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Caramel Colouring.

Brian I

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In making my first netsuke, I had to come up with a colourant to use.


My budget was essentially nil, so I had to use things laying about the house.


The material I was working with was beef bone.


The piece only has to have it's eyes inlaid and one more paw left to do :)


I first tried super-concentrated tea, but I was not quite in love with the colour...


***A note about preparing the bone: I boiled the bone to degrease it several times, with water, washing liquid and bleach. When I had the final carving, I soaked it in 100% acetone (Not the finger-nail polish remover you get at the store, the one that comes with lanolin in it) for a 8 hours to get any additional fat out. I then took it out and let the acetone evaporate. Before putting the carving in the colourant, I rubbed it for a minute with household cleaning vinegar.***


Then I remembered how to burn sugar, namely to make caramel colour.


Caramel colour is made by essentially burning sugar. One of the main advantages of caramel colour is that it is (According to my research) extremely light-fast (Won't fade in sunlight) and cheap to make.


I 100% recommend that you make this colourant outside! It creates a lot of horrible smelling smoke so you have been warned. Or make this in a place that someone else won't get made at you for the horrid smell.


I used a large cup of sugar (I used raw cane sugar but I don't think it matters) and around 3.5 cups water.


I then boiled these in a saucepan and reduced the heat. Once the syrup thickened, I then turned the gas burner on high heat until it started smoking but was STILL liquid. When the solution was quite dark, I turned off the heat and added water to the pot, mixed it up and boiled it again, until it was a black-ish liquid.


I then put the carving it, cooked it for a few hours and then let the whole thing cool down. My idea was that this would allow the bone to capture the colour while it was still warm and then close off the colour when it cooled.


Once it all cooled, I took out the carving and it had this beautiful red-dark-brown colour. There were a few dark flecks, so I swished the carving around the cooled caramel colour to float the specks off. (You might want to filter the liquid through coffee filters when you make it.)


I let the carving dry out. The colour was too uniform so I used a house cleaning polish paste-ish liquid called Cif (Jif in other countries) to gently (With a LOT of rubbing) to lighten areas I wanted to push out to make the piece more 3-D and also to whiten around the mouth.


To see all of the photos of the piece, please check out http://netsuke.websitetoolbox.com/post/First-netsuke-98-finished-%29-5591578?trail=15#1


The colour penetrated very well into the bone and I did a cloth test (Rubbing it firmly several times with a cotton cloth) to make sure it would not come off.


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The carving has no smell :)


Even the caramel colouring (The finished colouring) has almost no smell. Perhaps a small, slightly cherry smell if you smell quite close to the cooking solution.


The caramel colouring seems to stick very well. After the item cooled and I washed the excess off, almost none of the colouring came off in warm water and soap.


I am going to try it on some wood today as I am quite curious.



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  • 2 months later...

Very cool, Brian, I have been trying to figure out a better way of coloring my own carvings, to help the design stand out a bit better.you definitely got a rich dark color to your piece. Would I be right in assuming that the color would be lighter with less time in the coloring, or does it just end up mottling the color on the piece. I suspect that the coloring would have a MUCH different affect on color of the marrow portion of a carving of deer antler as opposed to the denser outer portion of the antler. Any thoughts on this?

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Hi Rod. :)


I will be posting a full tutorial on the colouring in a couple of days here. How to make it and before and after shots with various materials. I think if you were to just dip a carving in for a few minutes while the finished dye is hot, you could get different shades.


I did a before and after shot with Bone, Elephant Ivory (Antique of course) and Antler.



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Hi Brian,


I am looking forward to the tutorial! A question, do you cleanse the piece with acetone or etch it with acetic acid before dying? (These two steps have been mentioned when preparing mammoth or elephant ivory prior to coloring.)



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