The Art of Scrimshaw: pieces from our collection and a how-to guide to make your own

Whale's tooth with view of Amsterdam, MB0282
Sometimes the best part of learning can be getting your hands dirty. That’s exactly what we have been doing on Summer Saturdays at the Old State House! One of my favorite hands on activities is one designed around the art of scrimshaw.

Scrimshaw is pieces of carved and colored whale tooth or bone. Although whale tooth and bone were the most common materials for scrimshaw, examples can also be found of tusk, ivory or bone from other sea or land animals. Carving animal tooth and bone is a practice that goes back centuries, but the term scrimshaw came into use in the 19th century- as the whaling trade was exploding worldwide. Whaling ships would embark on trips that lasted years and the whalers often had ample time on their hands. The act of creating scrimshaw, called scrimshandering, was a detailed art that could easily occupy many hours and whalers could then bring the finished products home to their families and friends as souvenirs from their time abroad.

Scrimshaw clothespin, MB0070
These examples from the Bostonian Society’s collection show how diverse scrimshaw can be. Some show familial scenes, while others are more artistic or depict places the men traveled to. The shape of the scrimshaw can vary. Frequently scrimshaw took the shape of the original tooth, but sometimes it would be shaped into useful tools like this cribbage board and clothespins.  Busks were also common scrimshaw gifts, brought home to wives and sweethearts. Busks were a component of the corsets worn by women in the 19th century, the vertical piece lying against a woman’s sternum. A very intimate souvenir!

Whale's tooth with
family scene, MB0036

Whalers used whatever tools they had at their disposal, such as jackknifes, files and India ink. As scrimshaw became well known some men brought special tools with them on the ship in anticipation of the pieces they would work on. Tools that resembled a dentist kit were some of the most popular tools! The small picks worked well on the tooth and bone. Our hands on activity uses materials that are more readily available in the 21st century. We are doing this activity in the museum this summer, but it can easily be done at home as well, or even in the classroom.

Scrimshaw Activity

  • Block of white soap
  • A ball point pen
  • Black washable poster paint
  • Wooden carving tools (such as this one available at craft stores)
  • Sponge, cut into small pieces
  • Paper plate
  • Newspaper or craft paper to cover work space

  • Smooth off soap surface with wooden tool
  • Use point of wooden tool or the point of the pen to carve image (the pen will not make any marks on the soap). Carve whatever image you want. It can be a meaningful representation of something you love or a beautiful design. It’s up to the artist!
  • When carving, be careful not to press too hard, the soap may split.
  • If the soap is dry, the soap particles can irritate your throat, so don’t breathe too deeply!
  • Use sponge to apply paint. Use enough to get into the carving to make the entire image appear. Wipe away excess paint, using the sponge as well as paper towels to get the desired look.
  • Let the paint dry.
  • Share your art with friends and family- regaling them with tales of your time on the high seas!
Resource note: A great resource for more information on scrimshaw (and the history of whaling) is Leviathan, by Eric Jay Dolin.

By Alexa Drolette, Museum Programs Manager