Scratched On Whalebone.(The Art of Scrimshaw)

17 Mar

Scrimshaw is the art of scratching designs into a hard surface such as bone,ivory, shell, horn or wood. Although the art could be carried out on shore as well as at sea,as was often the case,scrimshaw is usually attrtibuted to sailors,though some fine pieces have come from the Eskimos.

The derivation of the word is obscure but it is supposed to have come from an old word,scrimshanker or scrimshander, meaning an idle person. Eventually scrimshaw was the word used to indicate the items made by a sailor during his idle time at sea. H.T. Cheever in The Whale and His Captors(1850) uses the word Skimshander,one of the earliest appearences in print. Herman Melville writes of Skrimshander in Moby Dick(1851. It appears in various log books kept by whale-ship  captains as scrimshanting, scrimshandy and scrimshonting. 

Don’t go away I am coming to the more interesting part of this post but the above needed to be explained first.

Scrimshaw refers to the art of the whalemen using teeth and bone found in the animal they hunted.The majority of scrimshaw has come from this source,and in particular from the men who hunted the whale in the 18th and 19th centuries. These men had the best source of material available whales teeth and whale’s bone.

British whalemen’s voyages, chiefly to the Arctic lasted around six months their catch was mainly the Greenland whale which has fibrous strands instead of teeth,so many British etchings were found on bones of this whale. The American as well as British whalers sailed via Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope far into the Pacific in their hunt for the sperm- whale this meant long voyages sometimes three or four years and although the whalers were busy especially when the hunt was on and a whale had been caught they still had  time on their hands to do their etching.

The tools used for etching and carving were of the simplest kind,anything a sailor’s ingenuity could bring to hand chiefly jack knives,sail needles,home made files and saws.Gimlets(small boring tool) made of nails were used for drilling.Occasionally a chisel enabled the necessary sections for inlay work to be carved out,but generally the knife was the only implement used for this work.

After the rough texture was filed away,the tooth or bone was sand-papered and rubbed with pumace,or wood ash if the metal pots for boiling the blubber had been in use. The sailor might spend hours just rubbing  the object with his rough hands to give it its final polish before he began etching. Lamp black,mixed with a little varnish to give it an adherent quality,was rubbed over the engraving.When this was wiped away the pigment was left in the lines.Sometimes these were stained with Indian ink,or a hot point was used in the etching.

 Etching on Whales Tooth

 Whaling scenes on Jawbones



Despite the conditions under which the work was carried out there have been some remarkable scrimshaw found reflecting the life of the men who made them.Scenes such as the whaling ship in action or perhaps places visited and a life ashore were often depicted.The whaleman would recall the homelife he left behind through etchings of farms,towns and his loved ones. A flat piece of bone shaped to the size of a corset busk,often showed some of the most sentimental art,as the busks would lie close to the heart of his wife or sweetheart . 






Whale Hunt Etched on Tooth

Sewing boxes,snuffboxes,chessmen,rings,bracelets,coat racks,paperknives,knobs and walking sticks were carved by the whalemen.The most popular,however was the jagging-wheel or pie crimper.It was natural to recall the wholesome,home-cooked food he had last tasted many months ago and,in so doing,fashion a present which could be used to decorate the pies he hoped to taste again on his return.

 Recalling Family Life.


Posted by on March 17, 2012 in Uncategorized


5 responses to “Scratched On Whalebone.(The Art of Scrimshaw)

  1. nikki Broadwell

    March 17, 2012 at 7:43 pm

    very cool, Rita! I like your blog–I finally found your message in my other e-mail–thank you for joining my blog!


    • ritaroberts

      March 19, 2012 at 9:29 am

      Many thanks for your comment Nikki. Look forward to more on your blog.


  2. Margaret Challoner

    April 12, 2012 at 4:09 am

    Absolutely fascinating Rita. Never heard of this art before and will re-read a few times to take in all the information. Your breadth of knowledge is so impressive and an example of how you relish life. I look forward to learning more interesting facts which I can pass on to my grandchildren and maybe even get a few answers right on Mastermind 🙂


  3. Margie (McKie) Warren

    December 18, 2013 at 5:12 am

    Hello, I have been trying with no luck in finding a site I can send pictures of a Horn Scrimshaw. Can you tell me anywhere that I could do this? It is as I said a animal horn and it was handed down with lots of other family things but I have no idea what the pictures and words mean.



    • ritaroberts

      December 18, 2013 at 8:11 am

      Hello Margie I have left a message on your Email please let me know if you have received it.



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