Scrimshaw, a Lost Art Form from the Past
Scrimshaw is craft & art form accredited to whalers and the first examples date from the mid-1700s. The artistic pastime was practiced right up until the demise of commercial whaling whereby the quintessential source of scrimshaw (whale bone, teeth, walrus/other tusks, etc.) were no longer readily available.
Using a heavy gauge sewing needle, spike or nail to scratch and gouge the easily-worked material, the quality of the artist’s scrimshaw varies greatly by the artist’s particular skill level, and time devoted to any creation.
Most original scrimshaw artwas unsigned by the artist as the craft was merely a leisure activity, a doodle. Something to pass the time aboard the whaling vessel in the evenings when it was too dark to hunt or process whale.
Modern Day Scrimshaw?
Carving on bone, teeth and tusks of marine and other mammals these days is relegated almost entirely to artisans as a hobby and then, using more contemporary tools such as commercial rotary and dentistry tools. Instead of this being a leisure activity to pass the time it is often performed as a lucrative hobby, something done for financial gain.
I have created numerous animal carvings in wood and stone scarabs over the years but have never worked with bone, tusk, horn/antlers or similar organic fauna material. I am eager to attempt venturing into this intriguing field. I chose to attempt a scrimshaw artwork using a clamshell.
Begin With a Common Clam Shell
(Above) Here the simple tracing is complete. I chose to use an Owl of Athena statuette as my subject. Just a simply outline will be enough. Greater detail can be added later during the carving process.
- Exacto knife scribes the outline upon the clamshell (image) hobby knife details clamshell
(Above) Using an Exacto or similar hobby knife, scrape and chip around the edges of the tracing. The chalky clamshell is fairly hard but it does carve rather nicely and within minutes you can see good results.
You can alter the outline to render it more accurately. Our chubby little owl will be trimmed-down more throughout this process.
The process of creating a scrimshaw was traditionally performed on whaling vessels during the sailor’s spare time using just sail-needles, sharpened spike, a knife or any sharp-edged object available. Being results-oriented, I’m going to speed this up and switch to diamond-encrusted Dremel rotary micro-bit tools as seen below:
(Above) A typical Dremel-type rotary tool and bits. These are diamond-coated bits, but other varieties such as carborundum work just as well and are slightly less expensive.
- Carving with Dremel/rotary tool (image) -Owl of Athena outline
(Above) Using the rotary bits you can create finer detail and add depth, define and feather the edges as you see fit. Both hands need to be used while carving to steady the material. In the image I am not holding the shell because I have the camera in my free hand.
(Above) Close-up view of the carved surfaces of the scrimshaw clamshell as the finer details are being scratched-in using the Exacto knife once again.
Note the plainly visible rotary gouges. These will be sanded smooth using sandpaper or disposable cardboard fingernail files.
Sanding Rough Edges of the Scrimshaw
(Above) Using small torn scraps of medium grit sandpaper, you now sand and smooth the edges to a round finish.
(Below) A quick spray of clear varnish to gloss the final project and help prevent drying-out and cracking completes the scrimshaw clamshell project.
The varnish also highlights the micro-imperfections that if one wished, could go over again with finer sanding media to rough-out and make clearer.
Still, I’m satisfied with the results of this scrimshaw carving and feel ready to sculpt that block of Brazilian Soapstone that has been sitting in my closet for months…