Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Gentle Art of Scrimshaw!

Greetings, FinderMakers! If you have followed me from the get-go, you may remember some earlier posts that reflected my interest in mammoth ivory and old piano key ivory and their use in scrimshaw. I am pleased to finally offer this third and final installation in my "Urban Scrimshaw" series: An easy-to-use tutorial that will have you scrimming like a salty old sea dog in no time! The image above is a scrimshawed whale tooth from the Nicholson Whaling Collection at the Providence Public Library, an excellent resource for inspirational images and information! The image below shows some old ivory piano keys I pulled from an abandoned piano.

Before we begin, I have two requests of you, kind reader: First, please do go back and read my earlier posts on mammoth ivory and piano key ivory, as the latter is the material of focus in this tutorial, and that earlier post will provide you with a solid pedestal of knowledge upon which your crafty new skills may be proudly installed. Second, please know that I myself am no "salty old sea dog" in the scrimshaw department; My scrimshaw schooner has only just sailed out of the port and I have plenty to learn as this journey unfolds! My own drawing skills are sorely lacking, and so I have adapted a solvent-transfer technique to the art of scrimshaw to aid in the process of creating a clear, recognizable image, so even if you can barely draw a smiley face, you'll still have a pretty good shot at making a beautiful piece of scrimshaw if you follow along with me!

Above are some of the items used for this project:
- an old ivory piano key (or other suitable material, like a piece of mammoth ivory)
- a pin secured in an x-acto knife holder
- some black ink
- acetone (nail polish remover)
- a little block of beeswax
You will also need a regular black and white photocopy of the image you want to etch onto your ivory.

To begin, I shall explain that the basic procedure for producing scrimshaw simply involves scratching an image into the surface of the ivory with a pin, then applying ink (or, in the olden days, "lamp black," soot collected from oil lamps), which soaks into the scratches and is wiped away from the unscratched surface. The first step in our process will be to seal the surface of our piano key, as it is somewhat porous and, if left unsealed, may soak up some of the black ink that we apply after the design has been scratched in, leaving an unwanted inky black cloud on the key that will be impossible to remove.

To seal the key, I place a buffing wheel on my dremel tool and start it spinning. Then I touch the spinning wheel to my little block of beeswax so that the wheel picks up a little wax. The wheel, now loaded with wax, is run all over the surface of the piano key so that the wax gets worked into it. Afterwards, you will see the hazy layer of beeswax on the surface of the key; just rub it with a clean cloth until the excess surface wax has been buffed off and the key looks nice and shiny. If you don't have a dremel tool, that's ok; just rub a little block of beeswax thoroughly over the surface of the key, making sure not to miss any spots. When you have built up a thin layer, buff the key with a clean cloth until it looks shiny... it is now all sealed and ready for the next step!

Now you will need to decide what image you would like to scratch into the surface of your key. I found one of those clip art books full of Victorian-era illustrations at the thrift store; it is a great source for appropriate images! When you find something you like, scale it down to fit on the piano key either on your computer (photoshop, etc.), or directly on a black and white photocopy machine. The solvent-transfer technique only works with standard black and white photocopies, so if you scale your images on the computer, you will need to print them out and then bring your printout to the copy shop and make a black and white photocopy of it. If you are using an image that involves text, the transfer technique applies a reversed image onto the surface of the piano key, so you will need to print out your image in reverse if you want it to show up correctly after it is transferred. Below is a section of my photocopy sheet with some appropriately scaled images; I chose to use a horse head with some leafy swags.

Next, trim your image out and decide where on the piano key you would like it to go:

Place the image face down on the surface of the piano key and moisten a cotton ball with nail polish remover. Holding the slip of paper firmly in place with one hand, dab the soaked cotton ball onto the back of the paper with your other hand. The acetone will free the photocopy ink from the paper surface, transferring it onto the ivory! Make sure the paper gets plenty damp with acetone (it will become translucent) and then, after a few seconds (but before the paper begins to dry) peel the paper away from the key-- your image will be transferred!

If it doesn't work perfectly, don't fret. Just wipe the image off of the piano key with your acetone-soaked cotton ball, reseal the surface with beeswax, and try again with a new photocopy image (you can't use them twice, so it's a good idea to print out several copies of the images you want to use!)

Now that we have a nice template transferred onto the piano key, we can start our scrimshaw! The dark parts of the transfer will be the dark parts of the competed scrimshaw and, as you will recall, the black ink soaks into the lines we have scratched into the ivory surface, so we can now start to scratch lines into the dark areas of the transfer. This is best accomplished with the tip of a pin or sewing needle that has been tightly screwed into an x-acto knife holder. I use wire cutters to nip about a 1/2 inch of the sharp tip off of a sewing needle, then place this in the x-acto holder with about 1/4 inch protruding, then screw the holder down so the needle tip can't move.

You will probably need to experiment with what type of lines end up looking the most appealing to you: shading can be accomplished by scratching in "crosshatched" lines, or by varying the distance between the lines that you scratch into the ivory surface. You might also like to try a fatter sewing needle versus a thinner one to vary the size of the lines. Sometimes a "stippling" technique is used: The needle tip is pushed into the ivory creating fields of tiny dots that comprise darker or lighter shaded areas depending on the number of dots applied. Detailed stippling can yield images that look nearly photographic! In the photo below, you can see that I have scratched away almost all of the black photocopy transfer image; it is now time to apply the black ink!

The ink is applied with a cotton swab that I dipped into the ink. Let the ink dry (only takes a minute) then wipe the dried ink off the ivory surface with a slightly damp paper towel; the dried ink will stay in the lines you scratched, and your image is now revealed! Now wet a piece of paper towel with a little acetone, and rub the surface lightly to remove any leftover bits of the photocopy ink.

Now go ahead and seal the surface with beeswax again just like you did in the beginning; this will seal in the ink so it wont bleed if you should get the ivory wet again. If you see some areas that need to be scratched more, then you can do so now, after you have sealed it the second time. Just add in some more scratches and repeat the inking and sealing process. You can keep doing this until you are pleased with the way your image looks!

If you don't have access to a black and white photocopier, you may achieve similar results in the following manner: Scale down your image to the appropriate size on the computer and print it out. Then draw over the dark areas in your image with a sharp pencil (I use a mechanical pencil). Next, place the image face down on your piano key and rub the back of the image with a spoon, bone folder, or similar hard, blunt object; this will transfer the pencil outline faintly onto the surface of your ivory! The picture below is a piano key with a scrimshawed sperm whale I did using the pencil transfer technique... it turned out nicely!

And a few more:

I based the Kachina drawing above on this actual Hopi carved cottonwood root Kachina, called "Ahote":

Thanks so much for joining me, and please do feel free to contact me if you need any clarification or additional info!

(please note: scrimshaw imagery and art, piano key scrimshaw, etc. property the artist, copyright Paul Baxendale 2009/2010)


Christiane said...

love this one too! your a tutorial machine. I will keep my eyes open for an old piano to selvedge. thank you for info on transferring images from photocopies... I always wondered how that worked. :)

Katherine Plumer said...

I've been following your blog for a while, so I thought I'd say hi (I'm a scrimshander). :-) Nice tutorial about image transfer!

Julie Bou├ęsso said...

Doesn't look as hard as I would have imagined. However, will have to try it one day! Cheers, Julie

Paul Baxendale said...

Katherine! Im so pleased that you took the time to comment! You are certainly one of my earliest followers, and, although I had perused your blog some time ago and enjoyed it greatly, I had forgotten what a tremendous source of inspiration it is for up-and-coming scrimshanders (I had neglected to mention that there is an actual name, other than "salty old sea dog" to describe those who practice the art of scrimshaw!)!!!

I do heartily recommend that my readers click on Katherine's profile to view her excellent blog; she is a top-notch, blue ribbon scrimshander of unequaled talent!!!

Thanks, Katherine!


Rachel@oneprettything.com said...

Wow. You have the most amazing, most unique tutorials. I love it here! Thanks so much for the cool information, I'll be linking to this.

pam said...

Thank you so much for this post. Although I will most likely never attempt scrimshaw, I have always appreciated the skills needed to make a piece of scrimshaw and found scrimshaw very beautiful. The tutorial and the link to Katherine are both very helpful and informative.

Paul Baxendale said...

Thanks Pam! I sure have been enjoying "Gingerbread Snowflakes"-- so chock full of great recipes and fun craft ideas! Another great blog for FinderMaker readers to hop on over to and enjoy!

Katherine Plumer said...

Thanks Paul! :-)

Jim-of-oz said...

If you want to experiment without using ivory, try using the back of a white plastic spoon for your scrimshawing. I've found that a good cheap material to practice on.

Paul Baxendale said...

Jim, thanks so much for the plastic spoon tip!

Another reader left a comment on the Craftzine link recommending tagua nuts and plastic dominoes-- both fine ideas as well! That recommendation was offered as an alternative to "ripping up vintage pianos."

Please don't go and rip up any working, useable pianos just for the ivory! As stated in my earlier post on piano key ivory, my keys came off an ancient piano that had been outside in the elements for at least 3 years and was completely beyond repair.

Pianos are expensive to refurbish and often not worth the expense... keep your eyes out and you may find a similarly neglected, beyond repair piano in an empty lot near you! Failing that, check with a piano repair shop; they often have old ivory keys on hand that they may let you purchase inexpensively.

fine little mess said...

this is quite lovely.

Jana Miller said...

Paul you just put the most fantastic ideas in my head involving ways to decorate my bone collection! The detail in the pieces you created here is absolutely stunning! Beautiful work.

I saw your comment about my blog yesterday when I made a new post, thank you. I have really enjoyed yours as well. I'm months behind so I hope to make several posts this weekend to make up for it. :)

Jana Miller said...

I ran across this blog I thought you'd like to see, which you didn't previously mention:


PS - If I ever come across another moose antler it is yours, promise. :)

Andrew Perkins said...

Great tutorial! I haven't tried acetone, have used other special varnishes with limited results. I tend to either go freehand or trace with a pencil, place the trace face down on the ivory, secure it well and burnish it with a wooden stick (usually a popsicle stick or a clothes pin). Works pretty well for getting the general outline, then I go over it and add all the details. I'll have to see if I can spirit away some nail polish remover from my wife and give your tutorial a try!

wecouldgrowup2gether said...

stunningly beauuuuutiful

vince said...

I like to play some ocean sounds in the background, sit in a rocking chair and pretend I'm on a whaling ship while I scrimshaw.

Next Door To Magic said...

Wow these are really great. Thanks for the tutorial.

amp said...

Great tutorial. I've tried the technique several times and (probably due to my lack of technique), always find it smudgy. I tend to find a pattern I like, then draw over it with a soft pencil (just the outline), then put the drawn side face down on the ivory and (holding it firmly) rub the paper with a tongue depressor or a clothes pin to transfer the graphite over. Have to be careful with this technique as once it's transferred, it can smudge as well. Thanks for sharing your technique - your work is quite detailed! Andrew Perkins, scrimshaw.com

Anonymous said...


Great tutorial. I have recently started making scrimshaw using old piano keys that I purchased on ebay. Your techniques for creating transfer images will make things much easier for future projects. As for your "sorely lacking drawing skills", I've seen your gallery and your skills are phenomenal. Keep up the great posts.

Anonymous said...

So happy I found this tutorial! A few years ago I purchased some piano keys in the hope of learning this art. Now I shall begin, thanks to your transfer method! Many, many thanks!!!