Cameo Carving, mini-tutorial

Doc Mark

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O.K. Guys and Gals, you asked for more information on carving cameos, so here's what I've got.

Here are photos of the type of shell I use to make the cameo blank. It is a small helmet shell. These are found in the Bahamas but the best ones come from Madagascar. I have not yet found a supplier for the larger shells. Unfortunately, only a relatively small area around the shells "lip" can be used for Cameos.
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Next, the Tools I use are quite basic. Simple rounds, flats and onglettes all with no heel. Then I also use the normal metal cutting gravers mounted in my QC collets and the GRS handles. The first tool used to rough-out the cameo is a micromotor with various carbide and diamond burs. This one runs up to 35,000 rpm. You can also use high speed handpieces like the GRS 850, but you must be VERY careful to not overheat the cameo or IT WILL crack.

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I then smooth the rough surface of the shell blank with sandpaper and transfer the design using Tom White's "Transfer Magic Solution". I do all the roughing in with the carbides and diamonds directly next to a vacuum table to remove the shell dust from the air. At this point I'm using an Optivisor only.
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Next, I coat the back of the cameo oval with thick "Super Glue" and press into the glue a strip of fiberglass tape. This will protect the cameo from stress cracks during mounting and carving. The reinforced cameo blank in mounted to a slightly domed wood block with green dopping wax. Thermolock can also be used BUT it will be much more difficult to finish the edges of the cameo if the Thermolock overlaps the edge. That is why I prefer the sticky aspect of the dopping wax.
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I now can start removing the background area down to the darker colored shell material. The following steps continue to remove the shell to begin roughing in the sculpture aspects of the design. Being careful to not ever go too deep at this early stage. You're just getting a feel about the general outlines and the most prominent design elements (arms, drapery etc.). One trick I've discovered is using a 2nd copy of the transparent transfer acetate, with the line drawing printed on it, and holding it over the early carving after some of your marks have been obliterated. You will be able to better determine where to cut away shell.

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At this stage you begin to see the sculpture developing but it's always "heavy" at this point. Even though you have been careful to follow the outlines, the individual elements are most likely thicker than needed. (See the hand and wrist at this point.) Now I've moved under the microscope and am carefully "shaving" the surface more than deeply carving. You, (Or at least, I) can spend MANY hours refining facial features and other details at this point. Every time I quit and come back the next day, I find things that I missed before.

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Now it's merely continuing the refining of the details till your satisfied (Or frustrated enough to finally quit.). You do eventually get to a point of diminishing returns. Final polishing is done with finer grits of sandpaper, various jewelers cutting and polishing compounds and Flour of Pumice. These are used with rotary rubber cups and brushes used to polish teeth. (Guess where I got those!) I've recently begun to slightly dull the subject (white area) on the cameo a bit after putting a high shine on the background colored area of the shell. It makes the details on the carving more "crisp". The high shine often hide some of the details.

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Well, those are the basics of Cameo Carving. There are many other ways to approach the same subject, but this is how I've been doing it. The old timers in Italy did it all with hand push gravers, no rotary devices. Although, this has changed in current carving shops. I keep finding new and better tricks as I go but the basics of all low relief carving have remained pretty consistent for centuries. Remember that, unlike deep bass relief work, low relief (like coins and medals) depend solely on the shadows cast when holding the work at an angle to a light source. The subtly of these shadows determine your success or failure in depicting the subject, so take your time and really STUDY THOSE SHADOWS and how they change in changing light.

If you have any questions, I'll try to answer to the best of my abilities.

Thanks for your interest.

Mark
 
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#2
Hi Mark

Fantastic thank you!! I had no idea that was how it was done or what part of the shell it came from.

I noticed a small vent next to your vise..........Is this a dust extractor fan? I've heard that shell dust can be lethal on lungs..

Also, how come only the shell lip can be used and not the whole shell?

Cheers
Andrew
 

Kevin P.

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'continuing the refining of the details' before you get to various sandpapers and finally the polishing compounds. What specific tools are you using at "refining of the details stage?

The details of your cameo are impressive, for me it's the wrist and hand; not that everything isn't excellent.
Thanks for the tutorial.
Kevin
 

Doc Mark

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Andrew, it's only near the lip of the shell where there are "flat" enough areas to cut into cameo ovals. Also, as you get further from the lip, the shell loses the "double color" layers. And yes, that is the opening for the vacuum to extract the dust.

Kevin, the same hand instruments shown in the tool photos, (flats, rounds and onglettes) are used to carve and scrape the fine details.
 

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