Every traditional netsuke carver makes his own tools. They must be appropriate for his carving style and comfy for him to carve. Although the term “carving” is commonly used, the majority of the operation is better described as “scraping.” One of the few nods to modern technology is a power grinder that Bishu uses to sharpen his hand carving tools.

The ban on foreign ivory transportation has caused numerous complications in Japan, where some traditional arts rely on a consistent supply of ivory. Netsuke carving is just one of them, accounting for only approximately 2% of the overall volume. Bishu has looked into hundreds of different materials to find an acceptable replacement for ivory. It is difficult to locate one since the material must be hard enough to withstand handling, fine-grained enough to hold a sharp carved edge, usable with conventional tools, and have a pleasing feel and appearance. Some netsuke must also absorb lacquer, metals, and inlays made of various materials.

During our chat, Bishu mentioned that he has discovered a material that he believes is superior to elephant ivory. It has essentially identical working properties to ivory, but it is slightly harder, allowing for finer detail. Additionally, it is acceptable to conservationists. He showed us a variety of materials that he had experimented with, including boxwood, Siberian walrus tusks, frozen mammoth tusks, mahogany, and even a whale penis bone.

The photograph on the left depicts all of these, as well as the novel material hippopotamus tooth. The reason for the celebration is because hippopotamuses in captivity must have their teeth extracted on a regular basis since they do not wear down as quickly as they do in nature.

Mammoth ivory is another great “new” material. It carves almost identically to elephant ivory, but it also exhibits delicate colorations from minerals absorbed during tens of millions of years of burial. Fine-quality mammoth ivory is extremely rare, yet it can still be found in Siberia and Alaska. Because mammoth ivory resembles elephant ivory, international customs officers have developed positive identification tests for this substance.

Bishu, seated like a traditional craftsman, works six to eight hours every day carving netsuke (c). He stated that he had attempted carving at a table, but the posture was difficult and he became exhausted quickly. Sitting on the floor allows him to carve with energy from his entire body, not just his hands. The materials used can vary depending on the theme and the carver’s current interests. Many old netsuke carvers specialized in a single medium, however the current netsuke carver must be able to create in a variety of materials.

It carves almost identically to elephant ivory, but it also exhibits delicate colorations from minerals absorbed during tens
Netsuke Power tools establish an interface--a barrier between the maker and the object

Despite the availability of modern power tools, contemporary netsuke carvers continue to use traditional tools. One explanation is because they like working with the material. When employing conventional scraping and drilling instruments, the object being made is released by a living, creative energy. It carries the energy and spirit of the master carver.

Power tools establish an interface–a barrier between the maker and the object. They may speed up the production of remarkable technical accomplishments, but they prevent the master carver’s spirit from infiltrating the netsuke. Bishu prefers to work on simple geometric designs. He has a collection of plaster models that he studies to determine how a new invention would work with a fundamental shape like this ball. Frequently, he will draw the topic onto the fundamental geometric shape. This sphere depicts the beginnings of one of his sensuous bunnies.