Carving Ivory

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 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 for the hopeful edification of others.


Excellent thank you. I can only add that I carry my work on a small
dop stick as my disability lends to uncontrolled muscle spasms and
well I like my fingers my smallest dop is sawn from a 1 inch dowel 4
inches long and my portable dop wax is a beeswax mixture I bought
from a beekeeper after explaining what I wanted it for he gave me a
wax that holds very well. (I cannot risk pitch in and around my
showcats the bite the dop wax once because it smells like honey then
never again lol) my largest dop so far is cut from a mail box post
hehehe 2 inches square. I will be making new dops for sure as I need
them. so far all of my ivory and shell carvings ahve been done with
these two dops.

Oh and I hae a source for legal ivory Google Boone Trading Company I
have bought materials from them before and they do have some
reference books as well.

America’s Only cameo Artist

Sumner -

That is an excellent “short seminar” on working fossil ivory!

The only place where I would add anything is to mention two books by
Now, the soft stone book is so-called because it focuses on
materials “softer” than quartz, but the procedures overlap well with
your explanation. The ivory carving book is somewhat disappointing
because it is mostly about carvings, and not the processes of
carving; however, there is one very good chapter on the carving
process itself.

Seemingly no one has yet to produce the definitive work on using
fossil ivories, and very few even address the very real differences
between working in mammoth/mastodon ivory and fossil walrus ivory.

Modern ivory carving
By Carson I. A Ritchie

Soft stone carving (A Scopas handbook)
By Carson I. A Ritchie

Jim Small
Small Wonders Lapidary

As of now, I am carving amber. All ivory, including ‘Fossil’ (at very least 13,000 years old, that’s when the last of the mammoth/ mastodons died out) are proscribed from sale in several states and out of fashion. It is a shame. Neither I or my close relatives have gone on a mammoth hunt. It is a beautiful material and works like a dream. Amber is also beautiful, but works like plastic. It is a very steep learning curve, but is usually easy to till from modern material. P.S. don’t drop it!