Amber can be cut, scraped, sawn, drilled, sanded, filed and
carved. It is always best to practice on some rough chunks before
starting to work on a valuable piece. Like all manual arts, working with
amber requires getting the "feel" of the material in order to get good
Sawing is best done with a diamond-tipped circular saw mounted on a small
bench motor. The work piece should be fed gently but firmly into the saw.
A fine-toothed jewelers saw can also be used if you wish to do the work by
hand, but then it is difficult to achieve a straight cut.
Shaping to the desired size and basic form is accomplished on a sanding
wheel or belt. Coarse grades (80 to 160 grit) are suitable for removing
material rapidly; finer grades are used for final touches or to work to
closer tolerances. Sanding and filing can also be done by hand, but of
course that is much slower. Intricate carvings may be made using a
Dremel-type tool and various dental-type burrs and saws.
After shaping to the desired size and form, the surface will still be
rough from the sanding, carving or filing. The final polishing is done on
a cotton buffing wheel mounted on the bench motor. It is important to use
the proper polishing compound with which to load the buffing wheel, and to
apply it frequently. We use a dental polishing compound from Germany, but
also suitable are Tripoli or any fine, neutral-colored polishing compound.
Avoid any strongly colored compound; it will discolor the surface of the
amber. A word of caution: hang on tight to the work piece; the sanding or
buffing wheel can grab the piece from your hand and dash it to the floor
or against the wall.
Very small pieces are difficult to handle, but it may be necessary in
order to get a better view of an insect inside. We place a piece of
double-faced Scotch tape on a finger tip and press the piece of amber on
it. With extreme caution we can work pieces down to a thickness of two to
Drilling is done also with the Dremel tool. We normally use a Nr. 62
twist drill to perforate a piece partially or completely to insert a
screw-eye or pass a bead cord through it. Again, gently but firmly, and
try to maintain a perfect alignment. If you insert the drill a second
time, after moistening it with vegetable or mineral oil, it will improve
the appearance of the perforation. That is, it will not be so obvious.
Amber may warm up to some degree during the sanding and buffing process,
but no harm will result if it is good quality amber. Some softer grades
of amber, presumably younger, may "run" on the sanding wheel, and some
artisans prefer to apply water as a coolant. But we always work with
"dry" and have no trouble.
Amber is a fossilized organic substance, in this case fossilized resin.
It is not a mineral. It is relatively soft (2-3 on the Mohs scale) and
can be scratched easily. By the same token it polishes easily, as
explained above. If dropped on a concrete or ceramic tile floor it may
break, chip or shatter. A drop on a wooden or asphalt tile floor should
not result in any damage. It is at least partially soluble in many
chemicals - alcohols, chloroform, acetone and others. When not worn it
should be stored in a soft-lined container or pouch. It should not be
exposed for long periods to air or to direct sunlight. It is believed
that exposure for long periods to air results in evaporation of some
volatile components and results in crazing and cracking of the surface in
three years or more. In the laboratory, exposure to strong ultra-violet
light for a week reduced a piece of amber to a pile of powder.
Application of a silicone-based wax (e.g., Turtle Wax) every 4-6 months
restores the shine and helps to reduce evaporation and perhaps oxidation.