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My Scrimshaw Process Part 1

Over the past 25 years I have been asked many times about my work habits and process. As I begin this project, I thought I’d go ahead and document my process to try and answer some of those questions. This project is going to be an eagle portrait on an antique whale’s tooth. This is a beautiful tooth with great color and a few deep gouges that give it character.

The first step is to polish the tooth. I know many scrimshanders and ivory suppliers use power sanders to polish ivory but I prefer to do it all by hand. It’s time consuming, but I feel like it’s safer, especially on antique ivory. I would feel terrible if the heat from sanding damaged the tooth in any way. Using a process that I learned from Bob Engnath, I start with 100 grit sandpaper and sand until all of the surface gouges and scratches are gone. After that I use progressively finer paper until I get down to about 600 grit. I finish it off with .0000 steel wool and metal polish which gives it a glassy finish.

Unpolished Tooth

Polished tooth

Back of Tooth After Polishing

As you can see, I chose to leave the gouges because they added a wonderful character to the piece. For me, things like this are part of the item’s story and I prefer to leave them as long as they don’t compete with the artwork. On teeth I also try not to change the skirt at the base of the tooth too much. If you over sand this area the skirt can become very delicate. I also think it looks more natural this way. I also tried to keep as much of the charactor of the back of the tooth intact. Just some light sanding and then polishing here.

Detail Showing Eagle Eye Stippled Onto Tooth

Once the proportions are established, I don't try to get too detailed at this point. There will be plenty of opportunities to make changes as I go along. I begin to roughly outline the image by stippling it with a sewing needle held in a pin vise.

The Beginning

The first thing I do is establish my general outline and darkest areas. I do this by stippling in the background. Objects in nature don't usually have outlines surrounding them so I create a contrasting background to suggest the shape of my subject. Since this subject is white it will need a darker background to make it show properly.


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2 Responses to My Scrimshaw Process Part 1

Dayton Calahan
via darrelmorris.fineartstudioonline.com17 months ago

Looks real good, keep up the info. very interesting to learn how its done.

Dale Radford
via darrelmorris.fineartstudioonline.com9 months ago

Good explanations. I am trying to establish a procedure to transfer a pattern to a work piece. I have tried printing the design on paper and then use acetone or fingernail polish to wet the printed design thinking the design would transfer ok. No luck so far. Any suggestions?

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