a rough wax carving and a finished jewelry item

Humble Beginnings, The Wax Carving Process

Someone recently asked me how carving wax starts out.  First of all, there are a number of varieties to choose from.   Your specific application and personal preferences will naturally influence which type you choose.  Some artists prefer to add material to their model as they create it. I, however, almost always work subtractively.  Carving wax is primarily purchased in thick sheets, tubes designed for use with a wax lathe, or one large block.  I think most jewelry artisans would agree the sheets are by far the most useful.  The tubes are also wonderful as they do save quite a bit of time for designs that require turning.  Although blocks are certainly the cheapest, they are cumbersome and only necessary for few largely sculptural projects.  

Various types of carving wax for casting showing a block, a tube, and two sheets.
Carving wax comes in a variety of forms including blocks, sheets, and tubes. The tube pictured is topped by a mandril for the wax lathe and has been turned true.

The waxes used for model work are drastically different than injection waxes for production pieces. Injection waxes are all quite soft and pliable; they are designed with enough flexibility to be pulled from a mold without cracking.  Anyone who has ever attempted to carve injection wax has found themselves with a miserable mess.  It can be done, of course, but with a degree of frustration as injection wax is a bit sticky to work with.  Not only will this impede carving but it will also clog files fast.  

There are a number of consistencies and types of wax available beyond what I proceed to describe in this post.  For the moment my focus is on what I utilize for my craft.  I prefer the hardest variety of wax, the dark green, as it holds detail best.  It will also break before it will bend.  This brittle characteristic does leave it quite prone to cracking and small appendages can be easily snapped off if too much pressure is applied.  This propensity to snap does have some major advantages though. Softer waxes are much more likely to bend gradually with the heat of your hand over the duration of a long project. Repairing a warped carving is infinitely more difficult than wax welding one broken bit and recarving that area only. 

A design has been laid out on wax using masking tape to transfer the image.
The earliest stages of carving primarily involve establishing a correct layout for your pattern.

In laying out a design for a flat piece, or one relatively so, I begin by carving the frame (if one exists).  Next, I affix a piece of masking tape with a rough sketch of the design to help me create the initial layout.  Masking tape works wonderfully for this because it can be easily carved through. Sharpies are also helpful to sketch directly onto the wax.  I use them often as the design takes shape.  However, carving wax somehow clogs sharpies quickly which is why I prefer to begin with tape.

First stages of carving for a pendant.
To me, and likely to other artists, this looks like a great start! However, a friend once compared a piece at this stage in the carving process to portrait by a five year old. Designs do develop gradually and they all have to start somewhere.

Naturally the first step is to carve out the rough shape of the design.  Once the proportions are correct or close its simply a matter of refining by degree.  The carving process is long and arduous, it would be unreasonable to expect a carving to look finished after a few hours.  A piece gradually gains its final form with each progressive pass of carving. Flaws, file marks or air bubbles must be corrected as greater degrees of refinement are established.  I will often alter designs as they take shape. Carving, like many artistic processes is quite intuitive.  It is a visual and physical exploration of form.  I frequently alter the proportions of the various elements in my designs to either correct anatomy or lend a more graceful flow.  

Progress picture of a wax carving for jewelry making.
I have left a bit of wax in the middle of the large flower to lend support to the hummingbird’s beak and the flower petals; otherwise these delicate parts would easily snap off during the carving process.

To protect the structural integrity of the design and compensate for the fragile nature of carving wax I leave supports in delicate spots on pieces that have open space combined with fine detail.  These supports will remain until the very end of the project.  Sharp tools are also essential.  With no working knowledge of wax carving it may seem like sharp tools would be easiest to craft with.  However, this is not the case.  Sharp tools are prone to skip and catch while a slightly dull tool will always burnish. All budding jewelers love partially dull carving tools until they begin to work on more intricate designs that would be broken by the pressure required to carve with a dull blade.  

A rough carving to be refined showing the process of working with wax.
The hummingbird begins to take shape nicely. His tail proved to be one of the more difficult aspects of the design for me. This first attempt is soon to be wax welded over completely.

Finishing is by far the most intensive and most time consuming part of the processes.  Once the overall carving is achieved, it must be meticulously burnished to absolute perfection!  As the form becomes more and more refined an ever softer and lighter touch is required to control sharp instruments and leave a flawless finish. Slow deliberate movements are key. Due to the small nature of jewelry items a slight slip of the hand can easily destroy an entire section of a design. Anything can be repaired, however, wax welding over a mistake can lead to a lengthy correction.  I spend much of the carving process under 3X magnification which is critical to such fine work.  

A necklace being created through the lost wax casting processes.
His tail ultimately took five or six tries before I was happy with the results. At this point I also realized the flower at the bottom was missing something and altered it accordingly.

There are several additional steps in the process that I could elaborate on and plan to in upcoming posts.  For example, design layout is absolutely critical and proper time must be spent in establishing a good foundation for a carving.  I have had a few false starts when I rushed this step and realized my carving would end up either too large or too small.  The only thing to do at that point is to start over.  Stay tuned for my next post describing my process for design layout.  

A wax carving for casting showing progress on a hummingbird necklace to be cast in silver.
The most tedious part of the process by far is finishing! A flawless finish in wax takes patience and light touch. Removing the supports left in a design is always the very last step.
An unfinished casting with a hummingbird in a circle with flowers.
Finally a casting!! It’s always rewarding to see all of your hard work pay off. This piece has been through some polishing, but is not fully finished just yet.

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