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How to Scrimshaw: link to my Blog Article

A basket maker on Nantucket excited the natural instincts of a visiting businessman. "How much would you wholesale those baskets for if I bought in quantity?"
"Same price I quoted you for one," was the reply.
"But I'll buy hundreds and resell them in my store."
"Can't make hundreds. I sell what I make. You got the price."
"But you could make a lot of money. Look, set up an assembly line. Hire a couple of kids, teach 'em how it's done, and you're in business."
The basket maker looked up from his work and asked, "Why?"
(adapted from Scrimshaw a Traditional Folk Art, A Contemporary Craft.)

In simple terms, Scrimshaw generally describes the art of scratching, or inscribing of a design on a piece of ivory, bone, horn, shell, or antler, or many other natural materials, to produce decorative objects, jewelry, and useful items. Some experts claim that the only true scrimshaw work is of a nautical nature, completed by sailors on whaling vessels. Other experts expand the definition to include non-nautical motifs. Scrimshaw is an easy craft to learn, the tools are inexpensive and easily obtainable. Finding the materials to work on, the patience, managing the eye-strain and cramped fingers, are the difficult parts of this craft.

Scrimshaw is wonderful craft with a rich, romantic history. Imagine coming from small town, or farm, eager for the romance and adventure of the sea, pursuing an imagined fortune by signing onto a whaling vessel for a three, or four year voyage. During the whaling voyages, the sailors experienced long periods between the capturing and processing of whales, and once all the chores were done, there was a lot of spare time.

Sperm whales were pursued all over the world for their superior oil; the fact that these whales have teeth was of added interest to the sailors. Each sailor was allotted his share of teeth, and bone, to decorate or carve as he wished, and this became a very pleasant way to pass the long hours. Some of the sailors had an artistic ability and were able to sell, or trade their scrimshaw work with other men on the ship, or with vendors when they reached a port. The scenes that were inscribed often depicted the activities and dreams that took place during their long voyages. These original scrimshaw items have become some of the most sought after collectibles of Americana, easily reaching auction figures of $10,000-$50,000 per item.

Although most people who have heard of scrimshaw think of it only as crude nautical pictures scratched into the surface of pieces of ivory, true scrimshaw is actually represented by a wide assortment of art and craft forms which were performed with a similarly wide assortment of materials. Kitchen utensils, baskets, pendants, knitting needles, pie crust crimpers, walking canes, bird cages, Dominoes, rolling pins, pipes, Cribbage boards, hair combs, and even tools were all fashioned by scrimshanders.

Today's scrimshanders are still doing pretty much what the old scrimshanders did, only better, using sharper instruments, magnification, better lighting, and steady benches to work at. What has become harder today is finding a suitable items to incise with artwork. Because there is no more whaling done in this country, the availability of whale's teeth is limited to what was left from several years ago when supplies were imported from other countries, as importation is no longer legal. Therefore, today's Scrimshanders are turning to substitute materials, such as legal, pre-ban, elephant and walrus ivory, deer and elk antlers, cow and beef bone, shell, vegetable ivory, and plastics.

The material that is to be engraved is sanded until smooth and then polished to remove all scratches. The design is then drawn onto the surface with a pencil or pen, and then the lines are scratched with a knife point, or a sharpened needle. Once the lines are incised, they are filled with black ink, dyes, or oil paints, and any excess pigment is quickly buffed away. The areas that were incised will be filled with the color.



"There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost."- Martha Graham