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A Scrimshaw Primer

by Douglass Moody (11/23/08).

Traditionally, scrimshaw is the art of scribing an image onto a whale tooth, then enhancing that image by rubbing ink or lampblack into the scratched lines, which provides contrast against the white ivory.

Scrimshaw was a popular past-time for whalers (whaling sailors) while on cruises which lasted two to four years. A few scrimshaws are known to have been scribed before the American Revolution, but the best are from the “Golden Age”, circa 1830 to 1860. Many more scrimshawed items were produced after the U.S. Civil War, and into the early 20th Century. Whale teeth were the matrix of choice, but panbone (dense whale jawbone) and walrus tusks were also scribed.

Image #1 - Scribing Needle Set In Bone Handle

The whaler’s favorite tool was his own jack knife, which was used to shave-off the natural fluting of a tooth surface. Various shark skins were used to sand-down the surface, then pumice paste was used to polish the ivory. The jack knife was also used to cut heavy design lines into the ivory, and the fine detail was usually scribed using a common sail needle, often set in an ivory or bone handle. The cross-section of a sail needle is triangular, and can be 6-inches long. The three flat sides allow a sailing needle to be easily & often re-sharpened.

Image #2 - Stipple Outlined LadyOnly a few whalers were artistic, so rendering a nice looking image onto a hard whale tooth required a bit of ingenuity. Before a ship left port, whalers collected magazines with illustrations of women in seasonal fashions of the day. Once a tooth was properly shaved, sanded, & polished, a paper illustration could be placed against the surface, and the needle used to “stipple” (dot) outline the image & major lines. Then a blade or needle could be used to connect the dots and fill in the details.

Image #3 - Stephen Decatur Sepia ToneLampblack (smoke residue) mixed with a bit of blubber (whale fat) was the most common means of tinting the scribed patterns. Commercial India ink was also used, which provided red, blue, green & brown, as well as black. Squid ink was also occasionally employed, which provided a sepia tone. Red & green sealing wax was also often used to enhance the circling scribed lines on whalebone bodkins & other lathe-turned, cylindrical whaler-made objects.

Image #4 - Polychrome LadyPolychrome (multi-colored) scrimwork required careful tinting, so that only a certain area received a specific color. In example, after black-tinting the outline of this lady, and her hair, additional fine lines were scribed in her dress and tinted red; then another area was finely scribed and tinted green. Polished ivory will not easily stain, so wiping-off the excess tinting left color only in the scribed lines & stipple. Colors fade with time, so that most antique polychromes are now muted colors. Most blacks do not fade, but over time, can be washed or worn away from fine lines. Re-inking antique scrimshaw can restore diminished images.

Image #5 - Dried Out Cracked Whale ToothIvory takes on a natural yellow-gold patina with age, so many antique scrimshawed whale teeth are no longer white. Time can also dry-out ivory, resulting in fine age lines at the skirt & tip ends of the tooth or tusk. Excessive cracking can actually cleave a tooth into two halves. Handling whale teeth can add patina, but can also provide natural protective oils to the surface, slowing the aging process.

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