Scrimshaw Techniques


Scrimshaw is the delicate art of scratching designs on ivory, bone, nut palm or other hard surfaces. Scrimshaw techniques date back hundreds of years, but became popular during New England whaling days when sailors would occupy their time engraving scenes on whale teeth or bone. Today, scrimshaw is created on jewelry, decorative bowls and plates, knives and tools. There are various scrimshaw techniques and methods used to create a design, each requiring tedious and creative hand movements.

Tools of the Trade

Making scrimshaw requires certain hand tools to engrave the design into the surface. The basic tools are a pencil for drafting the image; a knife, X-acto blade or sewing needle for scratching the design into the surface; and ink or oil paint to add color, depth and texture to the engraved design. Other tools used by scrimshanders are a sharpening stone for smoothing the surface; a polishing compound; a magnifying glass for working on small areas; and a cloth for wiping away paint.

Scrimshaw Process

Whatever object or material used for engraving, a scrimshaw design needs to be made smooth and then polished. Smoothing can be done using sandpaper, a sander or a sharpening stone. Polishing is particularly important for porous materials so the ink only fills in the engraved lines. The surface needs to be polished so it reflects like a mirror. Insufficient polishing causes the ink to be absorbed into the pores, creating a cloudy design. Some scrimshaw artists use a sander, buffer's wheel or power equipment similar to that used to polish jewelry.

Drawing and Painting Techniques

Sketching is the first stage in the scrimshaw process. Once you have worked out your design to scale, according to size of the object, the outline image is illustrated or traced onto the material using a pencil. For scrimshaw engraving, use a knife, X-acto blade or other preferred scratching tool to cut into the pencil outlines. If you are concerned about the pencil drawing rubbing off as you etch the design, use a workable aerosol fixative. Just be sure to rub it off once you finish etching your design. After engraving the image, apply ink to the lines, wiping the excess off as you go. Select your paint colors for filling in the spaces within the outline. Start painting dark areas first and work down to the lightest colors. With the stipple technique, color is applied in small dots or short strokes. Stippling can also be used to create soft shadows, textures, contrast and soft edges. A sewing needle held in place with a pin vise is useful for performing the delicate stipple work. The cross-hatching technique is often used on line work to add tone to shading or to create texture and depth. With this technique, you are able to add light and dark shades to your image. Whichever technique is used, first paint a small section of the design, wipe it off and add more color to achieve a desired depth. Repeat this process until the piece is completed.

Keywords: scrimshaw techniques, making scrimshaw, scrimshaw process, stipple technique, cross hatching technique

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