My First Netsuke

Mitch Peacock

When a friend recently passed away, I was asked if I could make a memento for his mother. Could I also make it using wood from a crossbow that he himself had made years ago.

Paul had a particular love of oak trees, and so that was my inspiration.

NETSUKE

Small sculpted objects, traditionally used as a toggle to attach items suspended from a kimono sash. Their designs are usually based on things from nature, religion, and mythology. Netsuke, fashionable for the male merchant class during the Edo period, are now widely collected.

I have always found carving anything, especially from nature, to be a real challenge. My first experience, at school, put me off for years! Hopefully, a simple acorn would be easier.

I decided to go totally unplugged, despite the possible time savings of initially roughing out at a lathe. In actual fact, no acorn is perfectly round in section, so freehand carving should help in making a more natural shape.

To aid clamping during the main shaping operations, I cut a tenon on one end that could be clamped in the face vise. Leaning onto a bench hook was also useful. These allowed good access to roughly round the blank, and later refine the carving. Once the tenon was cut away, a handscrew held in the face vise was for clamping.

I reduced the diameter at what would be the junction of nut and cupule (cup), and proceeded to round most of the latter. I made it too large to begin with, only later to realise that my memory was playing tricks with me. A good tip is to acquire an acorn prior to starting, rather than part way through as I did.

The nut was rough shaped next, using shear cuts with a knife. The improvised work holding performed really well, and controlled cuts could be taken with ease. This was particularly helpful as I was nursing a bad thumb, and couldn’t work with the piece in my hands as I often do.

I don’t think I ever paid too much attention to the tip of an acorn nut, and no doubt they vary considerably, but those I collected all had a recess with a protruding tip. This was one of the most difficult parts to carve, not helped by being short-sighted. Circular cuts gradually excavated the depression, leaving a central stub which was finally sharpened to a blunt cone.

The surface of the cup has a dense patterning, which I thought would be lost within the grain of the mahogany, so I chose to carve a more stylised version with facets that would be more visible. 

Using a cut-to-cut method with the knife, I defined roughly similar diamond shapes around the cup. The lower half of each diamond was pared down, giving an overlapping effect to the rows.

Small strips of abrasive paper, worked over constantly changing areas, quickly erased facets from the knife work.

A humorous touch is not uncommon in netsuke I have seen, and I know the little holly grub I added will be appreciated.

Sanding sealer was applied to the whole piece, before lightly sanding back and applying a lacquer finish.

Creating this simple netsuke has given me an even greater appreciation of the craftsmanship behind the more beautiful and detailed ones that survive from centuries ago.

Mitch Peacock is a highly accomplished woodworker in Eastbourne England. With multiple articles published in various woodworking magazines. You can follow Mitch’s YouTube videos here