I received the following email and sent the following reply. I hope
it is useful. (To see examples of my ivory carving, go to
I have been a jeweler for quite a few years - but have limited my work to making and finishing the metal pieces - using only gems & materials from others to set. I would now like to try my hand at carving ivory. Having lived in Alaska for 6 months or so in the 70's and subsequently having returned there every few years, I cannot get this material out of my mind. While there, I was asked to make a wedding set incorporating fossilized ivory; the material was gorgeous! To this end, I have been buying fossilized pieces for years. Do you know of any books or articles available that I could peruse before starting?
Thanks for the kind comments. I have been carving ivory for 35
years now and I am entirely self-taught. As I am sure you were
afraid of, there are no books or articles that I am aware of. You
might try www.ganoksin.com and look at the archives. An absolutely
indispensable resource and wonderful community.
But, let me get you started. First, examine the piece of ivory
(fossil only or old legal or new legal, but my preference is
fossil, for both beauty and to make sure it was not poached
material, also tends to move less ) for checks and color changes.
Next I use a band saw to cut and as a rotating file to rough shape
(stay sharp!). A flexshaft or better yet, a stationary rotating
lathe (with an adjustable chuck at the business end and adjustable
speed) with coarse tungsten bits will take it down quickly (that’s
relative, since the material is so very hard). You can get tungsten
bits from a woodworkers catalog. Then, depending on the shape you
are going for, files and/ or the trusty flexshaft to refine the
shape further. I then use pen knives, gravers, and unidentified junk
shop items that I have tortured into shapes that suite me for
scraping, not cutting, material off. It is much too hard for much
meaningful cutting to occur. Do be very careful at this stage since
I can attest that your holding hand is too readily the object of
your tool as it skids off the very hard ivory. Want to see my scars?
This stage is very gratifying if you allow it to take as much time
as it requires. I always end up carrying it with me and working on
the piece while standing in line, talking to friends, or awaiting
the IRS agent. Finally, the most gratifying, annoying, and tedious
part. I start with 80 grit paper, and progress though 120, 220. 320,
400, 600, 1,200, …8,000. I file down a toothpick to a pointed
paddle shape and use it as a sanding stick (yes, a toothpick, the
round tapered kind). You begin to watch the grain and the polish
slowly work up. There is nothing so wonderful. You occasionally have
to retouch with the shaping tools or go up one or two grades of
paper, but that is what separates the sheep from the cows or the
Hope this helps. With your permission, I will publish this on the
Orchid Form of Ganoksin.com for the hopeful edification of others.