Techniques for Carving Netsuke

Monday 9 July 2018

Many people associate the tiny toggle carvings of netsuke exclusively with ivory. In fact a huge number of these were, and are, carved from a variety of woods: mostly fruit or boxwood.

To the woodcarver something as small as these that can be largely carved with traditional techniques, is a wonderful opportunity to explore original design, getting away from the common habit of 'copying'.

In addition, there are a few other techniques generally common with netsuke but not usually seen on larger carvings. Three of these are the inclusion of inlaid eyes, the himotoshi (where the cord is attached), and ukibori (the addition of bumps).

Really, from the practical point of view, the only difference between a netsuke and any other carving is that everything is much smaller, so the effects of making a mistake are much more dramatic. However, as the design is essentially for a functional item, there are constraints. You need to ensure that there are no bits 'sticking out' that don't feel right or are in danger of breaking. You should be able to hold a netsuke comfortably in the hand.

In this article we will therefore only cover the three previously mentioned elements: the eyes, himotoshi and ukibori as applied to my carving in apple wood (Malus sylvestris) of a frog.


The eyes are made from amber with buffalo horn inserts for the pupils; a similar effect can be achieved painting the pupil on the back of the eye.

The socket needs to be drilled and then carefully cut with a scalpel or micro-gouge to the shape of the eye. Using a small handsaw or piercing saw, cut a stick of amber to the rough shape and grip in a pin vice, or glue onto a small piece of wood with hot melt glue, leaving the material for the eye exposed. Shape by scraping with a scalpel, or file with a fine needle file. Be careful as amber is very brittle

Carefully offer this up to the cut socket without pushing deep into the hole. Once happy with the fit, cut the groove in the end for the pupil. Paint this with black paint, making sure the edges are neat as they will show in the finished eye. If you are inlaying the pupil, the inlay is applied on the outside of the eye. Any painting is done on the inside. Before final fitting, put some gold leaf or gold toffee wrapper into the socket for a nice, bright finish.

To speed up the finishing process, cut down the amber stick roughly where the surface of the eye will be, put a small amount of superglue in the hole, and insert the eye before carefully cutting off the surplus material. Ensure the two pupils are aligned correctly, then smooth off the surface with your scalpel, finally sanding and polishing with fine abrasive paper and polish.


This is the process of getting small round bumps on the surface of your carving. To do this you need something that will make round, hemispherical dents on the surface. It could be a ball shaped punch used with a hammer, or better still, an automatic centre punch with the end rounded off and polished.

Once you have finished carving the surface, make a succession of dents with your punch and sand it down until it is level with the bottom of the dents. If the resulting sanded surface is now wetted, preferably with hot water (the reaction is quicker than with cold water) the dents will reconstitute into neat, round bumps. The same process can be used by pressing your punch into the surface and then dragging it along, making dented lines. This can be useful to get the veins in hands or seams in clothing, amongst other things.

You need to be careful not to damage the fibres of the wood or this will show in the finished result and, if you don't sand down far enough or go too far, the bumps may be deformed, or even disappear altogether. It is certainly worth practising on a piece of spare timber the same as that used for your carving, as it is easy to lose the effect you want with careless sanding.

The himotoshi

The himotoshi is not absolutely necessary with a netsuke and can be left out if there is an alternative way to attach the cord but if it is included, it is vital that it is placed in the correct position.

For a netsuke to serve its purpose, it must be shown off to the best advantage when sitting on the obi, or sash, of the kimono.

Before drilling any holes, check thoroughly that their position is accurate. There should be two holes: one slightly larger than the other to house the knot in the cord. These holes should be joined together with a smooth 'tunnel' in the body of the carving. They can be simple holes or lined with a variety of materials. In the case of this frog, they are lined with ram's horn but I have used contrasting timber, ivory and tagua nut at different times. This is one part of the carving process that is probably better done with something like a micromotor, or other power drill, and a small ball shaped rotary burr, as you will get a much smoother finish. Take your time with this as the himotoshi is the one characteristic that is very much the essence of a netsuke.