Scrimshaw, depicting three masted ship, dolphin jaw and tooth, maker unknown, Australia, 1870-1900
The scrimshaw decoration on this jaw was carved in Australia around 1870-1900.
The technique of scrimshaw involved the scraping, filing and grinding of the object, before honing the surface (but in the case of teeth and bone this was done with shark skin). With a smooth medium on which to work, the sailors used a variety of tools (awls, gimlets, files, sail needles and knives) to incise the surface. Once the desired pattern had been completed, it was rubbed over with soot, tar, Indian ink or lamp black. Polishing removed the excess colour leaving a graphic representation of fine black lines.
Illustrations from books or journals were traced onto the surface by pricking the outline of the picture with a pin. The dots were then joined up with incisions, and the process finished as usual. Objects produced by these methods were many and varied and include crimping wheels for decorating pie crusts, ink stands, cuff links, studs, walking sticks and knife handles. Teeth, bones, shells and wood were also lathe-turned, carved and skilfully inlaid to make cribbage boards and work boxes. The subjects depicted were as varied as the objects they adorn. Whaling scenes were popular, as were sailing ships, figures of gentlemen and ladies, and scenes taken from illustrations of classical subjects. For more information see: Keenan, Annette,. "Scrimshaw" in A Companion to the Mint Collection (Sydney, 1982).
Scrimshandering or scrimshaw as we know it, is a craft of the whale men. The origin of the word is obscure. It refers both to the technique and the finished product. Essentially, it is the carving or engraving of bone, ivory, shells, wood or any other suitable material. Contrary to popular belief, the craft is not confined to engraving on whale teeth and bone, although in this form it is very common. The originators of scrimshaw decoration is unknown, although suggestions range from the Eskimos to the South Sea Islanders. However, the craft with which we are familiar today developed on board whaling ships where the equipment was already at hand: sail needles, jack knives and other metal tools; whale or walrus teeth and bones; Indian ink or lamp black; illustrations from old newspapers and plenty of leisure time. During the course of a whaling voyage, which sometimes lasted up to five years, there would be long periods of calm when the ship was waiting for a wind to take it to the whaling ground. To while away the time, sailors would occupy themselves with various shipboard crafts like rope or string work, or wood carving. They would also draw or trace pictures onto bone from whales already caught and processed. For more information see: Keenan, Annette,. "Scrimshaw" in A Companion to the Mint Collection (Sydney, 1982).