier!

DIYDragon (author)2015-02-05

Hmm. I'd really like to make some bone gauges. Might have to break out the dremel and try. How strong is the bone? I've tried wearing wood before, but it's fragile in smaller sizes (I'm a 6 gauge).

bonejeweler (author)DIYDragon2015-02-06

I don't think bone handles thin sizes very well. Sadly enough. :( But it can go fairly thin. Looking at photos of 6 gauge... that is totally doable. Not too thin at all!

Ninzerbean (author)2015-02-03

It would be great to see some examples of the jewelry you have made - as in the title.

bonejeweler (author)Ninzerbean2015-02-05

That will come. :) Here are some samples attached.

Ninzerbean (author)bonejeweler2015-02-05

Fantastic! How do you recommend cleaning skulls and bones?

bonejeweler (author)Ninzerbean2015-02-06

I have a series dedicated to that itself. Expect it in a few days. :)

DIYDragon (author)bonejeweler2015-02-06

Love the necklace on the bottom. That's awesome. Kind of wondering if I could carve designs into the bone now to fill with gold powder/crushed stone. Like is done with the wood inlays.

bonejeweler (author)DIYDragon2015-02-06

Yes, inlays will be a series on its own! :) There are a few ways I know of and will be covering over the next several months.

But for a general walk-through: carve the area you want to fill. Buy a quality two part resin:

http://www.riogrande.com/Product/Rio-Low-Viscosity...

Fill up with gold and put a layer of resin. Go carefully and slowly and have wipes on hand to deal with any messes (not usually an issue but ya never know). A more detailed instruct will be typed up soon. Here is a pendant I carved with the purpose of filling with ashes of my pet.

Ray from RI (author)2015-02-03

You can get Prion disease through bone particles... a former staff member of our library got it from the bone meal they placed on their garden.....

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bovine_spongiform_encephalopathy

bonejeweler (author)Ray from RI2015-02-05

Ok. I think people can get too paranoid. With the theoretical numbers reported on infected cattle, and the actual number of reported cases, you stand a bigger chance of being in a car accident. Life is inherently dangerous. Do you drink from plastic bottles? Drive a car? Walk near roads? Read books with cancer causing inks and glues? As well, if you are buying bones from the pet store to carve- those have been heat treated around 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Yes, it takes around 300 to 700 degrees to kill prions. But as I said, the risk is very small. I'm not going to live in a bubble. :)

Ray from RI (author)bonejeweler2015-02-05

Oh yes and the meat industry is Very open and up front in how they scan their beef cows for disease, taking every possible safety concern into consideration, and they are open to and take criticism with out suing people like Oprah who talked about such concerns... Not.......!
If the beef industry was so concerned for health they would not be feeding scrap parts of cows to other cows in the 1st place... Everyone deals with safety issues differently, you are not concerned with this issue that is fine and your right...

spark master (author)Ray from RI2015-02-03

Any mammal can get it, and spread it. Scrapie (sheep version), gratefully, does not infect humans. If you live in the right part of NY State, you must have the deer tested if you go hunting and bag one. If it shows positive in testing they take it away. My doctor (a hunter) was telling me about it.

Thanks fer the posting on it!

Want to really get shocked read the books Deadly Feast (on prions) and Parasite Rex for everything else.

Ray from RI (author)Ray from RI2015-02-03

http://www.jsonline.com/news/health/115246649.html

And you can get it from deer bone as well....

beth_vawter (author)2015-02-05

I'm a crafter and I loved this post. Do you plan to add some tips and tricks for the beginner, maybe some pics of your finished work. Show how the pencils are used. I'm imaginative and can probably figure it out, but it would be nice to have some tips and ideas for finished products

bonejeweler (author)beth_vawter2015-02-05

Oh yes, I have an entire series of tricks planned out for tutorials. :) I have personally never used pencils but I know people who carve things out of them like tiny chains.

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Bio: I carve bone jewelry! Now you can too.
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