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Ebony Leaf Carving

Jim Kelso

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18 years ago I met the Japanese artist Kodo Okuda at the Netsuke Society convention in Miami. As well as carving amazing netsuke I became aware of a series of leaf carvings he had done in lacquered Ivory. I was later able to handle one and was just flabbergasted at the technique and artistry. Having done woodcarving myself I naturally went over in my mind what I thought the process would be to produce a piece like that in wood and pondered trying it. I think mostly what kept me from trying it was the thought that people would say, "Oh Kodo did that already", or something like that.


Well, since that time the thought of trying it has stayed with me like a sheep-dog and my love for

fallen and decaying leaves has only increased so I decided to give it a go. I also came to realize that a wood piece would be very different than an ivory one and have it's own set of unique qualities, such as color, and whatever unique features I could bring to it as an artist.


I'm going to start by posting photos of one of Kodo's leaves® in laquered ivory and also the real leaf(L) I used as a model.


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This shows the top and side profile templates positioned on the Ebony piece I chose. I don't know exactly what specie this is. Some think it is Macasser which it may be, but it looks different than most Macasser I've seen. It may be of Phillipine origin. It has beautiful caramel marbeling and striping. I've had a couple of log sections for nearly 30 years, and it came across country with me.


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At this point I wanted to work out my system for forming the veins and the final texture, to be able to proceed with some confidence in the way things would look at the end. I rough formed the veins with a bur and filed the top edges smooth with a file and sandpaper. I could then carefully work up those polished tops with more bur work. The tops of the veins end up being a thin polished line contrasting with the highly textured surface. This ended up being a good system, allowing for changes if I wanted or in the case of slip-ups.


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Thanks Garrett. :)


Taking a break from this tutorial has caused me to reflect on the value of continuing. The technique is relatively straight-forward and intuitive. I'm sure most of you have got the picture without even seeing the tools. There are some technical challenges mostly involving care and patience.


The real challenge of this piece is the sculptural evolution involving endless decision making around how every part relates to every other part.


Some of my concern is that the sculptural process can't really be conveyed and is somehow diminished by trying to show it.


At this point I'm not sure how to continue and would like to open this up for discussion.

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Your leaf is beautiful! I love the way it curves in on itself. I think you have shown the important steps which are the layout and placing the grain, cuting out the blank, rough carving and texture. All you need at this point is a picture of the finished piece. People can ask questions if there is something they do not understand. Beautiful piece.


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Hi Jim, I understand and agree with what you allude to.


The rest of the work is more slowly paced, with little progress evident from one session to the next. The care of working the leaf surface and veins takes time and is less exciting for another to watch than the major cutting and burr work. (That also equals less drama in the photos.) The piercing or most delicate detail work closer to the completion is again exciting for the artist, with hope for a steady hand to guide the tools, but again is slow and not photogenic.


If you feel moved to post an image pointing out something you feel is good for sharing, that would be nice. Otherwise, waiting is the game from this monitor. :)




Thanks for the, um, hard to put into words... It makes me want to carve leaves again . . . they have an alluring nature, a lifelong appeal to my creative self. (You should see what I keep on my many surfaces at the studio, and now and then on the shelf above the sink for contemplation while hands are busy with sink stuff.) Thanks for opening an inner chamber.

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Hi Jim,


I am quite faniliar with your feelings about not continuing the tutorial, however, for neophyte carvers or for those who are crossing over from another medium I believe continuing the tutorial will provide great value. I know, having just completed my sockeyes netsuke tutorial, that the interruption in the carving process is a real pain, but worth it all in the end.


May I suggest simply taking photos as you go along, and then completing the tutorial at your leisure after the carving is finished? I find your descriptions very informative, and especially liked the way you developed an interesting contrast with the polished veins. There is always something valuable to be learned from another.


Just my 2 cents.



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Hi Jim!


I've been following this projects progress with great interest. Please continue!


I've recently tried to do a project in progress photo piece too and I've learned alot. I will do another one much better. My point being that when I did mine I kept trying to take pics to really show something, everything I took a pic of was, well... just normal stuff so I thought it wasn't very useful except to show that I wasn't doing anything special.


I'm assuming your feeling the same, But! I'm really enjoying yours EVERY bit of it. The more pics the better, I don't think there needs to be a big jump from one to the next to hold my attention either. just my .02


here's my feeable attempt, It was one that I had started posting here on the forum but I stopped I thought I was wasting band width!


anyway if your really boooored.

Jelly Roll


Please keep it up!



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Thanks everyone for the input.


Rik, that's a nice sequence on the jelly-roll.


Garrett, it's not that it's irritating, in fact I enjoy the process of documenting projects. I think when I finish the piece(a few more hours) and get it photographed I'll be able to give the tutorial the time it needs.

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