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Home > Publications > Historic New England Magazine > Summer 2003 > Scrimshaw the Whaleman's Craft

Scrimshaw the Whaleman's Craft

ABOVE Examples of Whalemen Scrimshaws, engravings on whale teeth and whalebone.

BELOW Materials for homemade Scrimshaws made with household items.

The whaling industry was big business in New England. Driven by consumers' insatiable need for lamp oil, as well as corset and collar stays, crochet needles, and wax for cosmetics, ships sailed from ports like New Bedford and Nantucket to ply the oceans of the world in search of their prey. In their spare time, whalemen took up scrimshaw, engraving images on whale teeth and "whalebone" (or baleen) and creating useful tools and trinkets such as pie crimpers, needle cases, and yarn winders to sell or give to loved ones back home. With the discovery of rock oil in 1859, the whaling industry was dealt a blow from which it would never recover. The 1970s saw the imposition of restrictions to protect whales as endangered species. Today's artisans use a variety of materials like polymer and wood to continue the whaleman's legacy.

Here's how you can try your hand at scrimshaw:

Paper and pencil, kitchen cutting board and a table knife, a large bar of floating soap (Ivory works best), bamboo skewer, black water-based paint and paintbrush, paper towels.

Choose a design for your scrimshaw and draw it on a piece of paper that is approximately the same size as the bar of soap. Tip: Illustrations in books and magazine make good sources of designs for scrimshaw pieces. Place the soap on the cutting board and scrape away the brand name with the table knife. Lay your scrimshaw picture on the surface of the soap. Using the bamboo skewer, prick the lines of the drawing through the paper and into the soap, making your pinpricks close enough together so that the image comes out clearly. Remove the paper, and with the skewer, connect the dots by carving the design into the soap. Add any finishing details. After the soap is carved, paint the carved areas with the black paint. Allow to dry for three minutes, then lightly run water over the soap to remove the paint from the surface of the bar. The paint will remain in the carved lines. If paint adheres to any areas that should be white, dab it lightly with a paper towel. Let the bar of soap dry for at least two hours, then share your carved creation with family and friends.

-Gabe Selak
Newbury Region School & Youth Program Coordinator

Scrimshaw the Whaleman's Craft