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Hei Matau – Birthday #2

This is another pendant prepared as a birthday gift… It is a Hei Matau, a traditional Maori symbol, in the form of a stylized fish-hook. It is a charm of good luck and safe travel across the sea. This friend of mine just started scuba diving, and so this looked like an appropriate choice. This time, the pendant is carved in bone, since this is the material traditionally used for this kind of charms.

[Actually, this was the third birthday in the sequence, but the second gift has still not reached its recipient… so, in the meanwhile, to keep the blog going, I had to invert the order of birthdays]

Where did I found bone? On internet… as most of the strange stuff I buy. More precisely, on eBay. These bone pieces, “blanks” are they are called, are available from different sellers, on eBay or on different websites. While traditionally the material should be whale bone, it is somehow hard to be found, so I used this more readily available camel bone (at least, the seller declared it to be camel). Preparing a bone for carving at home _is_ possible and there are plenty of resources online to learn to do so. I wanted to start from something more ready-to-go because I just wanted to experiment with the material, without having to learn all the preparation process (there will be time, if I decide to continue using bone), and I had a deadline for the piece (the birthday).

I started sketching some designs, to study possible shapes… I picked two, with the idea of having a backup, in the case something went wrong (but, in the end, they both turned out really well). Then, starting from two rectangular blanks, I draw the chosen designs on them with a pencil, cut the blank to measure, and started shaping them with a belt sander and a Dremel. I finished carving the pendants with a combination of chisels, scrapers, cutters, files and some more help of the Dremel. It took some time and lots of adjustments because it was my first work using bone. Bone is much harder than Vegetable Ivory, but still reasonably easy to work with. When I was satisfied with the shaping, I polished it with the Dremel and polishing paste…

The basic shaping was easy. The harder part was to carve the decorations on top of it… I was constantly worried that the piece would break, or that the chisel would zip away, scratching the surface… In the end I’m pretty happy with the result. There is space for improvement, but it is definitely a start.

The final step is the leashing. Traditionally, this kind of pendants are attached (leashed) to a hemp cord with a specific, quite complex knot. I found a suitable waxed cord, and tried doing this “Figure 8” leashing, following some online tutorials… After some tries, I obtained this result: it is not perfect, but I’m still quite happy.

Vegetable Ivory Pendant – Birthday #1

I already mentioned that this period of the year is a time of birthdays… I have quite a few female friends being born between end of October and begin of November, and I like to give to some of them a little home-made present… This year, I have three ongoing projects of this kind, which I will post as soon the receivers will get their present (to avoid spoilers) 🙂

So, here is the first one: a pendant carved in Vegetable Ivory…

I’ve lately got quite interested in carving… looking at the results of my experiments with alabaster (see last posts), I decided to start searching for other materials to carve, in order to train myself in this new type of activity. Browsing various forums, I discovered he Vegetable Ivory, that looked like an interesting choice.

Vegetable ivory is the white, very hard inner part of a nut coming from a palm tree from South America. This white substance is hard, but still easy to carve, has a nice organic grain, can be easily polished and has a color and translucency quite similar to Ivory (hence, its name). You get (almost) all the good things of Ivory, without having to kill an elephant. The nuts are generally picked by local cooperatives, left to dry and then sold. This kind of sustainable, fair trade market is also a very interesting aspect of Vegetable Ivory.

So, from the internet, I ordered some nuts, and started experimenting. I discovered that the nuts are easy to clean of their dark skin, but incredibly hard to cut! Since I wanted to make pendants, I tried cutting one in half, and with a small jeweler hand-saw it took ages (and a couple of broken blades). I really need to find someone with a band-saw willing to help me. Beside this “bisection” problem, the material is wonderful to work with… soft enough to be carved with ease, but durable enough to be used for a pendant.

This is my first object. A random curvy, organic shape… I just improvised, drawing in pencil some curves on the blank half-nut and starting carving it. There is a lot of space for improvement, but I am really satisfied with the result.

Clockwork heart…

My tiny clockwork heart
is made of stone, and shiny steel
and old brass gears, with scratched teeth
but still, it beats

This is something else that came out from my experiment with alabaster. One of the raw pieces I started from had a shape that just begged to be turned into a heart. Yes, terribly boring… However, I believe I’ve found a way to make it slightly less conventional giving it a steampunk twist. It is not really a pendant, because drilling a hole trough it for a cord will ruin its shape, so I think I’ll keep it as it is now, maybe I’ll put it in a small frame (possibly, steampunk-themed too) to be hanged.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my grand-grandfather had a clock shop, and at home I still have some of the clocks and watches he was not able to repair because well beyond any hope. I disassembled one to get some interesting components, with an idea of using them in some jewelry project, but ended in using some pieces on the alabaster heart… their shiny metal surface really stand out from the unpolished white translucent stone, and I am really pleased with he final effect.

The screws and gears are fitted into small holes I carved on the surface using a small hand-drill, and secured with a drop of superglue. The watch had screws of at least six different sizes and shapes, I just selected flat-headed ones, larger on the upper part of the heart, and smaller on the lower part, to better flow with the heart shape. The same for gears, I just selected three that could somehow fit together on the flat part of the right side. Of course, the gears are not in the correct order of the original gear train, but they look good enough arranged in this way.

Experiments with Alabaster

In a recent work trip to Volterra, while roaming among an old ruined building, I found a couple pieces of Alabaster. Curious as I am, I grabbed them with the idea of trying some carving.  Volterra is a town in Tuscany, world famous for its archeological importance and its alabaster workmanship, dating back to Etruscan age. Alabaster is a common find in the area, as a raw material but also as discarded pieces from workshops, or in old buildings.

Here are some results… They all turned out pendants. They are not bad, for a first try, but there is much room for improvement. I just experimented, trying to follow the shape that better flowed with the lines of the fragments. I’ve never carved before, so it was just a way to practice something I saw only in videos.

Problem #1: how to reduce the raw stones to usable pieces….  For this one, I’ve found no practical solutions, I just put the rock on the anvil and used a chisel to try detaching small, sensible chunks. The result was not a complete success, since the pieces you obtain are somehow random in shape and size.

The actual carving process was much easier than expected, with almost anything I tried it was possible to score the stone. Small chisels, scrapers, files, an old knife, even bare nails. To smooth it, normal sandpaper works well, and abrasive pads even better (they last much longer, especially wet ones, that can be easily cleaned from residues).


Problem #2: this thing is incredibly brittle…. Too brittle… It is good not to have to fins specific tools to score the stone, but it is not good when also your nails can ruin a piece, or the wonderfully carved piece you just finished breaks up when attaching a metal ring for using it as a pendant. I always knew alabaster was fragile, but the pieces i worked with were too fragile for practical purposes. In a more recent trip to Volterra, I examined alabaster pieces on sale in some workshop, and they were much harder: it is highly probable that the piece I found were discarded, low quality samples… So I bought a batch of small objects, to have some new (good) material to work on.. definitely, there will be a follow up

Rail Anvil

Hello there… long time, no see… Judging from the frequency of new posts here, it seems like I’m getting lazier and lazier. Well, it is partially true. Moving in the new house (and furnishing it) took away lot of my spare time. However, in this August, I started again doing creative projects, and I have new material to post (and great, new ideas for the future).

So, let me start with one of my summer projects… a new, portable ANVIL.

Doing small jewelry does not require much material, all the basics can fit in a small toolbox. The only exception is the anvil… not considering the large one I have (affixed to the ground), also the small one is heavy and difficult to carry, while most time a small piece of hard metal could be enough. During a recent work trip, in proximity of a train station I found a discarded piece of rail. It was a small piece, obviously the end of a newly installed rail, badly cut and extremely dirty. The metal used in rails is extremely hard and durable (it’s not difficult to imagine why), and may amateur blacksmiths have used discarded rails to build anvils (lots of info on the web, as usual). The piece I found was very small; so, i decided to clean it and use it as a portable anvil, using the top part of the rail as the working surface.

It is easy to find, near railway stations or junctions, old pieces of discarded rail: it is not a good idea to sneak in a large city station and try leaving it with a huge piece of metal picked somewhere on its premises, but on smaller train station, if you ask politely to the personnel, they may even help you…

As I said, the piece was incredibly dirty and badly cut (one side was very jagged). So, the first step was to clean it with an angle grinder with an 80 grit sanding disc. With this tool I was able to perfectly clean the surface, removing the jagged borders and bring to a new life the metal surface. Even with this harsh grit, the result was quite smooth and shiny (I just barely need to use a small piece of 100 grit sandpaper to polish it a bit).

An advice, always use a dust mask when doing this and work in open air: dirt on used rails contains a lot of nasty chemicals, oil and metal residues from the carriages, which gives toxic residues when using high-speed grinders on it. When grinding the head, I was also able to shape the two borders of the rail differently: one sharp and one curved. This task was made easier by the jagged border on one side of the rail. Having parts with a different shapes/angles in the anvil is quite helpful, since it is possible to pick the best spot to bend/flatten/shape your piece.

Then, I simply attached the anvil to a hard wood board (recycled from an old floor) using metal braces, nuts and bolts,to give a strong and stable support, able to withstand the hammering. Under the board, I glued&nailed two soft pine wood bars, to absorb vibrations without damaging the surface I would place the anvil on. I tried the new anvil to do some wire pendants, and worked splendidly!

Photographic Project: Through-The-X photography

Here is way to take “out of the ordinary” photos, by using an old camera as a “filter”…


The idea is to shot a photo at a scene as visible through the viewfinder of another camera, showing how this preview image captures the scene. This works especially well with very old film cameras; most old twin-lens and single-lens cameras had waist-level finder, with a focusing screen where the framed images would appear. On this screen, the image has a peculiar contrast, saturation and defects… a retro appearance which is what makes this technique interesting.

I have a twin lens Yashica 124 and a Bronica SQ-A, which both have a nice focusing screen with the lines of thirds and (on the Bronica) also a focus ring… They are ideal candidates for this technique.

Sounds easy, isn’t it ? actually, there is a problem… focusing! since the focusing screen where the image is visible is quite small, it may be tricky to set the shooting camera with a position, focal and focusing such that the focusign screen is framed sufficiently well AND in focus. When using a SLR to take the photo, this often require holding the two cameras at 40-50 cm distance; this problem is reduced using a macro lens on the shooting camera. There are three possible solutions: hold both cameras in your hands (difficult & dangerous), place the primary camera on a stable position and freehand the shooting camera, or fix one camera to another using a cardboard tube (possibly a black one) long enough to keep the cameras at the correct distance. For this technique, compact digital cameras may be a better choice, since most of them has a built-in “macro” setting, able to focus at 5-10 cm, making much easier to hold both cameras in your hand.

You may find a quite active Flickr group devoted to this technique, and various tutorials on how to build contraptions to affix the first camera to the shooting one, avoiding keeping both cameras with your hands…

Nothing prevents you to use, as the primary camera, a modern digital camera with live preview… with this variant, it is also possible to compose an image where the backside panel of the digital camera is in focus, but the framed subject is also visible, out of focus.


Yes, Through-The-Lens (or TLL) is how it is called the metering technique where the camera measures the light coming, as the name says, through the lens… However, in this case, is taking the photo in such a way the subject (or part of it) is framed inside a camera lens.

Again, the problem is to find the correct relative position of the shooting camera and the spare lens. There is an additional thing to bear in mind: most camera lenses have a mechanical aperture, often controlled with a peg on the back of the lens. The diaphragm iris is generally close (or at its minimum setting) when detached from a camera; in order to take photos through it, it is necessary to open up the diaphragm as much as possible, and this is done by moving the peg.

Also in this case, it is possible to compose an image where the subject is visible in focus through the lens, but also, out of focus, in the rest of the frame.


What about glasses / sunglasses? phone cameras? and webcams? and videocameras screen/eye finder? well… any device able to capture (and preview) images is a valid candidate… Just try it!

Melted Pyssla Bowl

IKEA is a wonderful source for DIY materials… it is full of cheap house implements that may be re-purposed / decorated / modded with ease. In my last IKEA trip, beside some furniture for my home, I found a product intended for kids, bu really enjoyable for crafters of all ages: the PYSSLA beads. What are these beads used for? Normally, to be arranged on small peg boards forming a design and then melted using a clothes iron, obtaining a decorative object. Searching on the internet, it is easy to find wonderful 8-bit art, computer icons and video games characters made using these beads. Depending on the nation and the brand producing them, they are also called Perler or Hama beads.

After using the beads to craft some space invaders aliens (almost mandatory, for a crafter geek), I tried to think of other possible uses. One idea I got was to use them to make a bowl, usable as a pocket-emptier, to hold keys, coins and other small stuff. To obtain a curved shape, I had them melt inside a metal bowl in the oven. The inspiration came from seeing on the web bowls made by melting plastic toy soldiers (an example here). Impressive and pretty symbolic, however, a little impractical due to the extremely uneven inside.I imagined using the Pyssla beads, I would obtain a more colorful and usable object.

As mold, I used another IKEA product, a stainless steel bowl. They come in many different sizes, and are very durable and easy to wash. Their mirror-finish in the inside helps obtaining an even surface when melting.

To start, put a couple handful of beads in the metal bowl (I removed mos of black and white beads to obtain more colorful objects). Then, push and move the beads until you obtain a single layer of beads covering the bottom part of the bowl, raising up to the sides. The beads may have any orientation, when they melt, they will change shape randomly. Do not even try arranging the brads in an explicit pattern: it takes ages… I tried, and one hour later I realized I had covered less than 1/4 of the needed surface, and the arrangement was terrible because there was nothing to hold the beads in place, making the design ugly and, anyway, it will probably come out distorted, since the melting speed of the beads is a bit random.

When preparing the beads for melting, always remember that the level you reach on the sides will decrease due to melting, so keep the level a bit higher than your goal


Carefully place the metal bowl in the oven, after it has been heated-up. I’ve set the oven at 180° C, and reached the sweet spot after 8-10 minutes. Do not, for any reason, leave the oven unattended, unless you enjoy plastic aftertaste in all your future meals (or even turning the oven into a fireplace). After 5-7 minutes, you should see the beads start loosing their shape and flow down. After a couple of minutes or so, they will have melted enough to be permanently interlocked. Leaving them more time inside, they will start to burn and turn black (and smell terribly).

Remove the metal bowl from the oven (with a glove) and let the thing rest a couple of minutes. Then, put it under the water; the perfectly formed plastic bowl will detach completely and easily from the metal bowl. Let it dry. Enjoy.

I did a couple of tries, and obtained good results, the melting process does not leave unpleasant smell in the oven, nor in the finished bowl. The random color and micro-structure of the bowl looks really nice…

Snoot + Grid

Super quick DIY photographic accessory for your flash… a SNOOT GRID. A snoot is a simple device able to control how the light of a flash diffuses in space: basically, it is just a tube (with circular or square/rectangular section) affixed to the flash, that reduces the angular spread of the light and constraining it to a certain shape. If to the end of the tube there is a honeycomb-shaped grid, the result is that the flash is turned in a very nice soft spot, quite useful in portraits and product photography.

I’m not much of a strobist (i.e. a photographer with special love of lighting setups, often bordering obsession), but I have always been curious about flash modifications. Flash is quite helpful in many situation, but its extremely hard light makes it difficult to use it, most of the times… Having a way to turn my flash into a softer spot would really be a useful trick.

Now, while in commerce there are many many snoots and snoot grids, it is possible to build one with minimal effort, time and money. So, I decided to try following one of the various online tutorials. The good news is that it is possible to build a snoot grid in 20 minutes!

For the first snoot grid I used coroplast, that is a kind of corrugated plastic shaped like cardboard (two sheets of plastic with long square-section cells in between). Sheets of this corrugated plastic are easily found in most hardware stores, but also office depots. The idea is to build a grid using the cells of small sections of the coroplast. So, I cut the sheet in small section, each one wide as the width of the flash head and 2cm deep. Stacking some of these section until the height of the flash head is reached, it is possible to assemble a grid. To stick one layer to another, the simplest thing is to use double-sided tape: a small piece in the middle will be enough. The external box of the snoot is just another piece of coroplast cut to measure and bent to build a box (then closed using tape). The result is a simple tube which fits well the head of the flash.

Building the snoot grid, there are some basic rules:

  • the longer the snoot, the more concentrated is the light spot. On the other hand, short snoot will have wider spread.
  • the shape of the section of the snoot does affect the shape of the spot, but do not expect an exact match.
  • the larger are the cells of the grid, the harder will be the spot.
  • the longer are the small tubes of the grid , the softer and weaker will be the spot
  • the darker the material of the snoot, the weaker the spot.
  • the more “irregular” is the grid, the softer and less definite the spot

I just randomly picked some measure, and was pleased by the result. If you are a control freak, you may have to experiment a bit more…

I took some picture of objects I had around; it is always difficult to convince people to pose for me (especially women). The results seem good enough… A nice soft spot of light. In the examples, I had the flash and snoot grid affixed to the camera, but this accessory may (and should) be used also on slave flash units.

A word of caution: the light output of the flash is greatly reduced, but your camera does not know it. In order to correct this, you’ll have to use exposure correction OR flash exposure correction (manual mode is also an option, if you feel braver), until you get the desired level of brightness in the photo. Since the tube is just an attachment, it is possible to bend it a little to better direct the light spot.

As an alternative to coroplast, it is possible to use drinking straws. Everyone recommends black straws (to cut light output) but, while at IKEA shopping for furniture, I spotted a pack of colored drinking straws… and I decided to try to see if a colored straw will produce a colored, soft spot. The idea is to build a grid using small sections of the straws, arranged in rows.

I cut the straws in section more or less 5cm long (I got three section per straw) and arranged them in layers, again using double-sided tape.  As the external box I used black thick paper, cut to measure, bent to a box shape and closed using tape. Also the second snoot grid was quick to build, and produced good results.

So, the only remaining question is: does colored straws produce a colored soft spot? The answer is, unfortunately, NO… Even if the straws are semi-transparent and colored, they do not act as gel… too bad :(… Next time I’ll add a small slot to the side of the snoot to be able to insert a colored gel.

Cappuccino Stencil

Long time, no see… I was busy setting up my new house and, while the task is not finished yet, it starts looking like a house and not like a hermit hut. So, I have time to resume my projects, starting from a simple one (most of my materials are still packed up).

In the last few months I took the habit of having a cappuccino with a friend in the morning at the cafeteria at work, and occurred to me I could make the thing more fancy by making stencils for sprinkling cocoa in a specific shape: what i need was a Cappuccino Stencil !

Of course, you may buy them online, but it is easy to make your own. The material needed: a cup to use a template for the size, a cutting board (to avoid cutting the new table), a set of sharp crafting blades (X-Acto knives, if you live in UK or US)  and, for the stencil itself, a thin plastic placemat. These plastic placemats are ideal for this project, since they are thin but extremely resilient, the plastic is safe for food usage and they can be washed easily. The color is not important, you will work on the white side anyway.

With a pencil, trace the circle of the cup, and sketch three-four protruding rectangles around the circle. These addition will help handling the stencil and can be curved down to better center and hold the stencil on the cup. Cut following the line, until the blank stencil detach from the mat. Again, with a pencil, sketch the shape of the stencil and cut it precisely with the knife. Aaaaand you’re done… it won’t take more than 15 minutes to prepare one from start to finish (depending on the complexity of the stencil and your cutting skill).

There are a lot of stencils available as images on the web, and it is possible to scale and print them as a template, but I wanted to do something from scratch. I started from a good luck 4-leafed clover, then I carved the “mandatory” hearts, a cluster of stars and a crown (I tried also to do a queen-style crown, like in the chess pieces, but turned out really ugly…).

The same process may also be used to build custom-shaped BOKEH, for your photography projects; however, you will need to find a piece of black plastic, in order to better shield the light… But this may be the topic of a future post 🙂

I tried the stencils the next morning… with mixed success… they work, but you need that the cocoa at your cafeteria is not too clumped up due to humidity (like in my case), otherwise the shapes will appear a bit jagged. Anyway, for something done in more or less one hour (taking in account photos for the blog and cleaning up), the result is good. They may be used as a gift, since it is possible to choose the perfect image for the recipient :).

Photographic Project: Tiny Snowmen

I’m still in the process of setting up the new house, and most of my stuff is still packed, but I wanted to post something new, in the meantime so, typing from the floor of my new living room, here is a short post, perfect for this season !
Last year, it snowed a good deal while I was at my parents’ house, but I knew it won’t last long… While admiring the layer of snow from the wndow, I got this idea of making tiny snowmen and take photos of them in some strange pose.
The idea, in principle, was good… however, I had with me just an old compact camera, and shooting small objects in the snow proved to be too much for its firmware 🙂 Taking photos in the snow it’s not easy, since the metering system start to get crazy; some cameras have a special “snow” mode, to overcome this, but in my camera, this mode was not able to take photos of _small_ objects (like my subjects)… so the results ar not great… But, still, acceptable to present the project.

The snowmen are just two small balls of snow, modeleld by hand. The cyan eyes are just pins transfixing the head, while the black with the pupil-like silver spots are small beads, again, transfixed by pins. Pins are also used to fix a stick-shaped red bead in the palce of the mouth. With a bit of photoshop, it is easy to remove any visible part of the pin sticking out from the back of the head, or the grey pinhead in the middle of the mouth.

Setting the skiing scene is also quite simple: the hands are toothpicks cut and shaped, the sticks are straightened paperclips, the flags, again toothpicks with a small paper triangle. The skis are two small piece of wood coffee stirrers (first, use the skis to do the the ski-marks, then, place the skis in the correct spot and put the snoman on top).  Ah, I almost forgot, the snowy slope is just…. the windshield of my car 🙂 🙂 🙂

I did the stup and the photos in a very short time, like 20-30 minutes. For the time and resources invested, this was a fun project… too bad for the crappy camera. I had in mind other possible scenes to setup, but the first photos taken made me change my mind. The lesson is, plan ahead and wait for the next snow…