Creating Hanafuda Tiles

By Tony Watson

I had a bunch of good quality orphan mahjong tiles that I wanted to use for a project inspired by a post on one of the Mahjong Collecting Facebook sites, so I thought I would share the process I adopted for this particular project – creating Hanafuda tiles. Compound of 花 (hana, “flower”) + 札 (fuda, “card”).


To remove the carving from the tiles I used my linisher, but a belt sander would work equally well.

I mounted a new #80 grit belt to take off material quickly and with less smell (a worn belt heats up the bone and it stinks!). I press the tile lengthwise onto the belt, using the fence as a backstop to avoid potential snatching, checking frequently and rotating the tile 180 ̊ to ensure even sanding, stopping when the carving disappears. Repeat for all the tiles.

Then unmount the #80 belt and install a worn #120 grit belt, holding the tile lengthwise again, pass it gently across the surface for 5 seconds, moving continually side to side, removing most of the previous sanding marks. Repeat for all the tiles.
Next I use increasingly fine grades of wet & dry sandpaper glued onto a hard plastic sheet; I know that many favour MicroMesh pads, but they give a slightly pillowed finish to the tiles, which is not what I desired. I do 5 passes of the tile lengthwise on #240 grit, then 10 passes on #600 grit (you can hear the change in note as the previous marks are removed), followed by 10 passes on #1000 grit, and finally a few passes on a wet #2000 grit. This produces a nice semi-gloss finish which is needed for the carving & painting process; if you omit this, the paint will bleed into the fine sanding lines, producing a blurry image, which will need sanding anyway.

To carve the tiles, I select the image I am going to use, open it in Paint program, flip it horizontally to produce a mirror image, save it, then re-size it in Word or Visio to fit the tile and print it (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Now cut out the image and glue it face-down onto the face of the tile with PVA glue and allow to dry (Figure 2).

Figure 2.

Wet the paper and gently roll off the paper, leaving the image transferred into the glue on the tile. Note:- do not be tempted to pre-wet a load of tiles, that will cause the image to bleed into the glue, do them individually (Figure 3).

Figure 3.

Allow it to dry again, then using that image as a guide, carve the outline using a fine cylindrical burr in a Dremel or Dental drill.
Wet the image and rub it off, then refine the carving using an appropriate burr.
 Flood the image with paint, allow to dry, then scrape off the excess paint with a Swiss Army knife, finally passing the tile a couple of times on #2000 grit sandpaper (Figure 4).

Figure 4.

A word about the carving & painting; obviously it’s not practical to just apply paint directly onto the surface of the bone, as it would get rubbed off with play, so a different approach has to be adopted, basically the same as used for Mahjong tiles. A hatched or ridged pattern is used to simulate a solid colour background, as in the red sky and green fields in the right-hand tile above; this allows the paint to lie in the engraved lines and not be rubbed away.

A different approach might be used to good effect on images like Deer or Boar; here the whole of the image can be engraved, using tiny strokes to simulate fur, then details like eyes, mouth, ears etc can be carved.

The body is flooded with paint, avoiding the details which are then picked out in black.

So here are the next 8 of the set…
On banners, the whole body can be ground away, avoiding any lettering which will stand out white (Figure 5).

Figure 5.

Here are the next couple of months work (Figure 6 and 7), I’ve tried to inject some texture into the leaves of the Iris with fine striations, and the petals by leaving the central vein white.

The Clouds are just swirls, done with a spherical burr (Figure 7).

You will notice that I have indulged myself by replacing the Japanese Grass script on the banner with my nickname…

Figure 6.

Figure 7.
These next flowers (Figures 7) were a bit of a challenge, trying to render them looking like blossom rather than blobs of colour – I might need to enhance the detail with a fine pen.

The bird was a bit of a challenge to try to convey the feathers while retaining a bit of definition… I might need to work on this.

I also tried to replicate the bark effect of the different trees here, and an open-weave on the curtain.

In Figure 8 the leaves turned out a lot better than I thought that they might. The Deer turned out very nicely, but I’m not very happy with the Maple leaves, I’d like to add a bit more colour, so maybe some fine hatched lines?

Figure 8.

Just for info, carving and painting 4 tiles takes about 2 hours… At least 4 different burrs and several different colour paints.

And now the final 3 months work (Figure 9).
Figure 9.
Below you can see the full set (Figure 10).

Figure 10. Hand-carved Hanafuda bone and bamboo tiles. 30 x 21 x 12mm.

And here is the cute little sliding front box, only 5″ cube (125mm), made from bamboo flooring, with 4 little drawers and brass pulls (Figures 10 and 11).

Figure 10.

Figure 11.