What Is Scrimshaw?

September 11, 2009

Scrimshaw is an ancient art form that has only recently realized its potential. Today’s scrimshanders (scrimshaw artists) have achieved beauty and detail unimagined by even the whalers of the nineteenth century.

Scrimshaw is the process of scratching or piercing a hard material like ivory, bone, or antler, rubbing pigment into the marks or designs, then wiping the excess away. Scrimshaw art can be crude or very fine, but it is not carving or engraving, which are different techniques.

This form of art has been practiced since Pre-historic times by many cultures. Many people are only familiar with it today because they have seen the scrimshaw art of the Eskimos, and American sailors aboard whaling ships during the 1700’s and 1800’s. Much of this ancient and vintage scrimshaw can be seen in museums, or it resides in private collections. There are people who currently collect “new” Eskimo scrimshaw (recently created), as well as scrimshaw from the modern “masters” of the art.

Today, some leading wildlife artists pursue scrimshaw because of the astounding level of realistic detail that can be achieved in this medium. These modern artists use the stippling technique (tiny pinpricks in the material as opposed to scratched lines) to produce subtle shading and incredible detail. Scrimshaw can be found today ornamenting custom knife handles, pistol and handgun grips, custom fountain pens, and in art galleries. In a nutshell, this technique is very much akin to the art of tattooing, only not on live skin!

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