The Egg: A Perfect Canvas for Carving
Reading Time: 5 minutes
Fragile and yet strong, the versatile egg has been the inspiration for many artists throughout history. Eggs of all sizes have been painted, dyed, bejeweled, waxed, etched, and carved into exquisite treasures worthy of being displayed in museums and palaces.
As a source of new life, the egg is a symbol of fertility, hope, and longevity in many countries. They’re given as gifts to commemorate religious ceremonies and to celebrate special occasions: engagements, weddings, the birth of a baby, and milestone anniversaries. It’s no wonder that nature’s creation, adorned in beauty, is a long-standing tradition that promises good health and posterity as the years unfold.
“There’s something special about the shape of an egg,” says Beth Ann Magnuson, an artisan from Bishop Hill, Illinois. “It’s the perfect canvas for creativity, whether one uses a paintbrush or something I discovered long ago — a high-speed drill for carving and etching intricate designs in the shell. It reminds me of Victorian lace with its delicate, web-like patterns.”
A newspaper article about egg carving caught her attention over 20 years ago. “I’ve always been involved with outdoor pursuits, such as flower farming, growing specialty crops, and designing wreaths intertwined with twigs, berries, blossoms, and feathers. I enjoy the look of wispy creations made from natural materials. The idea of creating sculptures from eggs was intriguing, so I called the woman featured in the article in hopes of getting some information and perhaps an instructional guide to learn on my own.”
Surprisingly, she was greeted with a warm welcome from Beverly Hander, with an invitation to visit and spend the day learning and practicing the technique. Beth Ann will always be grateful for such kindness and encouragement in helping her find her true calling. There’s nothing like spending time with an artist, absorbing new knowledge and inspiration.
The idea of handling a fragile object was initially overwhelming for Beth Ann, worried that an egg would surely crumble like Humpty Dumpty from the nursery rhyme. She soon learned that each one is remarkably sturdy and strong.
Eggshells are composed of calcium carbonate (95%), with small amounts of magnesium, calcium phosphate, and other organic matter, including protein. A nanostructured mineral associated with osteopontin, a structural protein found in bones, makes the framework quite strong.
Another factor is the egg’s arched shape, which distributes all the weight evenly within the structure, minimizing stress and strain. It’s the strongest at the top and bottom, which is why an egg won’t break when pressure is applied to both ends.
Learning the Ropes
Success in carving comes from practice and patience. It’s also knowing how to handle an egg gently in one’s hands and learning how to operate that high-speed engraving tool that many artists describe as slicing a knife through butter.
“It’s important to use one that’s lightweight and ergonomically designed,” explains Beth Ann, “because of the concentration and time an artist spends on just one egg. While it’s possible to make some basic cuts in an eggshell with a Dremel rotary tool with a top speed of 40,000 rpm (revolutions per minute), it’s best to use a drill with the capacity of 400,000 rpm to make those intricate piercings that one hopes to obtain.
“I’ve been using the 400XS model for many years, manufactured by SCM Sandblasting Company in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin. The price is affordable, and the company is wonderful about helping new and seasoned carvers with instructional videos and one-on-one assistance at the showroom.”
Every artist has their particular method in designing the cuts in an egg. Some use stencils, while others enjoy “drawing” freestyle with the drill, moving from one area to the next. Beth Ann describes herself as a doodler, choosing to pencil in a pattern first.
She enjoys using various sizes for her creations — from tiny bobwhite quail eggs to those from chickens, ducks, geese, turkeys, peafowl, rhea, pheasant, and partridges. Living in the countryside provides an opportunity for gathering eggs from neighboring farms. Still, there are also resources for purchasing emu, ostrich, and other varieties of bird eggs worldwide.
“One might think the process as limiting when using a simple object as a canvas,” Beth Ann says, “but each egg is unique because of its size, color, surface smoothness or coarseness, and thickness of the shell. There’s magic in pondering the possibilities ahead as I start etching and carving a design. It’s such joy creating something from nature.”
Once an individual is comfortable with using a drill, follow these instructions:
Prick a small hole at each end of the egg. Blow out the contents.
Pencil or stencil one’s design.
To avoid dust, use protective eyewear.
Use different drill bits to etch and pierce the eggshell.
When completed, soak the egg in a bleach solution and water to remove ragged bits of membrane and sterilize the inside of the egg. Ratio: one part bleach to five parts water. A warm water solution speeds up the soaking process with an average time of 15 to 20 minutes.
When dry, give the eggs two light coats of an archival spray that contains a UV (ultraviolet) shield. Beth Ann uses a satin finish spray that leaves a subtle, natural-looking sheen on the shell.
There are many ways to display the finished eggs using individual stands and pedestals made from acrylic glass, wood, metal, and other materials. They can also be hung with ribbons and tassels in shadow boxes, from a window, or nestled in a basket. There’s no limit to one’s imagination.
Beth Ann displays her Victorian lace eggs individually. Also, she incorporates them into beautiful wreaths, bird nests, and everlastings that she sells online on her Esty site: The Feathered Nest at Windy Corner.
Finding one’s style and niche will evolve naturally with practice and observation. Beth Ann suggests visiting egg artists if possible and taking classes to perfect one’s technique and skills. She’s always learning and enjoys connecting with others through The International Egg Art Guild, a non-profit organization devoted to promoting the art of egg decorating. Another resource is the World Egg Artists Association and World Egg Art Cyber Museum.
Beth Ann encourages others to try their wings with this amazing art-form. “Challenge yourself and be persistent. Yes, you’ll break a few eggshells along the way, but just imagine the joy you’ll feel when holding a completed egg sculpture in your hand that you created. It’s exhilarating!”
For more information:
The Feathered Nest at Windy Corner: https://www.etsy.com/shop/theNestatWindyCorner
World Egg Artists Association and World Egg Art Cyber Museum. www.eggartmuseum.com
Originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.