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Netsuke Cockerel

Monday 9 July 2018

I have always liked cockerels and think they look splendid, proudly strutting around the hens displaying their long tail feathers. The cockerel is one of the twelve Japanese signs of the Zodiac, and has therefore been a much-loved design for netsuke carvers in Japan over the centuries. In this netsuke the long tail feathers are being blown around in the wind, and some are shown touching the head, whilst others are blown round the back of the cockerel's main tail feathers. This is the first time I have carved this as a netsuke.

To start, I chose a small boxwood log from my stockpile and with my bandsaw, cut a flat edge along one side, cutting off the bark. I then cut off the other three sides to make a block roughly 2 inches square in end section. I squared off one end with the bandsaw.

Step 1

I photocopied the left side drawing of the cockerel. Putting carbon paper on the boxwood and placing the drawing on it, I traced the outline onto the wood then inked it in with a fine black pen. I also drew out a small block and stalk, attaching it to the cockerel, which may be helpful during the carving process and then cut it out on my bandsaw

Step 2

After turning it over the top view was freehand drawn in a rough overall shape of the cockerel in top view as shown on the drawings. I cut this out on the bandsaw still leaving the netsuke attached to the main block by a small piece of wood

Step 3

Both profiles were drawn onto the wood. A 3mm (1/8in) rasp in a rotary cutter was used to drill the gap between the feathers above the head and the body. I drilled three holes on both sides, joining them up, then moving them sideways to clear a complete slot

Step 4

I drew the shape of the feathers coming from the tail to the head and crosshatched wood to be removed

Step 5

A 3mm (1/8in) rasp was used to remove the hatched areas of wood from each side of the long feathers as well as trimming a little off each side of the head. Continuing with the rasp the top of the body was rounded off into the drilled slot, and the chest below the cockerel’s wattles

Step 6

After outlining the wings and then undercutting at the base of the tail – with either the 1.5mm (1/16in) 'U'-gouge or the 1mm (3/64in) ball-ended cutter – the wing outline was immediately cut above the

line and recessed about 1mm for now. The tail undercut should be on the line and recessed by about 3mm (1/8in)

Step 7

The body was rounded off above the wing to the base of the tail feathers. The tail feathers were rounded off in plan view with the 3mm (1/8in) rasp cutter

Step 8

The top two groups of tail feathers are then carved down to their final shape and the outline of individual feathers within each group cut were cut with a 'V'-tool

Step 9

The wing's underside was drawn and cut with the 1.5mm (1/16in) 'V'-tool, carving the body to the bottom of the 'V' with the 5mm (3/16in) gouge. Repeat the process until the curve is achieved on the body as well

Step 10

Using a 3mm (1/8in) rasp cutter I reduced the head to nearly its final width, and redrew the head detail on both sides

Step 11

Using the 1.5mm (1/16in) flat chisel, I carved the side profile of the beak, cutting across the top and bottom. With the 1.5mm (1/16in) 'V'-tool I cut in the sides of the beak on both sides of the head

Step 12

With the 'V'-tool, the flat and the gouge, I carved away the side of the head, setting in the beak with the 'V'-tool, until it was the right width. With the 'V'-tool, cut in the long tail father and pare it down. Reduce the width of the head between feather and eyebrow with a 'U'-gouge, then cut round the shape of the eye and the rest of the wattle and comb with the 'V'-tool, clearing away with the flat chisel and gouge. Taper the head from the back to the beak, setting in again any details removed in the carving process

Step 13

On the right side, the comb was carved with the 5mm (3/16in) gouge to its correct height and angle next to the long tail feather. With the 1.5mm (1/16in) gouge or 1mm ball-ended drill make a shallow hole at the top of each comb recess and cut the sides with the 1.5mm (1/16in) flat. The gap between the wattles under the beak was cut, and the position of the eyes was drawn. The holes for the whites were drilled with a 1mm ball ended cutter. This needs to go into about 4mm so that the dowel insert will stay in

Step 14

Using imitation ivory, I rounded one end with a file and slightly tapered it and test fitted it into one eye socket. I glued it in with wood glue and cut it off about 2mm (5/64in) from the head with the 1mm ball ended cutter. Both eyes were inserted and left to dry. I filed them down with a needle file

Step 15

For the eyes I drew in the position of the pupils and drilled them with the 0.5mm ball ended cutter. On a sanding wheel I filed a very thin dowel of buffalo horn, and finished it by hand filing so that it was round in cross section and test fitted it in one eye. When it fitted, it was glued in and cut off, and then did the same for the other eye. When the glue dried, I filed the pupils down, flush with the whites of the eyes


I 'sparrow pecked' the comb and wattle on each side of the head to give a different texture. I used a sharp pointed bradawl pressed into the surface at close intervals. This will be further accentuated when it is dyed or waxed later

Step 17

The wing feathers were drawn in on both sides, and I cut them in with a 'V'-tool. I cleared behind the main groups of feathers with the 1.5mm flat and 5mm gouge

Step 18

After this I separated it from the block with a coping saw and roughly rounded off the back end with a 3mm (1/8in) rasp cutter and drew in the shape of the lower tail feathers

Step 19

I carved in the lower tail feather groups with the 'V'-tool and flat chisel and separated the two with the 1mm ball ended cutter. I defined the feather groups up the tail, and drew in the centre line of each feather, cut in with the 'V'-tool

Step 20

The remaining feathers around the neck, across the back and round the tail were drawn in, as well as the semi-circular small feathers in the lower chest areas and underneath the feet and signature reserve. All these feather and feet lines were cut in with the 'V'-tool

Step 21

This is the side view of the feathers cut in

Step 22

The final step in the carving process was to drill the cord holes using a 3mm (1/8in) ball-ended drill. I drilled two identical vertical holes into the netsuke to a depth of 6-8mm, leaving a space of about 8mm (5/16in) between centres. With the drill running, carefully put the cutter in one hole, and when it is completely below the surface, move the shaft outwards and the cutter inwards towards the other hole. Repeat the process for the other hole. The underside of the cockerel was then finished and cord holes drilled in

Step 23

With a Micromesh stick, with four fine grades of paper on the same stick, I went all over the cockerel to make him shine. When the carving detail is finished it is difficult to see the features unless you hold it close and in good light, especially in ivory and light-coloured woods. The Japanese netsuke carvers recognised this and used ink and dyes to fill in the recesses. I sometimes use dark wax instead which is brushed on and then polished off, with similar, but not so well defined results

Steps 24-26

To demonstrate the difference between waxing and dying, I carved another cockerel netsuke to the same design out of boxwood. I used a little Dylon No. 7 (coffee) fabric dye mixed with lukewarm water