What is scrimshaw?


Quick Answer

Scrimshaw is the art of carving ivory tusks, bones and animal teeth. Traditional scrimshaw designs feature images and letters rubbed with pigment for increased visual contrast. The term is occasionally used in reference to small sculptures of bone or ivory, but a more precise term for that art form is ivory carving.

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Full Answer

The oldest surviving scrimshaw dates from the mid-18th century. Most were made by sailors on whaling vessels. Carving and etching the bones of slaughtered whales was an enjoyable creative outlet on long voyages. Scrimshaw was also a way to use otherwise unwanted parts of the captured whales.

Nautical themes dominate scrimshaw design. Modern scrimshaw artists, called scrimshanders, use a broader range of hard substances as the basis for their work. It is illegal to kill elephants for their ivory, and many whale species are also endangered and under legal protection. It is, however, still legal to create scrimshaw from bones and tusks harvested in the past. Some scrimshanders prefer to use these and other scarce materials, including ancient mammoth tusk fragments.

Many modern scrimshanders eschew all natural materials in favor of micarta, a synthetic composite made from fabric impregnated with and coated by tough resin or plastic. Some micarta also contains carbon fiber. Other modern scrimshaw materials include buffalo horn, giraffe bone and mother of pearl.

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