What is scrimshaw?

scrimshaw detail

The art of the whaler


Scrimshaw is the name given to a type of hand made craft created by carving the teeth and bones of whales and other marine mammals. The objects are largely the result of mariners being confronted with time to occupy at sea and access to a ready supply of materials. Sailing, especially whaling, involved long periods of time when there was nothing to do and so 'scrimshandering' (crafting scrimshaw) occupied the men and kept them out of trouble!
Sperm Whale Tooth - Scrimshaw

Variety of objects


The whalers produced a wide variety of objects, some were purely decorative and others had a function. Examples include walking sticks, ladles, toys and games, plaques, busks, tools and engraved whale teeth. The latter are the most common and recognised type of scrimshaw.

Some scrimshaw was made to be used on board such as this seam rubber. This was a tool used in sail-making for producing sharp folds prior to sewing. Alternatively the mariner would create a token, from a tiny trinket box to a full sized busk (used to stiffen bodices), to take home to their wife or girlfriend. These keepsakes would be treasured by the receiver as the whalers could be away at sea for years at a time.
Seam Rubber made from Whale Jawbone

Making Scrimshaw


The process of making scrimshaw began by cleaning and polishing the bone or tooth. Sometimes rough shark skin was used as sandpaper to create the perfect surface for further decoration. The item was then cut, pierced or engraved. Early scrimshaw was decorated using crude sailing needles and this, plus the ability of the artist and the movement of the ship led to work varying in quality and detail. The designs etched into the object were then brought out by rubbing ink or carbon into them. Originally, candle black, soot or tobacco juice would have been used. When the excess was removed and the item polished, the designs were left black, or sometimes coloured if the artist had used coloured ink.