Many people have written in asking how to tell if their Mahjong set is hand-carved.
It is a bit more complicated than you might think. But for purposes of this website we will consider hand-carved Mahjong anything that was not manufactured in bulk and has some human control over the images of the tiles.
Dee Gallo is an artist who has been able to figure out many of the lost techniques of the old Mahjong craftsmen. She designs and creates her own mahjong sets in addition to being able to copy or create tiles that are missing from other vintage sets. She writes in our book Mah Jongg The Art of the Game that once the game became really popular in the 1920s, craftsmen were not able to keep up with the demand and they had to shortcut their carving process. Bone tiles had images transferred to them with branding irons, perhaps making the tiles easier to carve. But I think people had to carve where it was branded, clean it up a bit, and painters always painted the tiles. If all of your tiles look exactly alike, you don't have a hand-carved set.
I would imagine a pantograph could be used on softer materials such as French Ivory and Chinese Bakelite, probably when the tiles were still soft:
"A pantograph (Greek roots παντ- "all, every" and γραφ- "to write", from their original use for copying writing) is a mechanical linkage connected in a manner based on parallelograms so that the movement of one pen, in tracing an image, produces identical movements in a second pen. If a line drawing is traced by the first point, an identical, enlarged, or miniaturized copy will be drawn by a pen fixed to the other. Using the same principle, different kinds of pantographs are used for other forms of duplication in areas such as sculpture, minting, engraving and milling."
From the Worlds of David Darling website:
You can see how following the lines of the bigger image can create lines on the smaller sized mahjong tile.
These are lovely French Ivory tiles made by Piroxloid. Although the color is off (sorry!) you can see that each tile is exactly the same. The C on the Red Dragon is perfect.
You can see a bit of shakiness to the lines. This tile would have been carved with a pantograph, especially given that this material is flammable!
These 5 Dots are obviously not done with a branding iron, at least not one that has all the Dots in the same place. You can see the spacing is different, but it is believed an iron would have been used for each Dot. I think the 5s were hand-carved given that there is variation.
From the same set, it looks like the Crak character was done with a branding machine as were the Chinese number 9s. The Arabic numbers look hand-carved because there are tiny differences.
These are from another set. The tiles look very similar to me, so perhaps a branding iron with all the information on it was used, including the numbers.
It is clear this set was hand-carved, at least the Craks were. The Wans are different shapes and sizes.
A wonderful Chinese Bakelite set that may have been hand-carved, possibly using a template of some sort. Certainly the claws of the bird are different in each, as are the chest feathers. The leaves are different too. And because of the hand carving each bird has a different expression. Be sure to notice the meanders around the outside ring of the One Dot and the abstract bats at the top and bottom of the White Dragon.
These phoenix may have also been hand-carved using a template. There are minor differences, giving each tile a unique look. The #1s were added by a later owner who needed to know these were the One Bams.
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