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Carving fossil ivory


I have purchased some fossil ivory and don’t have a clue how to
carve it…wet/dry? How to polish after it is carved, etc. Any help
starting from the bottom up would be greatly appreciated.



Cathy, I’ve worked both fossil walrus and fossil mammoth ivory. I
work both by hand, very much like wood. Walrus has a finer grain and
is a bit easier to carve. You can probably carve them with abrasive
points on a flex shaft also. I’d go slow, keep them cool with a
little water, but don’t let them get very wet. After carving, sand
to a pre-polish state, and figure out how you want to polish.
Personally, I like the effect of rubbing with bamboo, but it’s hard
on the hands.

Karen Hemmerle



I love working fossil ivory ( a misnomer since it is not actually
replaced by mineral). It is perfect for intense detail. However, you
must like working hard material, which I do.

I start by using a band saw, it produces a unique odor. I use the
saw to not only slab the material but to rough out the 3d shape
(careful of those fingers and don’t let it get too hot). I then use
rotory tungston burrs, the kind that look like they are rough
skinned, not looking like files. I then will use files, burrs, and
small chisels that I make myself out of the back end of drill bits.

The rest of the shaping is done by scraping rather than cutting for
the most part. I use various knives and tools that I have devised
over three decades of carving. At this point, it might help to get
the ivory a little wet. Although it might sound unsanitary, I will
occasionally touch my tounge to the part that I’m working on.

In the final stage I switch between sanding and scraping, as needed
to cut in better detail. I might start at 100 grit or 220. I go to
320, 400, 600, 1200, and on down with the marvilous new fabrics
coated with abrasives (see Rio) to 8,000 grit (?) . I use toothpicks
shaped to a refined paddle shape to back the papers and get into
details. I need not further polish except nose oil :-). This is not a
fast process, it is the only pursuit in my life that is truely anal.

If you would like to see the amount of detail and degree of finish
possable, look around on my website (see especially the cigar holder
section). Any further questions, contact me through the website, if
you like.


Hi Cathy and all, You might take a look at “Netsuke” carvings on
e-bay or on a google search. You will be amazed what can be carved
in 1.5 to 2 inches of ivory or wood. The details are amazing. Lee


I’ve never heard of bamboo as a polishing compound. What effect does
it have? Do you use the stems (green or dried) or the leaves? How do
you use it? Greetings, Linda


Hi Sumner,

I love working fossil ivory ( a misnomer since it is not actually
replaced by mineral). 

Your work is beautiful! But your statement above is not correct.
One of the primary definitions of a fossil is (from Merriam-Webster),
“preserved from a past geologic age,” “a remnant, impression or trace
of an organism of past geologic ages …” A fossil need not have
been “mineralized” or “petrified.” The term “fossil ivory” is
perfectly correct.

As for carving fossil ivory, I’ve only done it a few times, so have
next to no experience compared with you; but I found it so soft and
easy to carve that virtually any flex shaft tool would work. I used
various burs (even diamond burs) and did preliminary polishing with
silicon-impregnated rubber wheels (the same ones I use for metal).
For the final polish, I used ZAM.

If I carved designs as intricate as yours, I have no doubt I would
need specialized tools, but the beginner can get very nice results
with just the usual tools of the trade.


 I've never heard of bamboo as a polishing compound.   

I should have been more clear about using bamboo to polish fossil
ivory. I have a friend who uses this technique to polish jade also.
(I can’t get it to work on jade) Pick up some bamboo chopsticks at
your local chinese restaurant, then shape them as needed into picks,
rounded ends, curves, etc and sand them smooth. You’re basically
going to use them to burnish the ivory. It takes plenty of hand
strength, but gives a nice glossy finish to fossil ivory.

working in film, while the Colorado jewelry market is in a slump


If you’re using fossilized walrus tusk please be advised that some
(most) people have severe allergic reactions to inhaling the dust.


    I've never heard of bamboo as a polishing compound. What
effect does it have? Do you use the stems (green or dried) or the
leaves? How do you use it? 

First I’ve heard of it, as well. There was a common reedy grass
called “shavegrass” that was commonly used in polishing and
finishing in the medieval and early modern eras in much of Europe.
There are still furniture makers and carvers who swear by it. So, I
guess the bamboo makes sense. I know it will clobber a knife edge
pretty quick.

Ron Charlotte – Gainesville, FL
@Ron_Charlotte1 OR


Cathy and others, With regard to discussion on the subject of ivory,
particularly fossil ivory, I have some thoughts I might share.

Many years ago in 1973 a new friend saw some of my pen and ink
drawings, and ask the question, “can you do that on ivory?” Of
course, this old hayseed didn’t even know what scrimshaw was. He
introduced me to a finished piece, and suggested that if I could
come up with a way of doing my work on the surface of polished
ivory, he’d be willing to give me a shot at doing it on his custom
knife handles. After much thought and extensive effort to make a
workable tool for inscribing tiny lines and dots (there was no
internet back then to search for “how to do”), I was able to finish
a few somewhat elementary pieces on scrap. After showing them to my
friend, the relationship of myself and the late James B. Lile the
Arkansas Knifesmith had its beginnings.

I worked with the original tool I had made from a tool and die
maker’s scribe for a few weeks, but wasn’t satisfied with the lines.
They were rough along the edges, and when inked, had the appearance
of a jeweler’s saw blade. I bought then, a lozenge graver and did
some reshaping of the tip to allow me to “push” the tool along the
ivory surface instead of the “pulling” I was having to do with a
scribe. Not to mention the “pulling” action kept many of my layout
lines either in the shadow of my fingers, or under my hand
altogether. This little bit of logic opened a new world for me to do
detail. With my art background, I was able then to produce highly
detailed engravings, when inked, looked very much like my pen and
ink drawings. Of course, I had to remember my tool was providing a
line about half or less than the width of a .2mm lead drafting
pencil. On knife handles the width of a pencil line would be the
difference of being in perspecitive or not, or a quails beak looking
like a parrot. The “cutting” line I got from the now refined tool I
had made provided an end to that little problem.

Whoever said, “necessity is the mother of invention” must have had a
specific task to accomplish, and logically figured a way to make it
better. Even today in my jewelry business, I find myself making
little tools to accomplish a detail job rather than searching the
catalogs for something that may or may not provide the satisfaction
of a specific need, and the cost of which for a one time need, would
be prohibitive.

Now the point of all this windyness…your little piece of ivory
can be made into a “netsuke” as suggested by Leesilver, or you may
elect to cut it into smaller slabs for polishing and making jewelry
from it. Which is what I did with all my scrap, new ivory or fossil
ivory…pendants and cabochons. Scrimshaw can be done with a little
effort, alot of logic, and some art talent. You can have the
satisfaction of making your own tools as well. If you would like to
know the entire process of layout, engraving, inking, and final
polishing, please let me know. I’m always happy to share any
knowledge I have with others.

Jim Laymon
Earth Gems

I've never heard of bamboo as a polishing compound. 

Bamboo is technically a grass, and grasses have tiny bits of silica
(phytoliths) in their tissues. Maybe it’s this fine abrasive that
lets the bamboo burnish the ivory.


    I've never heard of bamboo as a polishing compound. Bamboo is
technically a grass, and grasses have tiny bits of silica
(phytoliths) in their tissues.  Maybe it's this fine abrasive that
lets the bamboo burnish the ivory. Tas 

And a piece of a bamboo kabob skewer carved into just the right
shape & chucked in yourr dremel (etc.), with a little rouge on it,
works well for polishing little nooks and crannies that are otherwise
really hard to get into.



I bought two walrus tusks recently and played with it a bit. I cut a
slab off and used my flex shaft and abrasive discs to carve it. I
used cuttle discs for a final sanding and polished on my buffer
using “Crystal Clear”. This product is used to polish scratches out
of watch crystals. I also use this product to polish amber. It does
a beautiful job of removing scratches from polished amber and also
worked well on the ivory. R Hood