Carving the Spawning Sockeyes Netsuke Tutorial

Carving the Spawning Sockeyes Netsuke

Here’s how I often design a netsuke from start to finish. After deciding what subject and a general conformation of what I’m going to work on, I gather reference material. I’ve found the World Wide Web (Internet) is a wonderful resource, especially the image search options in search engines like Google. They allow me to search and review lots of pictures, as well as specify the approximate sizes of the available images. I often make composite groupings of the images I’ve chosen as reference and print them out.

Here’s a small version of the reference sheet I’m using. I didn’t keep any information as to the sources of the images, and so to those artists and photographers whose work I’ve blatantly plagiarized, my sincere apologies. Please take comfort in my appreciation of your efforts to make this information available to others. Thank you!

For this work, I cobbled together a model for reference. I don’t normally produce models, since I often feel that once the model is completed, I’ve already created the work and rapidly lose interest. Some of that attitude comes from my experience with models in the past. I either used plasticine modeling clay or ceramic clay. Both have their drawbacks. The plasticine modeling clay (you know this stuff from kindergarten) is easily damaged and collects carving dust like a super magnet, rapidly obscuring all your hard won work.

The ceramic stuff isn’t as bad about dust, but I invariably drop the model or knock it off my carving station, shattering it beyond repair. However, in this instance I tried a new approach that wasn’t available when I started carving. I made this model out of polymer clay, a new material that works as easily as either plasticine or ceramic clays, but has the advantage of being able to be “baked” in your home oven, becoming the consistency of hard rubber.

I rather liked this approach, since the model is nearly indestructible. I also discovered it has the advantage of being carvable, so as I “lived” with the model for awhile, the little changes that always become apparent can be made. You can also add more unhardened clay and bake the whole thing again. I noticed on my model that there were a few things that needed changing. Some I’ll simply make to the netsuke as I carve it, but some I made by carving away the clay of the model. For instance, the large boulder to the left of the sockeye salmon was simply too large and gave the netsuke a clunky look. Also, I felt there were too many rocks on the bottom of the netsuke, so I carved away the ones I didn’t want using my rotary grinder. I didn’t like the looks of the left salmon’s tail (it twists to the left), so in the finished piece I’ll carve the tail twisted the other way. Here’s the revised model, and (mostly!) in the conformation I’ll carve the netsuke in.

I’ve noticed the right pectoral fin on the right hand salmon looks bad, so I’ll have to allow for the rock it rests on to stick farther out so the fin can stick out from the fish’s body in a nice sweeping curve. Rather than add on more clay and rebake, I’ll just remember to leave space during carving. Living dangerously can be so exhilarating! I’ve also reduced the size of the large boulder and excavated under, adding a crayfish. Notice I’ve also severely reduced the number and sizes of the rocks underneath the model. I’ve left lots of room in between in order to add lots of little salmon eggs (made of pink and red coral) at one of the last stages in carving.

Here’s the model and the piece of English Boxwood I’ve chosen to carve the finished piece in. I’ve shaped the wood very roughly to conform to the outer dimensions of the model. I’ve coated the wood with linseed oil to minimize any cracks due to humidity changes since it may be a while before I actually can start carving.

Above, I’ve begun establishing the basic planes of the elements of the carving. I’ve very roughly drawn in the positions of the salmon, and have begun establishing the rough placement of the rocks. Notice the fish are being established first, since everything else in the composition depends on them. I’m establishing only the top surfaces so far, since I can always carve further downwards and reduce how high up the fish are in the composition, but once I begin carving the undersides they are locked in place. Any corrections that can be made after that are only to reduce them in height, but not position. This is a basic tenet of carving: work on only one side (or top or bottom) of an element until the positioning is correct. Once you begin working on the other side, your options are instantly reduced! A word of note: I never try to simply replicate the model. It is only for rough reference, and really only used during this stage of roughing out. I’ll allow myself to wander away from the model as the spirit moves me in the later stages of carving.

In the above sequence, I’ve been refining the establishment of the major masses and planes of the elements. Notice in the head on shot I’ve now carved on both sides of the inside salmon. I now have no option of moving it left or right, I can only narrow the existing shape. Hence the basic tenet of carving on only one side until you’re satisfied with it’s position. If I wanted to move the inside salmon left or right, I’d be stuck with it now. Notice I’ve added a little more curve to the heads than is in the model. I told you I’d begin deviating from the model!

Here are the only tools I’ve used in the carving so far. I’ve used the spherical ball burr the most, with a little bit of use of the flame burr. It does a little better job on flattish planes, and the tip can be used to cut narrower grooves than the ball burr. At this stage I try to follow the artist’s rule of thumb to use the largest paintbrush possible. Of course, my paintbrush works in 3D, and I can’t paint out my mistakes.

That’s a full day’s carving, so it’s time to stop for now.

Here are the next steps. I’ve continued refining the masses and planes, constantly referring to the model and the reference pictures. I’ll begin deviating significantly from the model from this point on. I’m beginning to pay particular attention to rounding off all surfaces, keeping in mind that a large portion of the experience “viewing” a netsuke is the tactile aspects. It should feel wonderful in the hand, with no sharp points or delicate (and breakable) features. I’m working hard to avoid the beginner’s mistake woodcarvers call “profiling.” Profiling means the piece takes the overall shape of the original block of material. That’s why so many beginning woodcarvings look so blocky. I’ll continue to refine the overall shape, often just feeling it and removing or reducing any area that doesn’t feel right.

Continuing with the refining, and I’m beginning to make decisions that can’t be altered. From here on, things are being set in concrete. Notice the tails – I’ve radically altered the inside fish by flipping the tail the other way. In the model, you’ll notice the tail twists to the left, and in the carving I’ve twisted the tail to the right. I’ve also made the decision to have the outside fish’s tail to be on top of the inside fish’s tail. From here on, I can’t change my mind about that. I’ve also now carved on both sides of each fish, so all I can do now is narrow them. I can’t, for instance, carve the outside fish in deeper since that would cut into the inside fish. Decision, decisions! Carving isn’t for the faint at heart…and then there’s all that blood when you have those little slips!

Notice in this series how much deeper all the gaps are becoming. I’m adding in smaller rocks between the larger masses so I don’t carve the gaps out so large smaller rocks can’t go in between. Now is probably a good time to illustrate how you make deeper and narrowing cuts with ball burrs.

Carving a deep and narrowing groove is carved with a progression of smaller and smaller burs, each carving the groove more deeply, but never so deep the burr carves into the surface you wish to leave. This leaves a surface that is grooved longitudinally along the cut, and you go back and remove the ridges left, until the surface is nearly smooth. At that point, you are ready to refine the surface with hand tools or long and narrow diamond burrs.

The above illustrates how deep I’m carving. The image on the left is when I began carving this morning, and the image on the right is where I left off after another full day of carving. Note how the small boulder is becoming more defined, and the area between the fish is being excavated quite deeply. I’m planning eventually to completely tunnel under the left fish into this area. It will probably become part of a “natural” himotoshi.

These are the additional burrs I used, as well as the two larger ball and flame burrs from the first day.

This is probably a good time to start adding the crayfish, since I’m at a reasonable stage to do so, and I’m in the mood for crayfish. I need to watch when I add delicate portions of the carving, since there are times I’m pressing fairly hard with my tools and burrs, and should delicate parts get trapped between the pressure and a hard surface, they might break off. I’ve carefully considered where the delicate crayfish will go so it is protected by more sturdy elements of the composition, in this case the rocks and thicker fish. In this little nook, damage can only be the result of an unlikely accident or deliberate misfortune, not casual handling. In the above image, I’ve smoothed the area where the crayfish will go, so I can draw (using a pencil, not pen!) the crayfish in. Below, I’ve drawn in the crayfish.

Above, I’ve begun roughing in the major shapes and planes just using a small ball burr. I’ve carved very deeply around the claws, since I want them to sort of hang down (almost dangling) in front of the crayfish and be in close contact with the small rock that will go in below them, for support. I’m looking for radical differences in the planes the various elements of the crayfish occupy, to avoid a “flat” appearance. I’m planning on the left set of legs to be fairly flat (just in relief) against the underlying rock (for security reasons) and will carve the right hand set crammed in against the rock, but much more three dimensional (maybe even completely undercut below) since the adjacent rock will protect the tiny legs.

Above, I’ve rounded off the head and body. I haven’t begun any undercutting yet, to leave the option open as the carving progresses to sink the crayfish further down into the wood, if necessary.

Here are a few detail views from other angles.

Here I’ve added in the rocks, using a small ball burr. I’ve established where the rocks are, and rounded them all off. I’m not working in the immediate vicinity of the fish or the crayfish yet.

I’ve deepened the crevices between the rocks with a smaller ball burr, concentrating especially in the triangles where three rocks meet. The burr I’ve used here is the second from the smallest in my burr “palette.”

In the above group of images, I’ve used the very smallest ball burr I have, a 9/0 size, which is just slightly larger than a hair. Notice how deeply I’ve gone in between the rocks, and especially deeply in the triangle where three rocks meet. I’m looking for deep shadows in these areas. Since boxwood is a fairly uniform color, shadows are very important to separate composition elements.

In this series above, I’ve used a tiny, tapered diamond burr to sand most of the rocks. When I was satisfied with their shape and smoothness, I used a coarse Scotchbrite brand polyester abrasive pad in a mandrel to smooth the rocks even more. I followed that with wetting the surface with water to raise the gain, then polishing with a finer grade Scotchbrite polyester pad in a mandrel. You can still see a lot of bumpy areas between the rocks that need to be taken care of. Below is an image of the burrs I used for the rocks. From here on out, most of the remaining work on the rocks will be with hand tools.

Above, I’ve drawn in the outline of the outside fish. It needs quite a bit of refining and it’s important to get it right, since it is the one that will be the most visible.

In this series, I’ve begun cutting the outside fish down to the line, and am excavating between the fish’s body and the rocks below and in front. I’m carving quite deeply between the fish and the rocks because I want very deep shadows in these areas.

You can see here in the front that I’ve carved deeply in between the fish and the rocks, have established the mouth line, and need some significant thinning in the jaw area. I’ve also started refining the tail and the fins, although the fins are still quite thick. I’m going to need to leave them thick until I have the rocks in their vicinity a little more refined, since I want the delicate fins to remain attached to the protective mass of the rocks. I’ll sink the fins further back (except the dorsal – top – fin) once the rocks are at final size.

I’ve carved further down between the two fish, and excavated under the inside fish. You can see a little light through the hole. I’ll make this area the himotoshi (the cord holes).

I’ve also carved way in behind the outside fish in the tail area. Those deep holes in front of the tail go all the way through, and I’m refining the left (inside) part of the fish shape down deep in those holes, so the fish actually looks disconnected from the rest of the netsuke. Doing this in several areas so you can see light through the netsuke really make interesting to view up close.

This series of images shows the continuation of refining the fish shapes, especially the center fish, their fins and tails. It’s almost time to start adding the eyes, rough out the crayfish and begin major carving and clean up with hand tools.

I’ve continued refining any shape that doesn’t look right. I’ve used a piece of folded 150 grit sandpaper to smooth the large surface planes of both fish, followed by 300 grit. In this series of images I am using my small hook shaped scraper to shave small, paper thin shavings off the surfaces of both fish. The sandpaper gave me a reasonably flat and smooth surface, and the scraper is adding to that. Be sure to use the scraper tool WITH the direction of the grain of the wood, not against it.

Here I’ve begun roughing in the crayfish. I’ve used my second smallest burr (a 4/0 steel ball burr) and begun defining the major shapes, legs and claws of the crayfish.

Now that the major parts are roughed in, I’ve carved the basic indentations of the “face” and carved (not drilled) the holes where I’ll insert the eye pegs. Here’s a reference photo to see where we’re going.

I’m going to use tiny tapered pegs of black horn for the eyes. Horn is very strong if the fibers are oriented along the axis of the part, and it is slightly flexible so it can absorb a little punishment. In this sequence you can see the two small slabs of black cow horn. I’ve used my small Sherline metal cutting lathe to turn the little tapered pegs. Just to give you a hint of the size of the eyes, that’s a .5mm lead pencil in the last image.

No, this isn’t some weird form of animal torture. I’ve glued the pegs into the carved eye holes, then used a small burr to cut them off to length when the glue has dried.

I’ve used small steel and tiny diamond burrs to carve the eyes to shape, and then polished them with a small fiber brush and white jeweler’s rouge mounted in my hand grinder. You can see the polished wood area around the eyes.

In this sequence above I’ve continued carving to refine the shapes and add detail. In the last image in this series are the four burrs I used. The two on the left are 4/0 and 8/0 steel ball burrs for carving, and the two on the right are include my smallest fine diamond ball burr and a tapered diamond burr, both for sanding and fine carving.

Meet Tad the Crawdad, ready for final detailing with small hand tools.

I’ve carved (not drilled) the hole for the outside fish eye. In the first image you can see the four burrs I used for this, in graduated sizes. The three on the left are steel ball burrs in very small sizes, and the right hand is a diamond ball burr. I used the diamond burr only because it is the right size. The second image shows the blanks of fossil ivory and black horn I’m going to use for the eyes. The fossil ivory will be the whites of the eye and the horn will be the dark pupils. The third image is a close up of a real sockeye’s eye.

The first image shows a fossil ivory blank in the three jaw chuck on my Sherline metal cutting lathe, and the second shows the completed tapered peg.

Here are the finished tapered fossil ivory pegs, ready to be glued into the eye socket. The second image shows the peg glued in and ready to be trimmed off.

Now the glue has dried, I cut the excess peg free of the netsuke. You can see the remaining peg lying on the carving surface. I used a small ball burr and simply carved right through the peg, leaving a little standing proud of the surface. The second image shows the eye surface carved and smoothed down almost to the end level of the eyeball. I’ve left it just a tiny bit high so I’ll have enough room to smooth off both the whites and the pupil once it is installed. You can see the tools I used, a small diamond burr for sanding and the tip of my triangular scraper smoothing around the edges of the eyeball and removing any excess glue on the wood. Since I’ll be using dye to color the fish, any glue left on the wood will be more than obvious. Get it off now!

Using my two tiniest steel ball burrs and a tapered diamond burr, I carved (not drilled) the hole for the dark cow horn pupil. In the second image, you can see the black horn tapered peg ready to be glued in.

Here’s the tapered horn peg glued in, and then trimmed off, leaving a little extra standing proud. You can see I’ve actually used very little of the tiny horn peg. Be sure and save these little offcuts (I keep them in an old pill bottle) for other projects.

Here’s the finished eye, cut down and smoothed to the final shape and size. I’ve used the tip of a scalpel blade to put a little tiny drop of linseed oil on the surface of the eye, being careful not to get any on the wood. I don’t want to interfere with the ability of the wood to take up the dye later on, but would like a little oil in and on the eye to prevent any dye from staining the porous fossil ivory.

And here are the finished eyes in both fish. That’s a big chore taken care of. Eyes are extremely fiddly things to do, but as the saying goes, the eyes are the windows of the soul. This is always a major turning point in my carvings and the fish are beginning to have some personality.

Time for another extremely fiddly task, but the effort is well worth it. We’re going to add some salmon eggs among the rocks at the bottom of the stream. I’ll be using pink and red coral to make the eggs. I purchased one of the commonly available small necklaces strung with bits of pink coral branches. These are inexpensive and one will provide a lifetime’s worth of salmon eggs for netsuke. I looked for red branches, but could only come up with smaller bits on a similar necklace. In this series of images you can see the raw materials, and a few branches I’ve selected. Note there is already one egg glued into the bottom of the netsuke.

The longer pink coral branches are easy to hold while forming the egg and post shapes we need, but holding the shorter red branches is a problem. I’ve solved that problem by using thick, gap filling cyanoacrylate (“super”) glue to fasten the short branch to a toothpick, and then lashing the entire assembly with artificial sinew, as in the first image. Artificial sinew adds the additional strength we’ll need during carving, and is a wonderful material for temporary fastenings like this. Artificial sinew comes in a roll made of many microscopic nylon strands arranged in a flat waxed strip, about an eight of an inch wide. I then split a strip (about three feet long) lengthwise into four smaller strips. You can simply separate each strip in half in the middle and pull apart. Split each of these again four total long strips. Each strip is fairly thin, slightly stretchy and the wax makes it “grabby.” I use these for holding two parts together while gluing as well. I like them better than rubber bands.

In the second image you can see a small scrap of boxwood that has several holes in it. These holes are the size I will use in the netsuke to glue in the egg posts, and I use this block for test fitting and temporary storage of the eggs (a word to the wise – they are easily lost!). You can see one egg in a hole, two empty holes, a free red coral egg, a pink coral branch with an egg ready to be cut free, and a toothpick with a carved red coral egg glued on. You can also see a hole carved in the netsuke for the next egg.

Incidentally, I carve coral and shell wearing a respirator and in front of my dust collector. Coral dust is very bad for your lungs – protect yourself!

To carve the eggs, I use a tapered diamond burr in my hand grinder, and begin by forming a dome at the end of the branch. This will become the top of the egg. Once the dome is formed, I cut in a shoulder below the mass of the egg, and then round in the underside of the egg. Carving on down, I form a small post that I will glue into a hole in the netsuke. When all is ready, I cut in another shoulder at the base of the egg post, and snap the egg free. I carved these particular holes with a small carbide ball burr and a diamond ball burr that happened to be the right size. For the holes in the netsuke, I carve them in, and then cut a slight chamfer around the edge of the hole so the bottom round surface of the egg will fit snugly against the surface of the netsuke.

Here in the first image, you can see the second egg glued in. I use hide glue or epoxy for this, being careful to clean up any glue residue as I glue in the eggs. A little clean up now will help make things a lot easier in future finishing. Obviously, the surface in the area to be glued should be in it’s final form, including any color or dye to be added. Glue will cause light spots in the wood if any coloring is added afterwards. I use a small wire tool to place glue in the hole. Use good gluing technique here or you’ll regret it later. Glue should be applied to each of the mating surfaces, and the posts should have a fairly close fit in the holes. I’ve also been very careful to place the eggs in an area where other elements of the carving will protect them from an accidental bump. In this case, the surrounding large rocks keep the eggs from making contact with the surface the netsuke will be sitting on. The eggs are fairly sturdy so handling shouldn’t do any damage, but dropping them or hitting them on a hard surface isn’t a good idea. In the second image, I’ve glued in eight of the eggs. You can also see the three burrs I used for both carving the eggs and their holes – one carbide ball burr (holes), one diamond ball burr (holes) and one tapered diamond burr (eggs). Only a few more to go! Light is beginning to show at the end of this tunnel…

Here are all the eggs in place and polished with a white jeweler’s rouge. Now to put in the fin textures and go over the whole piece and take care of any and all little problems.

Here I’ve used small diamond ball burrs and a small tapered diamond burr to cut in the fin rays. The crayfish legs have been thinned down as much as I dare. I could have pierced them through on the underside, but they look fine to the naked eye, and piercing them would have weakened them greatly. Netsuke are meant to be handled, and broken legs are not a desirable end product! I’ve also gone over everything with fine sandpapers and abrasive polyester pads, as well as polished the broad wood surfaces with white jeweler’s rouge on a small hard felt buff. The sockeyes are ready for their dye applications.

Here is the completed netsuke, ready for the first application of a linseed oil finish. The oil will add a lot of depth to the wood, bring out the grain (and any little flaws!) and darken everything slightly. There will be several rounds of oil, polish, tiny nook and cranny cleanups, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, repeat, until I’m finally satisfied. Watch this space for the finished netsuke!

Here is the completed netsuke!

Whoops, not so fast! My client has asked for a few changes in the final design, which includes changing the ivory and horn eyes to amber inlays. I’ve opted to use the trick eyes which seem to follow the viewer around the room.

Here are the raw materials for this style of eye. The large piece of amber in the rear of the image is in the raw state. The middle ground is a smaller piece removed with a bandsaw, and the foreground is a smaller peg cut in the same manner I;ll chuck in the lather to turn the tapered peg, just like the ivory and horn eyes I carved earlier. The paper has a small section of 24 carat gold leaf. You can see the amber has a nice golden color in the large piece in the background, but most clear amber I’ve seen is almost clear in the small sizes we need for netsuke eyes. The gold leaf will provide both the color and the light reflection we need for great looking eyes.

Here’s the amber peg in the lathe, and removed from the three jawed chuck. Be careful clamping amber, since it is very brittle and breaks quite easily. Amber eyes are not robust, and break and scratch easily.

Here are the steps in making the eyes. I’ve very carefully fit the peg into the eye socket. I want a close fit, but not a tight one. A tight fit is begging for problems. As the wood moves over time with changing humidity conditions, the amber will crack if there is any stress. I want enoubh room to allow for wood movement, but not so much slop there is a readily noticeable gap. I want a small layer of cushioning glue between the amber and the wood. On the left, I’ve applied a tiny amount of gold size (the glue used with gold leaf) and pressed the small end of the peg into the gold leaf. The leaf will stick quite readily. I let the size dry for a few minutes and then repeat the size and gold leaf application several more times. I want a nice thick layer of gold on the bottom. You can see the ragged edges of the leaf hanging off. The center peg has been burnished with a hard, round object, and the excess gold removed from around the edges. The right peg shows the pupil, which was created by cutting a small dome in the center of the gold leaf (and into the amber), then filling the small dome (dent?) with sumi ink. Let the ink dry thoroughly and it’s ready to inlay.

Here one of the eyes is being glued (using clear epoxy) into the eye socket. When dry, I’ll use a small burr to carve off the excess, leaving a slight dome standing proud of the surface. Using tiny scrapers, fine sandpaper I refine the surface. Finally, jeweler’s rouge for a spotless polish.

Here are the finished eyes.


2 Responses to Carving the Spawning Sockeyes Netsuke Tutorial

  1. Jenny Michel says:

    This is absolutely fascinating !
    It must have taken you a vast number of hours to complete this extensive & precise tutorial, of patient days to achieve this netsuke, & of passionate t years to become such a master in this art….. Thank you indeed for sharing !

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