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Walrus Tooth


Janel

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I am carving walrus tooth for the first time and am wondering about its ability to take on coloration. Does anyone have experience with this material? I have one more tooth and will test it with various techniques to see if is stainable.

 

The cicada netsuke, below, is 1.5 inches and is incomplete.

 

Janel

 

cicada_sun_w.jpg

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Hi Janel,

 

I've never stained walrus ivory, but I don't think it will be different from other types I've stained. My best successes have been with Procion fiber reactive dyes (available at http://www.dharmatrading.com/html/eng/3796-AA.shtml). These are basically high quality cloth dyes. That said, there is a certain procedure I go through to make them work.

 

I begin with the ivory at a polished stage that is suitable for final presentation. Any tiny scratches will attract the dye and be very visible, almost like a difficult to eradicate scrimshaw mark. In fact, if you're at all doubtful as to the quality of your polishing, I might try using ink first to look for scratches, since it won't sink into the ivory surface and require deep exploration to get rid of.

 

Once the surface is smooth and polished, I apply white vinegar to etch the surface. This will be apparent because the shiny surface will become dull where the vinegar was. I let that dry, then am ready for the dye. I use little medicine cups with a knife tip's worth of dye and a few drops of distilled water. I wouldn't use tap water since you may get some unpredictable and unwanted adverse reactions. Some folks have recommended a little TSP (Trisodium Phosphate) with it (a really small knife tip. We're making less than half a milliliter of dye, so don't go crazy. With the amounts of powder the dye comes in, at this rate one bottle of color will last a lifetime.

 

Add dye if you want more saturated color, distilled water if it's too concentrated. I like to have a scrap of the same ivory I'm carving to test the dye on. You never know... When all is satisfactory, I use a tiny paint brush to apply the dye with. Staining is instantaneous. Alternate vinegar etch with more dye applications to get the color saturation (by this, I mean the strength of the color, not the depth of penetration into the surface). The penetration is deep enough that you won't be able to easily polish it away, although scraping will remove the color if things just aren't pleasing. You can even paint wet in wet like watercolors if you paint into the wet vinegar.

 

This procedure works on the solid sections of antler too. I haven’t tried bone, but think that some bone may have problems with the Haversian canals (little tubes in the hard sections) that cause color running.

 

Incidentally, since we’re on the subject, this works on wood as well. Don’t use the vinegar, since you don’t need to etch the wood. You will need to either carve a little ditch around the area to be dyed to keep the dye from seeping into unwanted areas. I very often use a woodburner like the bird carvers use to make the ditch. The burner will carve a nice little groove, easily controlled, and will melt the waxy lignins that glue the wood cells together, making a waterproof barrier. At high heat settings you’ll get dark grooves, and at low heat settings the grooves can be almost undarkened. Just be sure to stay a little distance away from the ditch and let the color soak out to the edges. If you paint too close, a blob of color can bridge the ditch and get color outside the area. Also, in porous woods, I’ve seen the color submerge below the surface and show up many inches away. Had that happen on a yellow cedar carving, with color showing up six inches away, with no visible track in between. Weird.

 

Here are a few examples. The spider has yellow and a salmon color on the body (boar tusk ivory). The spanish dancer sea slug has red on the top surface (hippo tooth). The little hatching alligator has baby alligator color (mixed several colors, carved of deer antler). The salmon are dyed red, with a slight greenish color on the heads (boxwood).

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Thanks Tom,

 

The illustrations are great!

 

I am familiar with Procion, and have a number of little jars of it. Long ago I chose to not use them on wood after experimenting with it. It will be interesting to see what it will do with the non wood materials. I am also familiar with vinegar or higher strength acetic acid. I noticed that you did not mention rinsing off the vinegar. Would leaving it on the surface make a color change with the dye? (like a mordant?)

 

Lots of fun ahead!

 

Janel

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Hi Janel,

 

I usually let the vinegar dry, so rinse isn't needed. Once it's dry, I conclude all the organic molecules in the vinegar/acid have reacted and been altered to decomposition products no longer harmful to the surface or the dye. I've never noticed any dye color change from the vinegar, even when I've painted wet in wet. Also, once you've polished the dyed area back to gloss, that is when the major color alteration occurs. The colors tend to become more muted, I think because you are removing some color in the polishing process and also because you are making the surface more reflective. Consider the color change that occurs on a wet road surface to the normally highly visible line markings.

 

Undiluted ascetic acid is a lot stronger than vinegar and may actually etch the surface too deeply making it difficult to polish. Don't know for sure.

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