Scrimshaw is a traditional folk art form in which fanciful designs are carved into bone or faux ivory and then colored with ink. The maritime art form originated around the late 17th century from commercial whaling and reached its peak by the mid-19th century. Whale’s teeth, walrus tusks, or elephant ivory were used as scrimshaw material. Whaling scenes, ships, naval battles, and coats of arms are the traditional subjects of scrimshaw designs. Scrimshander is the name for scrimshaw artisans.
Ivory or bone are the traditional scrimshaw materials. As elephant ivory is prohibited for use today, faux ivory, shell or acrylic polymer are often used nowadays. Bone options may include whale bone, camel bone, horns of various animals, walrus tusks, mammoth tusk,s and more. At Noblie, we use buffalo horn and mammoth tusk – a rare and expensive material – to craft knife scales for our scrimshaw knives. We use these legally available materials to secure the preservation of wildlife elephants.
A scribing tool or a needle and pin vise are needed to make controlled, precise etch for scrimshaw. Also, a scrimshander will need glass marking pencils, black ink, swabs or toothpicks for inking, sandpaper (300 grit or higher), and fine steel wool or a soft cloth for polishing.
Creating scrimshaw is a delicate art that requires a keen eye, a steady hand, and a considerable amount of patience. Here are the main steps involved in the process:
Each of these steps requires a meticulous approach and careful execution to ensure a beautifully finished piece of scrimshaw art.
First, the bone surface has to be polished to seal any pores that might be present in the material. Beeswax or a similar sealing agent is spread and rubbed into the surface with a cloth over and over until the material has a uniform surface. Sealing keeps the ink that is applied onto the bone from spilling over into unwanted sections. Polishing and sealing must be done with any surface intended to be used for the scrimshaw art.
A scrimshander needs to make sure that a great light source has been setup to be able to clearly see the etched lines and dots on the working surface. When light beams at the correct angle, lines and dots on the surface of scrimshaw material are easier to see. Often, the light source or scrimshaw material has to be moved around to find the best angle for viewing.
There are special pencils out there that are the best for drawing on slick surfaces and will even write on glass. First, a pretty loose sketch of general outlines is drawn on the material, only meant as a guideline for what is to come. Then more detail on darker areas is added, to indicate spots for the upcoming intensive stippling of crosshatch scratching. Scrimshaw is often worked from dark to light, with scratching or stippling in the darkest areas first.
Dotting a surface with tiny stabs is called a stipple while making small cuts is known as the scratch technique. When stippling, outlining holes are kept very close together to provide fine details of the image. With the scratch technique, a modeling knife or a similar tool is used to cut shallow lines that create the details of the design. It is important to create lines by pulling the knife, not pushing it, and applying as little pressure as needed when cutting.
With the stipple technique, proper shading depends on the depth and the quantity of stipples in an area. Closer and deeper dots are made in an area that is a dark shade. Fewer dots, farther apart, are needed for a lighter shade, while the lightest parts of the image require no dots at all.
With the scratch technique, shading depends on how close the lines are to each other, how deep they are, and how many lines the scrimshander makes (or even makes crosshatching or basket weave). Basically, the shading strategy is similar to the stipple technique, just replacing dots with lines.
After the image is etched, either by stipple or scratch, the surface is inked using a cotton swab. The ink must be applied gently at a first pass, to examine how the material is imbibing the ink.
After inking, a tissue or soft cloth is used to wipe away the excess ink. Steel wool can be used to remove any ink haze left on bone or horn – however, it is not recommended for faux ivory or polymer. Ink or haze left on plastic or polymer materials can be rubbed away with a little rubbing alcohol applied to a soft cloth.
Traditionally, scrimshaw artistry was performed on whalebone or ivory. However, due to ethical and conservation concerns, many modern scrimshanders have transitioned to alternative materials. Today, materials like bone, horn, or synthetic ivory substitutes are commonly used. It’s essential to ensure that the material chosen is ethically sourced and complies with local regulations regarding the use of animal products.
The primary tool needed for scrimshaw is a sharp engraving tool such as a scribe or scrimshaw needle. Additionally, fine-grit sandpaper is essential for preparing the surface of the material. To transfer designs onto the material, artists may use transfer paper or tracing paper. Inking the engraved lines requires good quality ink, traditionally lampblack or india ink, although colored inks can also be used for adding additional hues to the artwork. Lastly, a Renaissance Wax can be used to protect the finished piece.
Shading in scrimshaw is achieved not by the depth of the engraving but by the density of the lines or dots. More densely packed lines or dots create darker shading, while lighter shading requires a more spaced-out pattern. Detailing in scrimshaw is a meticulous process, requiring a steady hand and fine engraving tools to create intricate designs. It’s a practice of patience and precision, with each puncture contributing to the overall image.
There are several methods to transfer designs onto your scrimshaw material. One common technique is to use transfer paper which allows you to trace a design onto the surface. Another method is to draw the design directly onto the material using a pencil, which can then be engraved over it. Alternatively, some artists prefer to work freehand, engraving designs directly onto the material without a pre-drawn guide, although this method requires a high level of skill and confidence in one’s artistic ability. Each of these methods has its own set of advantages and can be chosen based on the artist’s preference and level of experience.
Video credit: Newport Scrimshanders.
Upon the culmination of the engraving process, it’s imperative to scrutinize the work meticulously once more. This step entails juxtaposing your engraving against the original image to ascertain the level of accuracy and likeness achieved. Should some areas necessitate additional refinement, this is the opportune moment to make those essential touch-ups to enhance the precision and overall aesthetics of your scrimshaw piece.
In wrapping up, I wish to underscore several pivotal considerations that could significantly impact the outcome of your scrimshaw endeavors:
Patience is a Virtue: Scrimshaw is a craft that calls for a gentle hand and a patient spirit. Rushing through the process could lead to irreversible mistakes or a finished piece that falls short of your envisioned masterpiece. It’s crucial to adopt a methodical and attentive approach throughout the journey.
Heed Your Body’s Signals: If fatigue sets in or your eyes feel strained, heed these signals and step away from your work. It’s more prudent to resume with a fresh set of eyes and a reinvigorated spirit, which will ultimately reflect in the quality of your work.
Direct Engraving Versus Tracing: It’s advisable to steer clear of attempting to engrave the entire image by merely tracing a printed drawing. Such an approach could stifle your artistic flair and lead to a lackluster result. The aim should be to breathe life into the engraving, which often comes from a deeper understanding and interpretation of the image.
Tackle in Segments: Rather than ambitiously attempting to cover vast expanses of the drawing in one sweep, it’s wiser to tackle small sections at a time. This way, you can devote your attention to filling in and coloring each section meticulously before moving on to the next, thereby ensuring a more harmonious and detailed outcome.
Adhere to the Light-to-Dark Principle: A golden rule in scrimshaw is to progress from light to dark as you engrave. Commence with light, delicate punctures, barely allowing the needle to kiss the surface of the plate, before gradually darkening the necessary areas. This technique provides a solid foundation for building up the contrasts and depths crucial for a captivating piece.
Master the Art of Shading: Shading in scrimshaw is not about the depth of the punctures but rather the frequency of punctures within a specific area. By increasing the number of punctures, you can achieve a richer grayscale, which is instrumental in rendering a more nuanced and realistic portrayal.
Strive for High Resolution: Much like in photography and videography, resolution is a telling metric of quality in scrimshaw. Aim for a higher count of dots (or punctures) within a given area to capture a finer grayscale, which in turn translates to a higher-quality scrimshaw. The denser the punctures, the better the grayscale rendition, culminating in a piece that’s not only precise but also aesthetically pleasing.
By adhering to these guidelines and continually honing your skills, you’re well on your way to mastering the ancient and revered art of scrimshaw, creating pieces that resonate with you and the beholders of your craft.
We at Noblie collaborate with the world’s best scrimshanders having high-class expertise and professional experience of at least 7 years. You can enjoy the high refinement of any of Noblie scrimshaw knives that have required a high attention focus, patience, and a long time to create.
Author: Aleks Nemtcev | Connect with me on LinkedIn