About Scrimshaw

So unless you regularly watch Antiques Roadshow (like me!) you may not know what Scrimshaw is. Basically, I like to think of it as a 18th Century Yankee Whalers version of scrapbooking. It was essentially a craft that evolved out of boredom, utilised the spare raw materials of a whaling ship and could be done by people with all kinds of skill levels.

When the American whaling industry expanded and needed to travel further out to sea to catch more whales, they designed bigger boats that had processing facilities on board. This meant that the men would stay out at sea for years on end, catching and cutting in a whale every few months.

Now before I go any further, before I conjure too many images of whale slaughter, blood and blubber... I'd like to note that I do not hunt whales. Nor do I condone the hunting of whales for sport, 'scientific research', food, spermaceti oil, or Scrimshaw. As a strict vegetarian, I am completely comfortable with the ethics of the materials I use and think the re-use and re-cycling of organic materials such as bone and horn is generally an eco-friendly sustainable practice.    

So, back to the carnage... After the Yankee whalers caught a whale, cut it apart and rendered the fat for oil, they had all this left over ivory. The teeth of the sperm whale were particularly suited to carving and are similar to elephant ivory in their quality and density. This material was useless to the men and seeing as though they had months of spare time in between catching a whale, they distributed the ivory amongst themselves for craft purposes. 

The men aboard the ship were from all walks of early American life. Some were craftsmen, some were tradies, ex-criminals or riff-raff. Not many were actually professional sailors. This lead to an amazing variety in quality and type of Scrimshandery. It was a craft that everyone with a spare awl and some lamp black had a go at.

Now, the basic technique is very simple. You take some kind of sharp instrument; a needle, awl, pick or file, and carve a picture into the surface of your polished material.You then take ink, or verdigris, or oily soot and rub it into the picture, making it come alive. In terms of basic technique, it is similar to etching, engraving and tattooing.