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What is scrimshaw?

Written by:
Aleks Nemtcev
February 10, 2024
scrimshaw art

Scrimshaw is an extraordinary art form that emerged from the maritime world, etching its legacy into the bones and teeth of whales. Originating during the late 18th century, it was the creative outlet of sailors aboard whaling ships during their long, monotonous voyages. These seafarers meticulously engraved intricate designs, scenes, and even portraits onto materials like sperm whale bones, teeth, and baleen. The process involved using sailing needles or other sharp tools, with the movement of the ship influencing the level of detail. Scrimshaw pieces often depicted nautical motifs, whaling scenes, and portraits of loved ones. Beyond its artistic allure, scrimshaw remains a testament to the resourcefulness and maritime culture of those who sailed the high seas.

The History of Scrimshaw

The art of scrimshaw, a luminous thread woven into the rich tapestry of maritime history, traces its origins to the restless decks of 18th-century whaling ships. In the vast, open embrace of the sea, sailors, isolated from the world and faced with the monotonous expanse of the ocean, sought solace and expression through the tip of a needle. With whale teeth, bones, and baleen serving as their canvas, these mariners embarked on a journey of creativity, meticulously carving intricate designs, narratives, and mementos of their lives at sea. 

This unique form of artistry, born from the convergence of necessity, imagination, and the raw materials provided by the very leviathans they pursued, evolved from a simple pastime to an enduring symbol of resilience and beauty. Scrimshaw, thus, encapsulates more than just the artistic endeavors of those who roamed the oceans; it embodies the spirit of adventure, the lore of the sea, and the indelible mark of human ingenuity against the backdrop of nature’s vast and rolling canvas.

what is scrimshaw

Materials and Techniques

Traditional Materials for Scrimshaw

Whalebone: Whalers often used bones from sperm whales, particularly their jawbones. These bones provided a sturdy yet workable surface for engraving.

Walrus Tusks: Indigenous walrus hunters contributed to scrimshaw by providing walrus tusks. These tusks, ivory-like in texture, were also ideal for intricate carvings.

Ivory: While whalebone and walrus tusks fall under the broader category of ivory, other sources like elephant ivory were occasionally used. However, elephant ivory is now strictly regulated due to conservation concerns.

Mammoth Tusks: Another fascinating material used in scrimshaw is mammoth tusk. These tusks come from ancient woolly mammoths that roamed the Earth during the Ice Age. Mammoth ivory, with its unique grain and color, offers scrimshaw artists an alternative to whale and walrus ivory. Importantly, using mammoth tusks does not harm living animals, making it an ethical choice for contemporary scrimshaw.

Tools and Techniques

Engraving Tools: Scrimshanders employed various tools, including sail needles, pocket knives, and specialized engraving needles. The choice of tool influenced the level of detail achievable.

Ink and Pigments: Some scrimshaw pieces were further enhanced with ink or pigment. These were applied to the engraved lines, creating contrast and depth.

Stippling and Cross-Hatching: Scrimshanders used techniques like stippling (creating patterns with small dots) and cross-hatching (parallel lines intersecting) to add texture and shading.

Contemporary Shift Toward Sustainability

As awareness of environmental impact grows, contemporary scrimshaw artists are embracing ethical and sustainable materials.

Alternative Ivory: Artists now use materials like vegetable ivory (from tagua nuts) and reclaimed ivory (from antique piano keys or billiard balls). These alternatives mimic traditional ivory without harming wildlife.

Legal and Ethical Considerations: Many artists adhere to strict regulations regarding the use of ivory. They seek out legal sources or focus on non-ivory materials altogether.

Respecting Marine Life: The shift toward sustainable materials reflects a commitment to preserving marine ecosystems and respecting the creatures that once inspired this unique art form.

In the delicate strokes of scrimshaw, we find echoes of both the past and a more conscientious future.

colored scrimshaw

Themes and Motifs in Scrimshaw

Let’s explore the captivating themes and motifs within the intricate world of scrimshaw, where the sea, sailors, and stories intertwine:

Maritime Scenes and Whaling Activities:

Scrimshaw often captures the essence of life at sea. Maritime scenes come alive through delicate engravings on whalebone or ivory.

Ship Voyages: Whalers etched their vessels battling tempestuous waves, sails billowing, and masts reaching for the sky. These scenes evoke the thrill and danger of oceanic exploration.

Whale Hunts: Scrimshaw pieces depict the drama of harpoons striking mighty leviathans—the very creatures that provided the canvas for this art form. Whalers immortalized their encounters with these majestic beings.

Daily Life at Sea: Scrimshanders etched glimpses of their everyday existence aboard whaling ships:

Crew Activities: Sailors at work, repairing rigging, or navigating by the stars.

Leisure Moments: Whalers playing dice, sharing stories, or strumming makeshift guitars during quiet nights.

Navigational Tools: Compass roses, maps, and navigational instruments—symbols of their seafaring lives.

Portraits: Beyond the maritime, scrimshaw artists created intimate portraits. These were often of loved ones left behind on distant shores. Each line is etched with longing and connection.

Ship Identifications: Ships had distinct features—figureheads, hull shapes, and rigging. Scrimshaw bore the names and profiles of these vessels, linking them to the sailors who called them home.

how much is scrimshaw worth

Storytelling and Maritime History

Scrimshaw is more than art; it’s a chronicle of maritime history. Each piece whispers tales of courage, isolation, and camaraderie.

These engravings served as nautical diaries, capturing the spirit of exploration, the monotony of long voyages, and the bonds forged among sailors.

Today, scrimshaw preserves the legacy of those who sailed the high seas—a tangible link to their trials, triumphs, and the vast blue expanse that shaped their lives.

In the delicate lines of scrimshaw, we find echoes of salt spray, whispered secrets, and the eternal pull of the ocean.

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Scrimshaw today

In the present day, scrimshaw continues to captivate collectors and enthusiasts. Here are some key points about contemporary scrimshaw:

Materials: Modern scrimshaw artists have become resourceful in selecting materials. While whale teeth are scarce due to conservation efforts, sustainable alternatives are used.

Artistic Evolution: Today’s artists employ finer tools borrowed from the dental industry. Some even use multiple colors, creating restrained polychromed examples of this art.

Collectibility: Scrimshaw remains highly prized by collectors. Period pieces, such as a Wiscasset’ Scrimshaw Tooth recently sold for $152,500.

Legal and Ethical Considerations

Given the regulations surrounding endangered species and marine mammals, buying and selling scrimshaw can be precarious. Artists now prioritize sustainable materials, ensuring the continuation of this remarkable craft.


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What is a scrimshaw knife?

A scrimshaw knife is a unique blend of functional tool and intricate art, embodying the traditional maritime craft of scrimshaw. This practice involves etching detailed designs onto the surface of knife scales and handles, which are then inked to highlight the artwork. The knife itself serves not only as a practical cutting instrument but also as a canvas for showcasing the meticulous and often personalized artistry of scrimshaw. These designs can range from wildlife to elaborate scenes and historical narratives, making each scrimshaw knife a one-of-a-kind collector’s item that holds both aesthetic beauty and practical utility. Crafted by skilled artisans, scrimshaw knives are highly valued for their craftsmanship, historical significance, and the storytelling captured in their designs.

what is a scrimshaw knife

Notable Scrimshaw Artists and Collections

While the world boasts numerous scrimshaw artists and collections, some stand out:

Whaler’s Locker: A treasure trove of handcrafted scrimshaw pieces by local Maui artisans and distinguished artists from the U.S.

New Bedford Whaling Museum: Home to the world’s largest scrimshaw collection, this museum celebrates the art’s rich history and contemporary expressions.

Noblie Scrimshaw Knives: A fusion of traditional scrimshaw art and modern craftsmanship, featuring traditional and sustainable materials and intricate designs. Each scrimshaw knife showcases the elegance of handcrafted artistry.

scrimshaw knife

Preserving Scrimshaw Art

Explore the challenges in preserving this unique art form, along with the efforts made by museums and collectors to safeguard its historical significance.

1. Material Vulnerability

Historical scrimshaw pieces are often crafted from whale teeth, walrus tusks, or bone. These organic materials are susceptible to environmental factors such as humidity, temperature fluctuations, and light exposure. Over time, they can become brittle, discolored, or develop cracks.

Solution: Proper storage conditions are crucial. Museums and collectors ensure that scrimshaw items are kept in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight. Regular inspections help identify signs of damage, allowing for timely conservation efforts.

2. Ethical Considerations

As scrimshaw gained popularity, so did concerns about endangered species. The use of whale ivory is now strictly regulated due to conservation efforts. Artists and collectors must navigate legal and ethical boundaries when acquiring and displaying scrimshaw.

Solution: Contemporary scrimshaw artists opt for sustainable alternatives, such as mammoth or walrus tusk, ensuring the continuation of this art form while respecting wildlife.

3. Documentation and Context

Scrimshaw provides valuable insights into maritime culture and history. Each piece carries a story – whether it depicts life at sea, whaling voyages, or personal experiences. Preserving this context is essential for future generations.

Solution: Museums meticulously document the provenance, artist details, and historical context of each scrimshaw item. This information enhances our understanding of seafaring traditions and the lives of sailors.

how to tell authentic scrimshaw

FAQs section

Is scrimshaw illegal?

Scrimshaw has specific legal considerations.
19th and 20th-century scrimshaw, crafted before 1989 (for elephant ivory) or before 1973 (for sperm whale ivory, walrus ivory, etc.), is legal.
However, it is prohibited for commercial import in the U.S. after those years under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Mammoth and mastodon ivory: These materials are from extinct animals, and therefore, they carry no restrictions. You can legally create scrimshaw art using mammoth tusk ivory.
Warthog, hippopotamus, and elk “whistler” ivory: These types of ivory are also unrestricted.
Ancient ivory: Specifically, 10,000- to 40,000-year-old mammoth or fossilized walrus ivory, is unrestricted for sale or possession under federal law.
In summary, owning antique scrimshaw is generally legal, but it’s essential to verify its age and origin to comply with regulations.

How to tell authentic scrimshaw?

Use a scrimshaw magnifying glass to inspect your piece. Authentic ivory (such as whale bone, cartilage, or walrus tusks) will have a visible grain. Plastic items will appear completely smooth.
Consider Condition and Color: Since scrimshaw is historical, expect the ivory to turn yellow with age.
If you don’t have a magnifying glass, perform the “hot pin test”. Heat a pin until it’s nearly red hot. Touch the pin’s tip to an inconspicuous part of the object. If it’s ivory, it will scorch and smell like burning bone. Compare with Other Pieces: Ask other scrimshaw collectors if you can view their pieces for comparison.
Learning from experienced collectors can help you recognize authentic scrimshaw.

How much is scrimshaw worth

The worth of scrimshaw varies greatly, depending on factors like age, artist, craftsmanship, and material. Antique scrimshaw from the 19th century can be highly valuable, sometimes fetching thousands to tens of thousands of dollars. Contemporary pieces are generally more affordable, ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars. The value is influenced by the piece’s provenance, rarity, and condition, with authentic, well-preserved pieces connected to known historical figures or events being particularly prized.

In conclusion

Scrimshaw is more than mere etchings on bone or tusk; it encapsulates the spirit of seafaring, the tales of sailors, and the artistry of bygone eras. As you explore this intricate craft, consider delving deeper into its creation process. Learn how to make scrimshaw – from sketching designs to delicately inking them onto natural materials. Uncover the secrets hidden within each stroke, and perhaps, you’ll find yourself crafting your own maritime masterpiece. 

For a hands-on experience, resources, and tutorials, visit the “How to Scrimshaw” blog post and embark on your creative journey!

Author: Aleks Nemtcev | Connect with me on LinkedIn


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