Scrimshaw – ad­ding art to the kni­fe­ma­ker’s craft

An al­most f­or­got­ten sai­lors’ art is fin­ding fresh ap­pre­ci­a­ti­on a­mongst hun­ters.

SA Jagter Hunter - - INHOUD - Her­man Jon­ker

Knives ha­ve be­co­me mo­re than just tools for mo­dern­day hun­ters. We t­re­a­su­re them for their beau­ty, qua­li­ty and crafts­mans­hip. This ap­pre­ci­a­ti­on has e­le­va­ted kni­fe­ma­king as a craft and cre­a­ted a demand for beau­ti­ful­ly-ma­de cu­s­tom knives that are art­works in their own rig­ht.

One of the ways to add e­ven mo­re beau­ty to such a fi­ne bla­de is to em­bel­lish its hand­le with an ar­tis­tic i­ma­ge. On pro­ducti­on knives such ad­di­ti­ons are u­su­al­ly mass-pro­du­ced, u­sing mo­dern pho­to-trans­fer, print, la­ser or e­t­ching techni­ques. Ot­hers, u­su­al­ly from the Far East, are en­gra­ved by wor­kers on pro­ducti­on li­nes who e­ach add a step be­fo­re pas­sing the pro­duct on. Such ma­nu­fac­tu­red i­tems may be de­co­ra­ti­ve, but they can hard­ly be con­si­de­red true art and are the­re­fo­re sel­dom of gre­at va­lue.

The pin­na­cle of the craft, exe­cu­ted by the pre­ci­se and pa­tient hands of mas­ter ar­tis­ts, lies in the fi­ne art kno­wn as scrimshaw.

Scrimshaw is an art form worthy of high re­spect. It ta­kes not on­ly ta­lent, but al­so ut­most pre­ci­si­on and a ste­a­dy hand to pain­sta­kingly cre­a­te a mi­nis­cu­le i­ma­ge dot by dot and li­ne by li­ne on a hard sur­fa­ce. It al­so re­qui­res pa­tien­ce – lots of it. Be­cau­se it’s such a ti­me-con­su­ming pro­cess, scrimshaw is u­su­al­ly spe­ci­al­ly com­mis­si­o­ned on­ly on hand­ma­de knives of the fi­nest s­tan­dard.


The techni­que of scri­bing images in bo­ne or i­vo­ry is no re­cent in­ven­ti­on. The skill is pre­su­med to ha­ve o­ri­gi­na­ted with the E­ski­mos, but scrimshaw as we know it re­al­ly be­gan in the 1700s w­hen A­me­ri­can w­ha­ler­men sai­led from New Eng­land in purs­uit of the le­vi­at­hans of the sea.

Bo­re­dom was a re­gu­lar com­pa­ni­on on t­he­se long voya­ges and the id­le men took to doing han­d­craft with w­ha­te­ver they had at hand. With their sail need­les and knives they scra­t­ched pic­tu­res on the teeth, bo­ne and ba­leen from slaug­h­te­red w­ha­les and then high­lig­h­ted the images af­ter­wards by rub­bing lamp­black, squid ink, or e­ven to­bac­co jui­ce in­to the cuts.

W­hen the w­ha­ling in­du­stry ca­me to an end the art of scrimshaw al­most di­sap­pea­red. By the la­te 1800s it had all but died out as an art form. Ho­we­ver, in the 1960s Pre­si­dent John F. Ken­ne­dy, an a­vid col­lec­tor, dis­play­ed so­me of his i­vo­ry pie­ces in the O­val Of­fi­ce and the col­lecting of an­ti­que scrimshaw i­tems sud­den­ly be­ca­me a t­rend. Ad­ding to its po­pu­la­ri­ty was the fact that scrimshaw had been de­cla­red A­me­ri­ca’s on­ly im­por­tant in­di­ge­nous folk art be­si­des that of the In­di­ans. Con­tem­po­ra­ry ar­tis­ts soon took an in­te­rest and the art ex­pe­rien­ced so­mew­hat of a re­nais­san­ce.


The art of scrimshaw is a­bout qua­li­ty, not si­ze. So­me of the most soug­ht-af­ter work is ac­tu­al­ly small in sca­le and whi­le big­ger pie­ces may be im­pres­si­ve, they are still jud­ged pri­ma­ri­ly on qua­li­ty.

Qua­li­ty work is dis­tin­guis­hed by its de­tail and com­plex­i­ty. Mas­ter­ful shading and de­tail can re­sult in a pie­ce that is al­most pho­to­re­a­lis­tic in ap­pea­ran­ce, so­mething much ad­mi­red by col­lec­tors. S­tip­pling, which is mo­re com­plex and ti­me con­su­ming than the tra­di­ti­o­nal scra­t­ching and cross-ha­t­ching met­hods, is of­ten u­sed to a­chie­ve such fi­ne de­tail. Classic black and whi­te is still the pre­fer­red fi­nish for ma­ny col­lec­tors but the use of co­lour, alt­hough mo­re dif­fi­cult, has gai­ned po­pu­la­ri­ty.

The ma­te­ri­al that the work is exe­cu­ted on is al­so a very im­por­tant e­le­ment. Un­li­ke pain­ting, scrimshaw is do­ne on a u­ni­que can­vas. The na­tu­re, ra­ri­ty and va­lue of this con­tri­bu­te sig­ni­fi­cant­ly to the pie­ce.


Du­ring the 1960s col­lec­tors fo­cu­sed on old works exe­cu­ted on the teeth of sperm w­ha­le. E­lep­hant i­vo­ry be­gan to gain accep­tan­ce as a me­di­um, but then CITES re­stricted tra­de in it. To­day scrimshaw ar­tis­ts (re­fer­red to as ‘scrims­han­ders’) oc­ca­si­o­nal­ly use an­cient i­vo­ry from the wool­ly mam­moth and Pa­ci­fic wal­rus tus­ks found in the tha­wing ice lay­ers of the Arctic. Mo­re com­mon­ly scrimshaw is do­ne on bo­ne, horn, ant­lers, shells, nuts and cer­tain hard­woods such as i­ron­wood and e­bo­ny. In South A­fri­ca os­trich egg shells are al­so of­ten u­sed. Synt­he­tic ma­te­ri­als such as Mi­car­ta and ar­ti­fi­ci­al i­vo­ry are po­pu­lar too, but of les­ser va­lue.

Tus­ks from A­fri­can a­ni­mals ha­ve be­co­me es­pe­ci­al­ly po­pu­lar as can­va­ses, of­ten to be de­co­ra­ted with A­fri­can sce­nes. E­lep­hant i­vo­ry (that of cows is pre­fer­red) is con­si­de­red a very good sur­fa­ce for scrim­ming, sin­ce the grain of the i­vo­ry is sta­ble and e­ven. Hip­po teeth, alt­hough of­ten crac­ked, al­so yield a hard ma­te­ri­al that can be scrim­med, alt­hough it ta­kes lon­ger. Wart­hog tus­ks are fi­ne grai­ned and tough but ha­ve li­mi­ted sco­pe be­cau­se of cracks and cur­ves. The den­ser parts of buf­fa­lo horn are al­so suit­a­ble. This is be­st scrim­med with li­ne­work, sin­ce a s­tip­pling need­le tends to bre­ak up the fi­bres, le­a­ding to blot­chy work.


The ba­se ma­te­ri­al is first wor­ked to a high po­lish in a­re­as that will be scrim­med, in or­der to se­al the sur­fa­ce and keep pig­ments from stai­ning or dul­ling a­ny­thing ot­her than the i­ma­ge. A design is then dra­wn, ta­king in­to ac­count and ac­com­mo­da­ting any flaws or cracks that could ot­her­wi­se spoil the pie­ce.

A very sharp tool, such as a steel scri­be, need­le, or hob­by kni­fe, is u­sed to in­ci­se the i­ma­ge in­to the sur­fa­ce. T­he­se fi­ne scra­t­ches and tiny ho­les are then co­ve­r­ed with pig­ment or ink, which is rub­bed off a­gain, le­a­ving ink in the e­t­ched marks to re­veal the i­ma­ge.

On­ce lig­ht­ly-en­gra­ved out­li­nes are in pla­ce, the ar­tist can be­gin the long pro­cess of ren­de­ring the sub­ject. C­lo­se at­ten­ti­on must be paid to the re­la­ti­ve lig­ht and dark a­re­as of the pie­ce as mo­re and mo­re cross- »

» ha­t­ching or s­tip­pling is u­sed to build up the picture. Con­stant in­king of the cuts helps to bring the work to li­fe. T­hou­sands of dots and li­nes of dif­fe­rent dept­hs and widt­hs may need to be ma­de to pro­du­ce the re­qui­red va­ri­a­ti­ons in to­ne and tex­tu­re. Through all this the ar­tist has to exe­r­ci­se ca­re­ful con­t­rol at all ti­mes. In this fi­ne­ly-de­tailed form of art one mis­ta­ke can ruin an en­ti­re pie­ce.

With the sur­ge in the num­ber of cu­s­tom kni­fe­ma­kers in South A­fri­ca, a few scrims­han­ders such as pi­o­neer Hil­ton Pur­vis, Toi S­kel­lern, S­ha­ron Bur­ger and ot­hers ca­me to the fo­re. To­day we are for­tu­na­te to ha­ve so­me of the fi­nest bla­des ma­de lo­cal­ly as well as access to scrimshaw work of a very high s­tan­dard.

W­het­her it’s in­ten­ded as an hei­r­loom, a per­so­na­li­sed gift or a pie­ce to com­me­mo­ra­te a spe­ci­al oc­ca­si­on, scrimshaw can add that ex­tra tou­ch and va­lue to a kni­fe. W­hen do­ne on a s­pe­ci­fic pie­ce of bo­ne, teeth or horn, it can al­so cre­a­te a u­ni­que me­men­to of a hunt.

High-qua­li­ty scrimshaw work on a Den­nis Kap­pe­ti­jn kni­fe.

Beau­ti­ful de­tail on the hand­les of Den­nis Kap­pe­ti­jn knives.

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