How to Carve Bone Jewelry: Tools and Materials




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

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

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Step 1: Safety First!

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

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.


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

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

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.

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62 Discussions


4 years ago on Introduction

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 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.:)

9 replies
spark masterTangski

Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

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.

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 Jobsbonejeweler

Reply 2 years ago

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

spark masteraebe

Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

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 masteraebe

Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

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.


Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

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 .


Reply 4 years ago on Introduction

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.


Question 1 year ago on Introduction

I carve fossil ivory totally by hand - mostly because I don't want to wear a respirator or mask etc...
Since I don't use motor tools am I safe??? or no??


4 years ago on Introduction

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?

7 replies

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. :)

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!


Reply 4 years ago

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! :)

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.