Sculpting Emu Eggs: The Color is in the Shell

Reader Contribution by Troy Griepentrog
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As the emu fad was passing in 1994, Chuck DeCourley and his wife, Sue, bought a pair of emus. He was looking for a marketable use for the eggs, perhaps something artistic, but simply painting the shells seemed too obvious. Then DeCourley learned of a unique feature of emu eggs — the shells are made of three distinct layers, each of a different color.

There are three primary layers in the shell of an emu egg. The outside is dark green. The middle layer is teal, and the inside layer is nearly white. Occasionally there is a fourth layer, which is thin and rather gray, between the outside layer and the teal layer. Carving the eggshells seemed to use the colors of each layer to the best advantage.

So in 1997, after doing some research, DeCourley purchased an engraving system. He taped a snowflake pattern onto an eggshell and started carving. That was a crude experiment, but it was the beginning of a hobby that has held DeCourley’s interest for more than a decade. In January 1998, DeCourley’s father, who was in a nursing home, suggested DeCourley try carving playing cards into an egg. That was supposed to be a practice project, too, but DeCourley was able to give the finished carving to his father for his 68th birthday. His father, being nearly blind at the time, was able to feel the precision carving of the egg and was pleased with the gift.

Getting Ready to Sculpt

To clean the eggs, DeCourley drills a three-eighths-inch hole into the large end of the egg with a diamond bit. Regular drill bits can cause hairline cracks that can’t be easily seen. These cracks would ruin the egg during the carving process. Eggs should be cleaned out when fresh or, at the very least, within three to four months of being laid. Some people use a sander to create a hole in the egg, but the holes generally get large.

Egg contents can be shaken out, or you can use an “egg-sucking bucket:” a vacuum device to remove the contents of eggs. After this, use a 25-percent bleach solution to remove the lining of the egg. Be sure to use rubber gloves when working with bleach, and avoid the fumes by working in a properly ventilated area. The solution only needs to be left in the egg for a few minutes, but then needs to be rinsed out thoroughly. The outside (dark-green) layer won’t fade if exposed to the bleach solution for a short amount of time, but if left for several hours will cause discoloration.

Shells are then coated with Krylon clear acrylic. This gives the eggs a non-yellowing, UV-resistant coating, but the carving will still turn a sort of sepia color if left in sunlight or under fluorescent lights. Carvings are best displayed under incandescent light. It is also important to protect the inside of the shells, as the white layer is only 0.005- to 0.006-inch thick. For this, you could use a mixture of 50 percent Elmer’s glue and 50 percent water. Coat the inside of the egg several times with this mixture prior to working on the egg. If you consider carving chicken or goose eggs, in which case you might have larger empty spaces or fine filigree work, this is an especially important part of the process.

When choosing a design, be careful to choose a pattern that is not under copyright protection if you plan to sell the carving. Then simply use a copy machine to reduce the pattern to the size you need and attach it to the eggshell with glue stick. The glue softens the paper; and if the paper creases during application, simply dampen the paper and reglue it. After the glue dries, you’re nearly ready to start carving, but remember: Safety first. The calcium dust caused by the carving process is fine. DeCourley recommends using a dust collector box with a vacuum system. He also sculpts the egg under a Plexiglas shield and wears earplugs while working, as the drill used in carving produces a high-pitched (and loud) noise.

Equipment for Carving Eggs

DeCourley’s tool of choice is a “Turbocarver,” which is an air-powered dentist’s drill. The hand piece is light and comfortable, it needs no lubricating oil and can carve with or without water. DeCourley’s preference is to carve without water, because when the water mixes with the dust it produces a mud-like substance. This is a second-best situation if you don’t have dust box to remove the dust as you sculpt.

Another option for the carving tool is “Dental Tech” hand piece. This uses no air or water to run, but needs to be oiled every four hours.

The carving tool requires a significant volume of air to work properly, but not a great deal of pressure. Only 70 pounds per square inch (psi) on the condenser is required to turn the bit an amazingly fast 400,000 to 450,000 rotations per minute (rpm). The burrs (bits) are carbide and diamond burrs purchased from a dental supply house.

DeCourley uses an inverted cone burr for the basic outlines of the pattern. Being right-handed, he works in a clockwise rotation, with the burr turning away from himself. This method cuts neatly through the pattern paper without making the edges of the paper rough. As you pull the tool toward you, you make larger cuts. Working away from yourself produces finer cuts. To maintain the pattern, it is best to work from the outside of the pattern toward the center.

An old sock filled with fish-tank gravel makes an excellent resting place for the eggshells while being carved. In addition, the artist usually holds the egg with one hand while carving with the other.

Keep an extra copy of the pattern handy for reference while carving. After the basic outlines are carved, you have the pattern sketched onto the shell. “Study the egg as you work. The egg talks to me like a canvas speaks to a painter,” DeCourley says.

The Finished Product

The quality of each carving improves with time and experience. How does DeCourley know when the carving is complete? “I ask myself, ‘What can I do to make this egg better? Nothing.’ Then I quit,” he says. Although some artists polish the finished work, DeCourley does not. “I leave the burr marks in there — it’s my signature,” he says. But the marks are few and small, so they’re not easily seen.

DeCourley has sculpted over 30 eggshells since he began, and has been featured in the Eggshell Sculptor Newsletter.

The eggs make great gifts for special occasions and sell for $100 to $500. “They’re not the everyday gift,” says DeCourley. Preparing each egg for carving can take 30 minutes to two hours. Carving the egg can take 10 to 50 hours or more. This is a rare art. Many people sell decorated eggs, but few people sell sculpted eggshells.

An investment in the basic carving system, including compressor, hand piece, dust collector and some burrs, will start at about $500.

Photos by Troy Griepentrog