Introduction: Carved Vegetable Ivory (Tagua) Bracelet
You might be asking yourself "What the heck is Tagua?"
Tagua (aka Vegetable Ivory), pronounced /ˈtaɡwə/ or Ta-Gwa is a nut that grows in certain types of palm trees in south america. It's an awesome, super hard, natural material that is fun to carve. Before the invention of plastics Tagua was exported to Europe and the U.S. for the button industry. You can put it on a mini lathe and turn a bunch of buttons or little cups or whatever. Today Tagua is still used for buttons in the high end fashion industry( or so I read ). And is used extensively in jewelry making in Ecuador.
Just Google Tagua images and you'll see all the wonderful uses for it.
So I picked up some nuts up when I was in Ecuador because I was fascinated by the little carvings they would do with them. I talked to an artisan in Banos EC that has been working with it his whole life. His grandfather started the Biz years back and has passed it down through the family.
Step 1: Tools
Tagua is pretty easy to work with. You just need a rotary tool like a Dremel or a Foredom (Prefered...I need one of those. Hint,hint..nudge,nudge). You can carve it with chisels and such but it's super hard and you'd probably just get frustrated. The nice thing about Tagua is it doesn't really have a grain pattern so that makes it a little easier to carve than wood. You just have to be careful it doesn't burn.
-Sandpaper 220-400 grit
-Cloth and Jeweler's Rouge
-Knife- snap off hobby razors are good.
-Hole Punch- Rotary or I prefer the tubular kind that you hit with a mallet.
-Saddle Needles or leather sewing machine
-Canvas- Just a piece of scrap for burnishing the edges
-Vegetable Tanned Leather
-1" Brass Buckle
-Wax Finish or other Leather finish
-Thread for hand stitching or for machine
Step 2: Open the Nut
Usually you can feel the nut moving around inside the shell when you shake it. Just give it a smack on the side of your bench or with a piece of wood to crack the shell. You might need a flat screwdriver to pry it open but once you get it going it's pretty easy.
Step 3: Cut to Size
You can use a vise or some clamps to hold the nut. Then use a fine tooth saw ( i like the Japanese style pull saws) to cut it in half or parallel to one of the surfaces. The nut obviously isn't a geometric shape but there are three relatively flat surfaces on the outside. The center of the nut sometimes has a crack in it from the drying process. Just keep this in mind for your design. Once I cut it in half I then cut it in to a 1 1/8" X 1 3/8" rectangle.
Step 4: Glue to Work Surface
Here you can use rubber cement or contact cement to glue it to your work surface to make it easier to work on. Glue the cut side down. Then I sanded the top flattish (is that a word?). I wish I had glued it up on a block to make it raised up. It would have been a little easier to work on with the rotary tool.
Step 5: Draw Design and Carve
I just drew the design I wanted with a pencil and started drawing. You can draw it on to a piece of paper and transfer it if you want but that's waaaay too much work.
Then get carving. I bought a set of cheap burs from Menard's that are okay for carving. And I have a few individual bits that are good for details. You can also make your own for super detailed parts by filing down small drill bits, like 1/16". Just take your time so as not to burn the Tagua. Use larger bits for the big stuff and tiny bits for the small stuff. Kinda logical, right?
Step 6: Sand and Polish
Use some 220 grit sandpaper and sand it smooth. Then use 400 grit.
After that it was pretty smooth but I wanted it shiny like I saw at the shops in Ecuador. The artist I talked to said they don't put any finish on it just polish. I don't have a polishing wheel for my grinder right now so I just rubbed some white jeweler's rouge on a piece of an old cotton dress shirt and rubbed until it shined.
Step 7: Drill Holes
First I removed some of the thickness and made the backside a little convex to fit the curve of a bracelet.
Then at this point I still wasn't sure how I was going to make the bracelet or attach the carving to it. I had sort of an idea of running some thread through it so I drilled some holes through it. Tagua is a little difficult to drill because its kind of like a hard plastic. It gets hot fast and can clog the bit fast. so you have to just do a little at a time to not burn it. I drilled in from both sides to finish the hole.
Step 8: Make the Bracelet
I had some scraps of veg tanned leather that I had already dyed laying around so I just used that. The overall width of the bracelet is 1 3/4" and it tapers to a 1" strap on the buckle and billet side. The overall length is about 10 1/2" with the last 7/8" folded over for the buckle. Still just making it up as I go here....Cut it with a straight edge keeping a lot of pressure on it so it doesn't slip.
I used a 12mm hole punch to start the taper. Guess it's not really a taper but oh well.
Then I cut the strap end with an end punch but you can do it with a knife too. I marked the
Step 9: Skive
Skive, pare or reduce the thickness on the flesh (backside or wrong side for those that sew) with a sharp knife. I like using a round knife for leather working. This reduction helps the bend and allows the buckle to work properly.
Step 10: Sewing Channel and Bevel
Cut a sewing channel around perimeter except at buckle end. Bevel edges.
Step 11: Add Logo
Wet leather where your logo will go if you have one :) and clamp it down with a c-clamp. Leave it for a half hour.
Step 12: Dye and Burnish
I wanted the leather darker than it was so I put some darker leather dye on it. Finish the edges at this point with beeswax and then burnish or buff with canvas and a lot of pressure. The friction and wax make a nice edge. I usually do both sides starting with the back. Lay it flat on a piece of granite and rub.
Step 13: Make Little Frame
Here I was trying to figure out how to attach the Tagua carving and had an idea to make a frame. So I cut out the center to recess the carving and dyed and burnished edges. Then I cemented to the strap.
Step 14: Sew
Cement the buckle on and then use stitching chisel to punch the holes in the sewing channel. You can also sew with a machine. I saddle stitched it.
Step 15: Attach Carving
First I marked and stabbed the holes for attaching the tagua to the bracelet with a stitching awl. Then I cemented it to the inside of the frame. Then I sewed the carving to the bracelet running the thread through the holes I had drilled and doubling them around the frame through the holes I made. Then I cut the tread a 1/4" long and melted the ends to the back of the strap.
Polish it up and here you can be done if you like. Like I mentioned before, the tagua doesn't need any protective finish. Just polish it with jeweler's rouge and you are done. Or....you can stain it.
Step 16: Stain
I used some wool dye to add some depth to the carving. I don't know what I prefer. Sometimes I look at the pics of pre staining and wish I had left it, other times I like the depth it gives. Anyway...I stained it then sanded some of it off and polished it again.
There you have it. Vegetable Ivory is really cool to work with. If you can get your hands on some try it.