Carving Tagua Nuts, the Vegetable Ivory

by Captain Bill

Carving Tagua Nuts, the Vegetable Ivory, Save the Elephants


Some of the most interesting souvenirs to bring back from Iquitos Peru and the Amazon Rainforest are miniature sculptures carved from vegetable ivory, the mature fruit of the Yarina Palm, Tagua nuts. They have the look and feel of elephant ivory, but are a plentiful, renewable, rainforest resource.

The best vegetable ivory sculptures are works of art. Even simple primitive carvings take hours. Artistic pieces can take days.

Tagua nut carvings from the nuts of the Yarina Palm Tree

As one artist, Matt Grimes, told me “It’s a hard material to work with. Tagua nuts are covered with a fibrous husk, are hollow in the middle, and dense. Keeping the tools sharp is necessary. Dull tools chip instead of slice.”

Matt is my son. Keeping the tools sharp is a sore subject. I came home to discover all of my drill bits, hole punches and screw drivers imbedded in home made Black Cherry wood handles with the tips sharpened, customized, and converted into various sized and shaped scrapers, and chisels.

“But Dad, you don’t use drill bits anymore.”

He’s right, not those drill bits.

Homemade tools for carving tagua nuts

On a visit to Iquitos last year Matt became fascinated with Tagua and has focused his artistic ability on the sculpture of Tagua nuts ever since. For anyone interested in carving, I am lurking and Matt is posting at the Woodcarving Illustrated Forum,  the Carving Tagua Nuts thread.

Tagua nut carvings by Matt Grimes

Save the Elephants, buy vegetable ivory carvings

I read a recent article in the New York Times, reporting that eBay  will Ban the Sale of Elephant Ivory.

“In response to growing pressure from international law enforcement agencies and conservation groups, eBay, the online auction giant, announced Monday that it would ban all commerce in ivory, including most heirlooms, to avoid providing a market that will encourage the slaughter of endangered elephants.”

The fruit of the Yarina Palm, Tagua nuts, save the Elephants

If you are in Iquitos Peru looking for an interesting souvenir, hold a few pieces of sculpted vegetable ivory in your hands. Heft them, rub them, feel the smooth texture. I bet you will like the look and feel of them as much as Matt and I do. Or contact Matt Grimes to customize a special sculpture just for you. His email is; matt (at) dawnontheamazon dot com.

Matt Grimes, carving tagua nuts

In this world of mass produced plastic nick knacks, a unique work of art carved from the fruit of the Yarina Palm will trigger the memories of your travel adventure to Iquitos Peru and the Amazon Rainforest.

Carving Tagua Nuts, the Vegetable Ivory, Save the Elephants

Bill Grimes, Iquitos Peru

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matt Grimes November 10, 2008 at 1:05 pm

I agree that one of the best things about the tagua nut as a carving material is the eco-friendly aspect. When the tagua nuts ripen the husk or “cabeza” falls to the ground and is easily harvested from the forest floor without any trees being cut down. Tagua also reduces the demand for elephant ivory.

I would suggest to anyone wanting to get really good at carving tagua nuts to carve everyday for as long as your schedule allows. While I have received some bad press for my home made tools, I strongly recommend taking the time to make your own. You can buy tools but they will be made for wood carving and will require some adjustments made to both bevel and profile. This is a unique craft and only you will know what size and shaped tool you will need. Happy carving, collecting or both.

2 Bill November 10, 2008 at 4:41 pm

Hi Matt, thanks for the insight on tagua carving. Your tools look very sharp. How long did it take you to do the great carving of the bird in the top photo?

3 Matt Grimes November 13, 2008 at 9:35 am

I remember it taking a day to carve and mount the legs into the body. That part has to be done just right or there’s no point going further. Another morning was spent inlaying the eyes, beak, tail and finish sanding. I admit that I am probably the worlds slowest carver.

You should dig out that carving knife I made for you and go sit on the balcony with a nice block of some exotic wood and make chips. Now that would be relaxing.

4 Bill November 13, 2008 at 10:36 am

I don’t have to dig out the carving knife you made me. It is right here beside the keyboard. So far it has not made a single chip, but you are probably right about it being relaxing. I would be more of a whittler than a carver.

You’ll be pleased with the large sized tagua nuts Marmelita found for you. They are the biggest ones I’ve seen.

5 Mike March 20, 2009 at 3:55 pm

i would like your direction of e-mail for sent to you some pictures about my work in tagua nut. Thank you.

6 Matt Grimes June 27, 2009 at 8:52 am

For more images of tagua carvings that I have done and other information on the subject of carving check out my new blog.

7 Captain Bill June 27, 2009 at 4:15 pm

Hi Matt, I followed the link to your blog about carving, sketching and watercolors. As you say on your blog, you are a “visual image guy”. Your blog can be built into a community of carvers and artists. I wish you the best of luck.

8 Alessandra Thornton October 3, 2009 at 1:38 am

I really enjoy to read your interest about Tagua and how your son have begin to develop this art in America. Wonderful figurines or sculptures from Peru, Iquitos. We also produce Tagua in Ecuador and as you have stated, this art is preserving the woods and the forests. You don’t need to cut the three to get the tagua nuts from the “elephant palm” and that means less forest is being cut in order to open land for cattle and banana plantations in Ecuador.

The Amazon forest is preserved, the rhinos and elephants in Africa and India don’t need to be hunted anymore because this is the “vegetable ivory” and the income generated from handcarved tagua sculptures,and goods is going directly to the artisans communities in my country.

I Love tagua, I sell a lot of tagua items from Ecuador in my web site:

Continue with your wonderful job, you are teaching your son to do something worthy for the whole society and the mother nature.

9 glo October 12, 2009 at 7:54 am

Hi, Have just recently learned about tagua. Your work is absolutely amazing. I live in Toronto. My daughter in Newfoundland is a carver. I’d love to get some tagua for her to try. Can you tell me where to purchase it? It seems you have someone who gathers it for you. How forunate! I’m sure it must be available commercially but haven’t found it anywhere yet, except in huge lots to wholesalers. Thanks for any suggestions.

10 Matt Grimes October 12, 2009 at 9:18 pm

Thank you Alessandra, I appreciate the nice compliment. As far as where to buy tagua, I can’t offer much. I have some thoughtful people get them for me. If your ever in Iquitos, they are plentiful. But from Toronto,I would probably search the internet. I don’t know which dealer would be best. I must warn you that carving tagua is kind of addictive.

It’s hard to believe that this article is only a year old. I feel like I have taken a giant leap forward with my carving since then.

I have a tagua frog carving tutorial on my blog that shows how I go about carving them. I wouldn’t share my secrets with just anyone……..Yeah I would.

11 Lindsay December 6, 2009 at 5:56 pm

Hi, I am so excited to find your site, and see your beautiful art. I recently bought some whole tagua nuts with the intention of cutting them into slices for jewelry. I had not considered that this would be difficult. Can you help me with some advice on how to safely cut them into thin (like 6mm) slices an drill holes through them?
Thank you,

12 Matt December 19, 2009 at 11:56 am

Thanks Lindsay,
A safe way would be to clamp the nut in a vise and use a small toothed hand saw. I use a small coping saw. For the hole in the center any drill, rotary tool or small chisel will do. If you use a table or bandsaw be prepared for the nut to become a projectile.

Good luck

13 Shelagh Worsell June 28, 2010 at 11:39 am

Hiya, I have a set of counters made for the game of Housey-Housey. My father was a collector of odd things way back in the early 30s. These are part of his collection. I cannot tell what they are made from. Not plastic at that time, could be a light wood, but I now wonder could they be from Tagua nuts.
The counters are 20 cms x 20 cms round shape. Is it possible that these are made of this wonderful product?
Also he had two nuts – one was rough on the outside the other was highly polished like a tiger skin. We never knew what they were, but they were about 50/60 cms and the three sides were each about 30 cms. Is that the shape of a Tagu nut. I am quite excited that at long last I may have made a discovery!
Many thanks.

14 Shelagh Worsell June 28, 2010 at 11:42 am

By the way, I am wanting to buy a statue made from the Tagua nut. Which site would have the most variety, please?

15 merv October 15, 2010 at 2:54 pm

can you tell me about a carving i have?
its asmall nut of a owl and asmaller owl carved inside,1to1.5inch

16 David J. Borek, Inc February 15, 2011 at 1:46 pm

I am interested in your carvings and if you would be interested in selling them wholesale so we can market them. I wouuld also like to know if you can carve other things we could make up and have you carve them from turnings you do or the turnings we can make and ship them back to you. I love making boxes and cutting threads into the lids.

Can you sell us the nuts in hundreds of lb at a time ?
Thank you, David

17 Gail July 26, 2011 at 7:17 am

Hi Bill:

Just came accross your blog. You have some very nice carvings. I would love to be able to carve but am scared of sharp tools plus don’t consider myself capable of carving anything, so to keep my hands busy creating something, I’m into beading pieces of jewelry (for me, family and friends).
I became interested in tagua about 10 years or so ago while living in Ecuador when we were at a beach on a holiday vacation and had an artisan come up with a few pieces of carved tagua nut animals (bought a few that day) and was hooked.
Came back to live in the U.S. and started a website business selling mainly tagua nut beads and carry some whole nuts for customers like you who are into carving. If you are interested in whole nuts, please visit our website.
Keep up with your nice carvings.


18 Stephanie August 10, 2011 at 9:22 pm

I’m looking to start making jewelry out of Tagua nuts except most of the nuts that can be purchased do not have enough holes. What would you suggest to drill a hole in a tagua sliced bead? I’m afraid a power drill would be too intense and crack the nut.
Any suggestions would be wonderful.
Thank you so much!

19 tagua carvings April 22, 2012 at 3:15 pm

Nice! We love tagua animal carvings!

20 nick sakovich July 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm

I would like your permission to use one of your photographs of the carved ivory nut for my website. I am doing an article on ivory nut palms. Thank you, Nick

21 joe May 23, 2013 at 11:46 am

your carvings are cool i also work with tagua nuts i love them but i am finding a lot of waste sadly due to the hole in the center i have looked and looked for ways to discover how the hole may run so i can minimize waste to no avail any suggestions please if you do send me an email thank you

22 Silvester June 17, 2013 at 10:35 am

I have a question about GLUEING tagua nuts…

I have yet to find a single nut large enough for a piece I have in mind. How well do the nuts take wood glue? I am considering doing a mortise and tenon joint to fit two (or three) together to make one slab about 3/8″ thick x 2″ wide x 3″ long. I need another piece 1/4″ thick x 1 1/4″ wide x 3″ long that I will likely pin and glue – that is, assuming regular wood glue will hold.

Also, the voids inside are going to be a slight proiblem for me, I’m hoping to fill them with wood glue mixed with carving scraps and sanding dust.

23 tony March 22, 2015 at 3:44 am

I found these nut carvings in a shop in Tarpon Srings Florida I was wondering if you had carved them?Or if it’s another man?

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