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Creating the Eyes for Netsuke

Monday 9 July 2018

The eyes can enhance or spoil a carving. They appear to bring sight to the netsuke and add expression. However, if they are in the wrong place, or they are not properly aligned, the carving will look wrong. With this in mind, care is needed to position the eyes in the right place, and in relation to each other.

In this article, I show how the technique of adding eyes is carried out and the effect that it has on a series of netsuke carvings, beginning with a toad with imitation ivory dowels; an owl with amber inserts; and a dragon manju netsuke with paua shell and buffalo horn inserts.

Each design shows how different materials are used to enhance the eyes, depending on the subject and type of netuske, and the process used to create them.

Dowel process

Eye positioning

First, draw the positions of the eyes in pencil (see photo 1). Check their position several times by looking at the carving from all directions. If in doubt, rub it out. Only start the inlaying process when you are completely satisfied.

With a circular burr cutter held in a multi-tool, drill the eye socket to a depth of around 4mm (5/32in) (see photo 2). If you do not have a cutter of the right diameter, use

a smaller cutter and, after drilling to the right depth, gradually enlarge the hole by moving the cutter around the hole’s perimeter, right up to the pencil line marking the edge of the eye (see photo 3).

Eye inserts

The eye inserts are first made into dowels around 50-75mm (2 1/2in) long with the grain running along the dowel. These should be square or rectangular in cross-section, and should also be larger than the intended eye size. These dowels can be cut out using a bandsaw or a coping saw. Rotate the dowel on a sanding wheel to ensure that it is shaped as required, with a slight taper towards the end.

In this example, an imitation-ivory dowel has been selected (see photo 4). Shape one end, then check the dowel in the eye socket and file it by hand until it is a good, tight fit in the eye (see photo 5).

When the dowel fits tightly in the eye socket, remove it, then put some glue into the socket and push it in tight. Cut off the dowel a few millimetres from the socket using a 2mm (5/64in) cutter (see photo 6).

Reshape the dowel for the other eye and repeat the process.

Shaping the eye

When both eyes have been inserted, leave them to dry overnight. The following day, shape them with a flat needle file so that they are both uniformly round (see photo 7). Be careful not to mark the head with the file whilst shaping the eyes.


Next, draw the position of the pupil on each eye before drilling a hole with the 2mm (5/64in) round cutter in each (see photo 8).

Take a buffalo-horn dowel and roll it on the rotary sanding wheel to make a taper. Test-fit it into one eye (see photo 9).

When the first pupil fits well, remove it from the hole, put glue in the socket and return the dowel. Cut the dowel off a millimetre or so from the eye, then leave to dry (see photo 10).

Reshape the dowel for the other eye and repeat the process. Be careful not to push the dowel in too hard, or the imitation ivory might split. If this happens, drill it out and start again.

Once both pupils are dry, shape them with a flat needle file. Using a micro-mesh stick, go through the four grades of paper on the stick until the eyes really shine (see photo 11).

When putting in the eyes on various small birds, such as wrens

or sparrows, just a simple black eye is sufficient.

The colour of the eye can be varied by using different-coloured wood or other materials – I have used many combinations to achieve the required effects.


Making eyes from amber is a different proposition, as it is only available in small pieces, which can be difficult to hold. Amber comes in a range of shades from very pale to relatively dark. If you want an eye that is transparent, avoid the milky-coloured amber. Here, I am going to show you how to inlay amber eyes into a netsuke owl.

Locating the eye sockets

First, drill the eye with a 6mm (1/4in) rotary cutter (see photo 12). The bottom of the hole should be concave. Take a piece of amber and round off one end. Test-fit this to ensure that it fits in well, then remove it (see photo 13).

Adding colour and pupils

Gild both eye sockets with a gold varnish. Polish the sides of the amber with a micro-mesh stick to allow the gilded socket to show through as much as possible.

Drill out the bottom of the amber with a 2mm (5/64in) cutter to make the pupil. Ink this in with a fine-tipped pen (see photo 14).

Gluing and shaping

Place some glue just inside the rim of the eye and put the amber in, holding it still for at least 30 seconds. Leave it for a few hours before cutting off the excess with a 2mm (5/64in) round cutter held in a multi-tool (see photo 15). Use the same tool to gently shape the eye into a small dome, before using a flat needle file to refine the shape (see photo 16).

Go all over the eye with the four grades on a micro-mesh stick to create a transparent eye with a pupil and the gold socket showing through (see photos 17-18). The domed eye will act like a magnifying glass and makes the pupil look larger than it actually is. If the amber is long enough, it is a good idea to make the other eye

with this same piece of amber, so that the colour remains consistent with both eyes.


Eyes made from shell, such as mother of pearl or paua shell, are very thin, so they have to be inlaid like a veneer. This means making a shallow recess in the surface close to the thickness of the shell and shaping the recess to the required shape of the eye. The shell is then cut and filed until it fits the recess.

Locating and shaping the eyes

For this example, I have used a manju netsuke with a dragon design and paua shell for the eyes. The first step is to draw the design onto a piece of boxwood. Next, cut the oval for the eye, by pressing a 4mm (5â„32in) No.9 gouge into the sides of the eye, and a 2.5mm (3â„32in) No.7 gouge into the top and bottom of the eye to outline it. With a 1.5mm (1/16in) No.1 chisel, clear out the area inside the oval of the eye down to the thickness of the shell you are using.

Draw the shape of the eye in black ink on the paua shell, so that it is easy to see (see photo 19).

Use a 1mm (3/64in) tapered cutter held in a multi-tool to cut it out.

After separation from the main shell, you may well find that the piece of paua is difficult to hold in your hands for the final shaping with the needle file. Usually, I file it with a small box on my lap so I can catch it if it drops.

Buffalo-horn pupil

Put glue into the hole, insert the eye and leave it to dry. Once it has dried, drill a hole for the pupil and insert a buffalo-horn dowel (see photo 20). File the dowel to complete the eye.