Scrimshaw – adding art to the knifemaker’s craft
An almost forgotten sailors’ art is finding fresh appreciation amongst hunters.
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.