A basket maker on Nantucket excited the natural instincts
of a visiting businessman. "How much would you wholesale those
baskets for if I bought in quantity?"
"Same price I quoted you for one," was the reply.
"But I'll buy hundreds and resell them in my store."
"Can't make hundreds. I sell what I make. You got the price."
"But you could make a lot of money. Look, set up an assembly
line. Hire a couple of kids, teach 'em how it's done, and you're
The basket maker looked up from his work and asked, "Why?"
(adapted from Scrimshaw a Traditional Folk Art, A Contemporary Craft.)
In simple terms, Scrimshaw generally describes the art of scratching,
or inscribing of a design on a piece of ivory, bone, horn, shell,
or antler, or many other natural materials, to produce decorative
objects, jewelry, and useful items. Some experts claim that the
only true scrimshaw work is of a nautical nature, completed by
sailors on whaling vessels. Other experts expand the definition
to include non-nautical motifs. Scrimshaw is an easy craft to
learn, the tools are inexpensive and easily obtainable. Finding
the materials to work on, the patience, managing the eye-strain
and cramped fingers, are the difficult parts of this craft.
Scrimshaw is wonderful craft with a rich, romantic history. Imagine
coming from small town, or farm, eager for the romance and adventure
of the sea, pursuing an imagined fortune by signing onto a whaling
vessel for a three, or four year voyage. During the whaling voyages,
the sailors experienced long periods between the capturing and
processing of whales, and once all the chores were done, there
was a lot of spare time.
Sperm whales were pursued all over the world for their superior
oil; the fact that these whales have teeth was of added interest
to the sailors. Each sailor was allotted his share of teeth, and
bone, to decorate or carve as he wished, and this became a very
pleasant way to pass the long hours. Some of the sailors had an
artistic ability and were able to sell, or trade their scrimshaw
work with other men on the ship, or with vendors when they reached
a port. The scenes that were inscribed often depicted the activities
and dreams that took place during their long voyages. These original
scrimshaw items have become some of the most sought after collectibles
of Americana, easily reaching auction figures of $10,000-$50,000
Although most people who have heard of scrimshaw think of it
only as crude nautical pictures scratched into the surface of
pieces of ivory, true scrimshaw is actually represented by a wide
assortment of art and craft forms which were performed with a
similarly wide assortment of materials. Kitchen utensils, baskets,
pendants, knitting needles, pie crust crimpers, walking canes,
bird cages, Dominoes, rolling pins, pipes, Cribbage boards, hair
combs, and even tools were all fashioned by scrimshanders.
Today's scrimshanders are still doing pretty much what the old
scrimshanders did, only better, using sharper instruments, magnification,
better lighting, and steady benches to work at. What has become
harder today is finding a suitable items to incise with artwork.
Because there is no more whaling done in this country, the availability
of whale's teeth is limited to what was left from several years
ago when supplies were imported from other countries, as importation
is no longer legal. Therefore, today's Scrimshanders are turning
to substitute materials, such as legal, pre-ban, elephant and
walrus ivory, deer and elk antlers, cow and beef bone, shell,
vegetable ivory, and plastics.
The material that is to be engraved is sanded until smooth and
then polished to remove all scratches. The design is then drawn
onto the surface with a pencil or pen, and then the lines are
scratched with a knife point, or a sharpened needle. Once the
lines are incised, they are filled with black ink, dyes, or oil
paints, and any excess pigment is quickly buffed away. The areas
that were incised will be filled with the color.