Scrimshaw Basics and Techniques
Welcome to the world of scrimshaw. It’s challenging for sure, but definitely an art-form worth mastering over a lifetime. Today we will go through the basics of two techniques, both stipple and scratch. The great part about scrimshaw is that it can be as simple or complicated as you desire. I personally had a great time, even though I’m not the greatest (you’ll see soon,) it’s one that I will continue to hone my craft on.
What’s in the box?
****Please note, since this tutorial was published, we have updated our Scrimshaw NHB to now feature an ivory knife rather than the pendants shown below 🙂 Woooo hoooooo!
- Pin vise tool (this is the silver tool with two ends)
- 2 scribing needles
- 7 piece modeling knife tool set (blue tool)
- 2 hand cast faux ivory pendants
- Plastic practice piece (it’s the square, run through this tutorial on this first before you go to the pendants)
- Special drawing pencil
- Black India ink
- Swabs/toothpicks for inking
- Sandpaper and fine steel wool for polishing
What is Scrimshaw?
Scrimshaw is the decoration of bone or ivory objects (we used faux ivory), such as whale’s teeth and walrus tusks, with fanciful designs, traditionally carved by Anglo-American and Native American whale fisherman with a jackknife or sail needle and emphasized with black pigments. Among the traditional subjects are whaling scenes, ships, naval battles, Masonic emblems, coats of arms, and symbols from Irish heritage. The earliest surviving examples date from the late 17th century, but the craft reached its peak in 1830-50. Check out the one below… Mine doesn’t look like this. This sailor had some serious skills.
1. First things first, don’t worry about mistakes… If you really mess up, you can use the sandpaper in the kit to lightly sand your image off bone, horn or other hard natural materials. After sanding, smooth away the scratch marks left on the surface with fine steel in your kit, they will develop a haze of scratches. This haze can be removed by sanding with finer and finer sandpaper until the scratches are finally gone. You can then polish to a shine by briskly buffing the plastic or resin with a soft resin, bone, horn, or real ivory to make it shine, don’t use metal polishes or colored jeweler’s rouge. instead, you can use a white or colorless jeweler’s rouge, an uncolored furniture paste wax, or even toothpaste to buff the surface until it shines. Once your material is polished, you’re ready to try again.
2. When doing scrimshaw, have a great light source. When light strikes at the correct angle, etched lines and dots on the surface of the material become easier to see. Move your table lamp or scrimshaw material around until you find the best angles for viewing the surface of your material as you work. Also, always wear eye protection in case a needles or blade tip should break.
3. There are many ways to get an image onto the surface of your material so that you can scrim it (scrim is a scrimshaw term meaning “to etch the surface”). If you have artistic talent, you can use the special pencil in the kit to draw directly onto the surface of your material. If the pencil marks don’t show up well, moisten the pencil tip and try again. NOTE: I didn’t have the natural artistic capabilities, this isn’t the easiest surface to freehand. I just printed out shapes that I liked, like a fish. I decided to hold mine in place, but definitely recommend fixing it to the surface.
Always keep a very fine point on the pencil so your lines stay narrow and sharp. You can also use carbon paper to trace an image onto your material. Tape the carbon paper to the surface of your material, then tape a picture on top of it. Now trace over the picture and the image will transfer onto the surface of your material. You can also glue a picture directly onto the surface of your material and actually scrim right through the paper. You can use any picture by re-sizing it to the shape of the pendant.
4. Next, put a needle in your pin vise. The pin vise opens at both ends to reveal two collets that have a total of four openings to choose from. If you unscrew either end of the pin vise, the small vise inserts (called chucks) can be pulled out and turned around. This gives you four different hole sizes to choose from. Use the smallest opening to hold your needle.
Put your needle in the smallest opening, leaving just the tip of the needle showing.
Tighten the cap firmly on the pin vise and you’re ready to begin. Go around your image pushing straight up and down with the tip of your needles. If you glued you image down, just push right through the paper and into the surface of the material. Your dots only need to be a few hundredths of a millimeter deep to show up when inked so there is no need to twist or drill your dots into place. Just push slowly and firmly straight up and down. Dotting the surface like this to create an image is called “stipple” scrimshaw.
5. Stippling will create a dotted outline of your image. Make sure you outline all the major details of your image, such as eyes, nose, mouth, lines, shaded areas, etc. Keep your outlining holes very close together as you work.
6. For shaded areas, the closer you place your dots and the deeper you make them and the more of them you make in an area, the darker that area will be once you apply ink. To create a lighter shade, make fewer dots, farther apart, and don’t make them as deep. The very lightest parts of the image and highlight areas require no dots at all.
7. Once your outlining is finished, remove the paper and clean off any glue residue. Now ink the surface using a cotton swab. After inking, use a tissue or soft cloth to wipe away the excess ink. I used the New Hobby Box for this part, just to contain any excess ink, because this stuff will not come out of anything it gets on.
A slightly moistened tissue or rage will often help remove the ink a little easier. What is left is a rough start to your image made up of inked dots.
The steel wool in your kit can also help remove any ink haze left on bone or horn, but don’t use it on ivory or resin. Rub away any ink or haze left on plastic or resin materials with a little rubbing alcohol on soft cloth so you don’t create a haze or scratches on the material.
8. Now complete your scrimshaw by filling in more dots where needed to darken and smooth out the look of your image. Ink and wipe frequently as you work so you can closely follow what you are doing. Remember, you can always add dots, but they can’t be removed so work carefully and slowly to fill in your image and avoid mistakes. It’s also a good idea to have a second copy of your original picture handy so you can refer to it often as you work. No judging – that’s a fish below.
9. Another way to scrim your design is with the scratch technique, by using your modeling knife to cut shallow lines to create the shadow and details of your image. Hold the knife as you would a writing pen and create your lines by pulling the knife, not pushing it.
Very little pressure is needed when cutting your lines. You only need to apply about the same pressure you would when using a writing pen or pencil. I dug way too deep on this one, and I made too many scratches at the first pass. Go light and not too many lines each round, it will help you out in the long run.
Too much pressure and the knife blade tends to dig into the material instead of just lightly cutting or scratching it. Some artists like to turn the knife blade over and use the back of the blade tip to cut with. They feel the back of the blade tip is easier to control, especially when creating curved lines. Control the knife with your wrist and fingers, not by moving your arm. Shading with the knife is done by how close your lines are to each other, how many lines you make, crosshatching lines, and the depth of your cuts. Try different blades for different cutting effects but always be careful when changing blades and always keep your free hand or fingers out of the way of your cutting blade when scratching lines. I made too many mistakes early on like digging way too deep to recover this one without sanding it down. So, I present to you a fish, from some alternate universe.
10. You can also use both tools one the same image if you like, but whichever methods you use, inking your lines and dots often as you work will allow you to keep a close eye on your progress.
11. Sharp tools are important to achieving quality work. Put a new needle into your pin vise for inscribing when you feel like the old one might be getting dull. If the blade in your modeling knife tends to slip on the surface when you try to cut with it, it may be the time to change the blade.
12. Different textures and looks can be achieved by using a combination of light lines, deeply cut lines, crosshatching lines, dots arranged in different densities, and deeper shallower dots. The more detail you can work into a piece, the better and more professional it will look. It does, however, require patience. Most artists also feel it helps to use a magnifier. A magnifier allows you to see and work between lines and dots that you may not see as well with just the naked eye.
13. Be careful when using crosshatching as a way to shade animals or birds as it seldom looks natural for fur or feathers. Other types of lines or dots usually look better for fur and feathers. Also, when dealing with minor mistakes like a line or dot out of place, you can use the tip of your needle or the very tip of your knife blade to carefully and gently scratch the ink out of the line or dot. With the ink gone, the mistake seemingly disappears. But wait until after you’ve completed your image and your final inking before working out mistakes, otherwise you will just put more ink back into the same mistake.
This was really challenging. I have a lot of respect for those who are masters of this craft. It’s truly an art form.
Check out this guy – he’s ridiculously talented.
As always, thanks for trying new things with us!