Egg carving is a delicate, elaborate art, not for the faint of heart. Egg carvers create designs on eggs that range from the size of tiny quail eggs to emu eggs, roughly the size of a cantaloupe. The designs these artists carve are as different as the eggs upon which they are produced. Simple designs might include a ribbon design or stenciled hearts, while elaborate designs might include nature scenes or filigree lace.
How is it possible that eggs can be carved at all?
Aren’t they too delicate for such treatment? The answer, surprisingly, is “no.” Some eggs are not delicate at all. The ostrich egg, in fact, is so sturdy that chicks cannot hatch from them on their own: they need their mother’s help to emerge. Smaller eggs, of course, require careful handling. It is not uncommon for carvers to break 10% or more of the eggs they attempt to carve. Those eggs that survive to completion, however, become examples of an uncommon form of artistic expression.
There are two forms of egg carving. In the first form of carving, the egg is “laced” that is, designs are cut out of the eggshell. In the second form of carving, the egg is “sculpted.” Both forms of carving can produce designs of remarkable detail.
Both forms of egg carving start out the same way. The artist first selects the best egg for the project he or she has in mind and prepares it. Most eggs used for egg carving come from hatcheries that sell infertile eggs for this purpose. The eggs these hatcheries ships are already cleaned and disinfected. If the artist is using a fresh egg, it must be washed and the white and the yolk must be removed. There are several ways to remove the white and the yolk. One simple method is to cut a hole in the bottom of the egg and force air into the egg from the other end using a veterinary syringe with a large-bore needle. After removing the insides, the interior of the egg must be cleaned with a solution of soapy water. The syringe can also be used for this purpose. After the egg has thoroughly dried, it is ready to be carved.
The artist starts with a pattern either from a photo concept or from an original drawing that he or she has produced. Then, using a photocopier, the artist transfers the original drawing to apply the film. The film is cut and trimmed to fit the egg, after which the backing is removed and the design affixed the egg’s surface. It is possible to draw openings or very basic designs directly onto an egg, but a good pattern makes carving easier for the artist.
Once the pattern has been applied, the artist then etches the design into the egg. A variety of tools can be used for this purpose. Some artists prefer a high-speed air turbine cutting tools that spin at 300 to 400 thousand revolutions per minute, similar to a dentist’s drill. Other artists prefer an electrical cutting tool, although such tools tend to vibrate more. It is important to keep a variety of bits on hand so that the best selection can be made for every individual egg, but the best burrs for egg carving are usually diamond and carbide tipped. Some details can be etched onto the egg using a metal scribe, similar to a pencil. After the pattern has been etched into the egg, the appliquĆ© film is removed. This process must be done carefully, to avoid breakage or scratching the egg’s surface. Once the applique has been removed, the artist etches finer details into the shell.
When an artist “laces” an egg, they remove sections of the shell completely to create a cut-out pattern. Filigree patterns are often abstract, or they may mimic actual lace. Many artists cut stencil-styled designs. These stencils can be as simple as cut-outs of hearts or flowers. Lacing is not limited to simple designs, however. Lacing can also be used to create elaborate portraits or scenes. Although the laced pattern frequently covers the entire egg, some artists prefer to leave one side of the shell uncarved. Doing so, they feel, allows light to reflect from the back of the shell, allowing greater detail to show in the carved surface. Many artists, in fact, recommend that laced eggs be displayed on a lightbox to highlight the carving’s details.
Sculpting and Etching
Sculpting removes layers of the shell, often revealing different colors as the artist cuts deeper into the egg. Although many colored eggs have different layers-AraĆ¼canna and Buff Orpington chicken eggs, for example, have colored shells that may reveal other colors underneath-the emu egg is the most widely used egg for sculpting due to its size and thick shell. Emu eggs are dark green, almost black on the surface. Two more layers exist under the surface: the middle layer is teal green, while the interior is white or cream-colored. The eggs used for sculpting often have thicker shells to support their sophisticated designs of three-dimensional carving. Portraits and other designs that rely on raised edges or the contrast between light and shadow are often used in sculpted eggs.
The etching is related to sculpting. Where sculpting creates a design that has many layers to take advantage of the various color shadings the eggs offer, etching is similar to a chiaroscuro painting done on the egg’s surface. The artist scores the egg’s surface to form his or her design, relying on the length, placement, and thickness of the lines to bring the image to life.
Once an egg is completely laced or sculpted, the artist finishes the egg for display. A buffing wheel attachment for the turbine tool is usually used for finishing. Using this tool, the artist smoothes any rough edges and transitions between layers. Finally, several layers of sealant are applied, to protect the egg from dust and stains. From beginning to end, a single egg can take dozens of hours to carve.
Egg carving is not an inexpensive hobby. The drills and burrs can cost several hundreds of dollars or more. Safety goggles and protective masks to prevent the artist from inhaling the dust created in the carving process are recommended. For close work, something to magnify the design and good lighting is both essential. In addition, commercially prepared eggs are easy to find on the Internet. If you are willing to make the investment in equipment, however, you too can partake in an art form that leads people to ask “you do WHAT for a hobby?