Seal Carving

Materials

Traditional materials include bronze, stone, wood, ivory, whatever will carve! Some people have gotten good results with fir and pine. Be wary of Chinese stones, they do contain silica and other toxic materials, these are what they call soft stones. In English this term is normally applied to soapstone and alabaster and the like so it can be a bit confusing. The Chinese use soapstone as well though its less common, I highly recommend soapstone instead of these if you make your own blanks. I found a good link that describes the actual materials of Chinese seals in English, it's also a good reason to use soapstone since these have free silica and sometimes cinnabar! They are also a bit harder, though I think this is not very noticeable, at least the few I've carved using Chinese blanks seemed no different in any serious way.

Traditional Chinese seal materials links, excellent!!!

Soapstone and Safety

I am not an expert on this subject, you must make sure whatever methods you use are safe. Thanks to some modern books on the subject I think I know what needs to be done for safe soapstone cutting and carving. Of course, you don't know if I'm a nut case, so you should investigate on your own as well if you plan to do this! For all you know, I could still be using white lead as a lubricant and asbestos hot pads.

Asbestos

It's possible that some soapstones have asbestos in them, if they do, they are supposed to have a fibrous look to them. The instant your soap stone looks fibrous, toss it! One unlucky asbestos exposure can have bad effects. Since you can buy soapstone from reputable companies that guarantee their soap stone is asbestos free, I recommend going that route.

Silicosis

Apparently the risk of this is very low with soapstone, it doesn't have a lot of free silica and what it has is embedded in the talcs which rips up long before you refracture the silica. Using a hacksaw, the dust just fell to the floor, I didn't notice any on my blue-black apron or on my glasses, nor did I see anything drifting through the sunlight. Using rasps and files, nothing seem to get above waist level once again. I'm just carving up enough for seals, so a day will probably let you finish up 20-30 blanks! I would recommend working outside unless you want to spill a can of baby powder in your workplace. Luckily the actual seal carving is not the messy, you can do this indoors. You probably only need a good dust mask if even that for the cutting and smoothing, it's less dangerous than sawdust.

Now here is a question. What about silicosis? I gave up rock carving because I was warned about silicosis.
Most of the soapstones are asbestos free with low or nonexistent silica content, see the OSHA links. If you need a mask, a dust mask won't cut it. However I will note that there are children's classes that use soapstone.

A comment from Bob, sorry I forgot the last name!
Silicosis is an easy infirmity to avoid by using a properly fitting type CE abrasive-blasting respirator. Check your local hardware store for them. Or you can contact one of the many manufacturers of them North and 3M are two that I've had dealings with in the past but I'm sure you could do a Google search and come up with plenty of other companies. But for your needs depending on the type of tools you are using you may only need a dust mask to filter out what you chip away. But good respiratory protection is important.

OSHA info on soapstone :
OSHA Soapstone Info link #1
OSHA Soapstone info link #2

Types of Soapstone

There are two types of soapstone, talc and steatite. Steatite is black, talc comes in many colors and patterns. Also there are translucent and opaque soapstones. Use what you like, they both carve well. Some rock samples from the local lapidary store:
Soapstone
Soapstone comes in a wide variety of colors and patterns, I have had the best luck carving the translucent stones that show no apparent layering. Some soapstones have very pronounced layers, these have a tendency to split along the layers, you cannot use powerful cutting strokes when using these stones. Some soapstone has a crumbly texture, I don't recommend this type for seal carving. Try the stone before buying a large amount of it.

I don't use power tools for carving and I don't recommend using them for amateur stone or woodworking for that matter! Power sanders and other goodies like that can generate huge amounts of very fine dust, not good for the in home studio. I have now bought soapstone in quantity and slabbed it. I don't mind paying out some money for the polished blanks, but they are a bit expensive and others on the list may have trouble finding a source for them. In addition you can make shapes and sizes that are not readily available when you make your own blanks. The vast majority of the dust will be talc, as in talcum powder! During actual carving with a knife unless you cut yourself, it's probably very safe since the chips are big and visible.

Tools for Making Soapstone Seal Blanks

 

Rough soapstone is fairly cheap, you can get a goodly supply for about $30 dollars. You can make a great number of smaller blanks from this amount. You can also make unusual sizes and shapes easily and you are not stuck with the standard square blanks. For cutting the blanks I used a coarse hacksaw blade, followed by a wood rasp and then coarse and fine metal files. The metal files left the stones pretty flat, a few minutes with 1000, 1500 and 2000 grit wet or dry used with water put a nice polish on them. I then used a good paste wax on the stone to help bring out the colors. A small square, a brass file brush, a piece of glass and a homemade bench hook is all you need for cutting up the stone. The glass is used as backing for the wet or dry sandpaper which I recommend using with water to keep the dust down.

Tools for making rough blanks
Rough stone shaping  tools
Tools from left to right:

  • Optional files, large mill bastard, large flat bastard, Nicholson or other high quality source
  • Four in one rasp, third form the left, Nicholson or other high quality source
  • Brass file cleaning brush, do not use the steel ones!!!
  • Coarse, medium and fine wet or dry sandpaper, I often don't bother with polishing the blanks stone tools
  • Hacksaw with coarse blade, blade manufacturer not critical
  • Bench hook to hold stone off the bench and steady while cutting
  • Small, cheap square, great precision is not required, I often just eyeball it!

Alternative Materials

Linoleum seals
If you can't find the stone blanks, you can use linoleum, the seal shown above was done this way many years ago. Also any hard wood that will last a long time, apple wood and other fruit woods are a good choice. Use linoleum or wood carving tools. You can also use brass, one of the plastic ivory substitutes or tagua nuts. I've played with all of the above for making seals.

Carving Stone

The craft is not hard, the hard part is figuring out what to carve. If you look on the web, you can find a fair number of seal examples but if you want a book on lettering styles, I've never seen one in English.

For stones, you can use a 1/8" square lathe bit stuck in a handle and sharpened to a point. You can often find cheap stone carving tools in various lapidary and Chinese stationary stores. Before you start carving, check your blank for flaws and possible weak spots. I give any suspicious spot a quick bend to see if the seal will break. It's better that it break now than when you are pushing on it with a sharp knife! For the actual carving I played with several small carving tools I had kicking around, they all worked fairly well, so use any carving knife you feel comfortable with. A friend of mine brought back a set of carving tools from China for me. The cutting angle of the tools was about 35 degrees, which is slightly blunter than your average plane or chisel blade. One of the local art stores has a bigger set available for like $20, check out lapidary stores as well. I use some inexpensive diamond files to sharpen them, it takes a minute or so each with the diamond! Give them a good stropping with leather after this and they will be more than sharp enough.

For proofing your seals, I recommend testing them first with a non-toxic stamp pad ink so you can make any final corrections without the presence of cinnabar. In addition to stamping it, you can also use fine rice flour or the like to smooth over the stone and verify your cuts. Leveling off the flour with a chopstick is the traditional way to perform this check.

Tools for Carving
Seal Carving Tools

  • Just about any kind of knife, cutting angle should be in the 30-40 degree range
  • Your favorite sharpening stones, I use diamond hones and a leather strop
  • Metal scribe or Sharpie marking pens, coarse, medium and fine for marking out.
  • Acetone for cleaning sharpie off stones (optional) a non-toxic substance called A-BEN-A-QUI or other graffiti remover may work for this
  • Rice flour or pastry flour
  • Chopstick or a piece of stiff paper
  • Toothbrush, used to clean stone after carving
  • Stamp pad with ink, any color but I suggest red
  • Seal ink

What to Carve

Now comes the tough part, knowing what to carve. Following is some poor examples, you can find much better ones on period paintings. Once you've carved a seal, you have to buy seal ink as well, which is far more toxic! It's usually a mercury compound, cinnabar. Note that the Chinese like seals to look beat up and old for art purposes, older is better!

Seals

Some of my seals, the newest are in the upper left hand corner. Note the images are not to scale, my largest seal is 2 1/2" x 1 3/4", the smallest a little less than 3/8" square.
SealsSealsSealsSealsSeals
Seals
The small round one in the lower right was carved from the end of a round brass rod.

Questions about seals

I continue to research Japanese seals/kao for the purpose of signing official Baronial scrolls and have not been able to find anything on how to design one's kao. I can find things discussing them but nothing (so far) about how to do your own. Does anybody have any ideas or leads?
If you can find reproductions of documents from the period your interested in that will give you a good start. That will show you the typical script styles used, etc. If you already know what modern characters you want carved, I have friends with character dictionaries for the various seal scripts. For signatures (kaou) almost anything goes.

I'm not sure about Japanese seals, but in China, the seals usually consisted of one's name written in great seal characters...we had a seal carved for Phillip in Hong Kong a number of years back and the carver converted his name into characters that sounded like Phillip's name, thence into great seal characters. I also know that historically, the great seal characters were used to carve seals, and these seals were used to seal documents, including an indication of ownership of scrolls.
Later on Japan followed these forms as well, but I'm not sure how far back it goes. Sengoku for sure. Probably Heian-jidai as well but I would need to look at my art sources. During Edo even commoners were using them. You are not limited to seal characters though for art usage.

Books

Note that NONE of the books I have found so far show actual carving techniques. They just show placement and character shapes along with some theory if you are lucky. I recommend checking out wood carving books for carving techniques, these are probably as close as you can get.

Books in English:

Chinese Seals by T. C. Lai, Seattle : University of Washington Press, 1976. ISBN 0295955171 Shows a very wide variety of seals styles and patterns, highly recommended, especially since it is one of the few books in English on the subject!

Chinese Seals, The Collection of Ralph C. Lee by Na Chih-liang Shows a very wide variety of seals styles and patterns, recommended, it is one of the few books in English on the subject!

Chinese Seal Gallery, Shanghai Museum Nice pictures but the price charged in the US for this is silly. Go to Shanghai and see the real seals and buy the book for $3 US. I have seen several other books in English but I have not seen a copy of them so I don't have a clue if they are worth buying.

Books in Chinese:

Zhuanke Xinshi Meixue De Zhankai ISBN 7-80517-898-4 A weird book on the theory of teaching seal carving, it doesn't cover techniques but it has many seal pictures. Since it's $6 US, it is worth buying just for them. Available at Shanghai Museum and the Art Book Store near City of Books in Shanghai.

There's a series that was originally published in Japan in the 90's for calligraphy and seals that have been republished in China, they are individually boxed and they are a pale yellow gold in color. Prices are $6-7 US, the ISBN for the one that shows the actual seal for a given seal character is 7-5305-2496-8. Available at Shanghai Museum and the Art Book Store near City of Books in Shanghai. There are multiple books in this series, if you are interested in calligraphy, they are well worth picking up. The quality of Mainland Chinese publications has increased tremendously, the colors and the paper used for art books is very good and the prices are very reasonable. I brought over 90 lbs of books back China and didn't spend a lot of money. It might be possible to mail order some of these but I suspect you have to be fluent in Mandarin to do so!

Books in Japanese:

There are a fair number of books on seal carving available in Japanese according to Amazon Japan. The problem is they are expensive and I don't know what they contain. Since many range in the $50+ range before you add in shipping, I think I will wait until my next trip to Japan. I have not purchased any of the Japanese language versions of these books, but I have some of the Chinese reprints of some of their earlier books.
Nigensha - Japanese Art and Calligraphy books

Links

Origin of Chinese symbol/calligraphy - ancient Chinese Calligraphy history
Various seal links