How is scrimshaw made?

November 13, 2022
making scrimshaw knife handle

What is Scrimshaw?

Scrimshaw is a traditional folk art form in which fanciful designs are carved into bone or faux ivory, then colored with ink. The maritime art form originated around 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.

Tools and Materials for Scrimshaw

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 tusk, mammoth tusk 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 etches for a 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.

scrimshaw tools


Surface Preparation – Polishing

First, 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.

Proper Lighting

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.

scrimshaw making

Draw an Image To the Surface

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. A scrimshaw is often worked from dark to light, with scratching or stippling in the darkest areas first.

Stippling or Scratching an Image Outline

Dotting a surface with tiny stabs is called 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 apply as little pressure as needed when cutting.

making scrimshaw

Make Image Shading

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.

making scrimshaw knife

Cover the Surface With Ink

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.

Remove any Ink Haze Left on Bone or Horn

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.

scrimshaw making process

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 focusing, patience and long time to create.

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