Hi, I'm Galina and I carve netsuke professionally. Here I am sharing my workflow to hopefully spread this art.
Netsuke (nets-ke) are a traditional Japanese art. Originally they were a toggle used to hold a pouch or box to the belt of a kimono. These containers were used instead of pockets. The Japanese love of making the mundane beautiful turned these simple wooden beads into minature sculptures made from various precious materials. Today they are widely collected and can be found in many museums.
Step 1: Tools and Materials
The tools I use are pretty simple. To cut the material down to size I use a regular hacksaw and a small vise mounted on a stool. For rough shaping I use a tabletop disk sander (you can see it in the next step) and for the actual carving I use a dental drill BMS 32 with a wide variety of bits. The finishing touches require hand tools. I use professional wood carving knives.
I carve most of my netsuke from fossilized mammoth ivory. This material is just as beautiful as other ivories but is not illegal to transport or sell. However for your first try it may be a bit expensive. I also use various hardwoods. When choosing wood make sure the grain is not too rough or you won't be able to sand it really smooth.
Step 2: Getting Started
First of all you need to choose a subject. There are lots of traditional ones but there is no reason not to do anything from life that inspires you. The only requirement is that it not have sharp edges or long thin parts. Remember these were meant to be worn at the waist next to a silk kimono so any sharp edges would poke the wearer or tear his clothing and any fragile parts will break off quickly. Netsuke should feel good in the hand like a smooth stone from a river.
When you have a subject and some sketches you can find a piece of material that suits you and cut it to size.
Draw your sketch on the piece and use the disk sander to round the material to the basic shape you need.
Step 3: Carving and Polishing
When you have your base shape ready draw the main lines on it again and cover them with clear nail polish or varnish. This will guide you when carving and keep the lines from smudging. Don't use a pen as it will stain the material and may force you to remove more than you wanted.
Using a largish bit begin roughing out the basic forms. Continue to progressively smaller bits for the finer details. Finally underline the main details with hand tools if necessary.
Your carving will have inevitably left some scratches and rough places and you will need to polish it anyway to make it shine like it should. You can sand by hand like in the picture or use a sanding wheel in the dental drill. Start with no rougher than 300 grit and move up from there until it is as smooth as water. The more care you take when carving the less you will need to sand.
I polish using a felt wheel in the drill but a cloth would work.
Step 4: Presentation
Depending on the material you used you may want to give it a light coat of oil to make it shine. Then all you need is a beautiful box to show off your work of art in!
If you would like to see more of my work take a look at my site