check out our store
check out our store

How to scrimshaw?

Written by:
Aleks Nemtcev
February 13, 2024
making scrimshaw knife handle

Scrimshaw is a traditional folk art form in which fanciful designs are carved into bone or faux ivory and then colored with ink. The maritime art form originated around the late 17th century from commercial whaling and reached its peak by the mid-19th century. Whale’s teeth, walrus tusks, or elephant ivory were used as scrimshaw material. Whaling scenes, ships, naval battles, and coats of arms are the traditional subjects of scrimshaw designs. Scrimshander is the name for scrimshaw artisans.


Tools and Materials for Scrimshaw

Ivory or bone are the traditional scrimshaw materials. As elephant ivory is prohibited for use today, faux ivory, shell or acrylic polymer are often used nowadays. Bone options may include whale bone, camel bone, horns of various animals, walrus tusks, mammoth tusk,s and more. At Noblie, we use buffalo horn and mammoth tusk – a rare and expensive material – to craft knife scales for our scrimshaw knives. We use these legally available materials to secure the preservation of wildlife elephants.

A scribing tool or a needle and pin vise are needed to make controlled, precise etch for scrimshaw. Also, a scrimshander will need glass marking pencils, black ink, swabs or toothpicks for inking, sandpaper (300 grit or higher), and fine steel wool or a soft cloth for polishing.

scrimshaw tools


Scrimshaw: A Step-by-Step Journey

Creating scrimshaw is a delicate art that requires a keen eye, a steady hand, and a considerable amount of patience. Here are the main steps involved in the process:

  1. Selection of Material:
    Traditional scrimshaw is done on ivory, but due to legal and ethical concerns, many artists now use materials like bone, mammoth tusk, horn, or synthetic ivory.
  2. Preparation of Surface:
    The material needs to be sanded smooth to create an ideal surface for engraving. This could require multiple rounds of sanding with progressively finer grits of sandpaper.
  3. Design Selection and Transfer:
    Choose a design and transfer it onto the prepared surface. This could be done by tracing, using transfer paper, or drawing freehand.
  4. Outline Engraving:
    Using a sharp engraving tool, carefully trace the outlines of your design on the material. This step establishes the primary shapes and forms of the image.
  5. Detail Engraving:
    After the outlines are established, work on the finer details of the image by engraving additional lines, textures, and shading.
  6. Inking:
    Rub ink over the engraved lines. Traditionally, artists used lampblack or india ink, but other pigments can also be used to fill in the engravings and bring the design to life.
  7. Wiping and Polishing:
    Wipe off the excess ink from the surface, leaving ink only in the engraved lines. Polish the piece to your desired sheen.
  8. Additional Coloring (Optional):
    If desired, additional colors can be added to the scrimshaw piece using colored inks or pigments.
  9. Sealing (Optional):
    Some artists choose to seal their work with a clear sealant to protect the engraving and ensure its longevity.
  10. Evaluation and Touch-Up:
    As you mentioned earlier, a thorough evaluation of the piece against the original design to identify any areas that might need further refining is crucial. Touch up as necessary to achieve the desired level of detail and accuracy.
  11. Display or Mounting:
    Once satisfied, the scrimshaw piece can be displayed or mounted in a setting of your choice, such as in jewelry or a display case.

Each of these steps requires a meticulous approach and careful execution to ensure a beautifully finished piece of scrimshaw art.

Surface Preparation – Polishing

First, the bone surface has to be polished to seal any pores that might be present in the material. Beeswax or a similar sealing agent is spread and rubbed into the surface with a cloth over and over until the material has a uniform surface. Sealing keeps the ink that is applied onto the bone from spilling over into unwanted sections. Polishing and sealing must be done with any surface intended to be used for the scrimshaw art.

Proper Lighting

A scrimshander needs to make sure that a great light source has been setup to be able to clearly see the etched lines and dots on the working surface. When light beams at the correct angle, lines and dots on the surface of scrimshaw material are easier to see. Often, the light source or scrimshaw material has to be moved around to find the best angle for viewing.

scrimshaw making

Draw an Image On the Surface

There are special pencils out there that are the best for drawing on slick surfaces and will even write on glass. First, a pretty loose sketch of general outlines is drawn on the material, only meant as a guideline for what is to come. Then more detail on darker areas is added, to indicate spots for the upcoming intensive stippling of crosshatch scratching. Scrimshaw is often worked from dark to light, with scratching or stippling in the darkest areas first.

Stippling or Scratching an Image Outline

Dotting a surface with tiny stabs is called a stipple while making small cuts is known as the scratch technique. When stippling, outlining holes are kept very close together to provide fine details of the image. With the scratch technique, a modeling knife or a similar tool is used to cut shallow lines that create the details of the design. It is important to create lines by pulling the knife, not pushing it, and applying as little pressure as needed when cutting.

making scrimshaw

Make Image Shading

With the stipple technique, proper shading depends on the depth and the quantity of stipples in an area. Closer and deeper dots are made in an area that is a dark shade. Fewer dots, farther apart, are needed for a lighter shade, while the lightest parts of the image require no dots at all.

With the scratch technique, shading depends on how close the lines are to each other, how deep they are, and how many lines the scrimshander makes (or even makes crosshatching or basket weave). Basically, the shading strategy is similar to the stipple technique, just replacing dots with lines.

making scrimshaw knife

Cover the Surface With Ink

After the image is etched, either by stipple or scratch, the surface is inked using a cotton swab. The ink must be applied gently at a first pass, to examine how the material is imbibing the ink.

Remove any Ink Haze Left on the Bone or Horn

After inking, a tissue or soft cloth is used to wipe away the excess ink. Steel wool can be used to remove any ink haze left on bone or horn – however, it is not recommended for faux ivory or polymer. Ink or haze left on plastic or polymer materials can be rubbed away with a little rubbing alcohol applied to a soft cloth.

scrimshaw making process

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What materials are suitable for scrimshaw engraving?

Traditionally, scrimshaw artistry was performed on whalebone or ivory. However, due to ethical and conservation concerns, many modern scrimshanders have transitioned to alternative materials. Today, materials like bone, horn, or synthetic ivory substitutes are commonly used. It’s essential to ensure that the material chosen is ethically sourced and complies with local regulations regarding the use of animal products.

What tools are needed to start scrimshaw engraving?

The primary tool needed for scrimshaw is a sharp engraving tool such as a scribe or scrimshaw needle. Additionally, fine-grit sandpaper is essential for preparing the surface of the material. To transfer designs onto the material, artists may use transfer paper or tracing paper. Inking the engraved lines requires good quality ink, traditionally lampblack or india ink, although colored inks can also be used for adding additional hues to the artwork. Lastly, a Renaissance Wax can be used to protect the finished piece.

How can I achieve shading and detail in my scrimshaw artwork?

Shading in scrimshaw is achieved not by the depth of the engraving but by the density of the lines or dots. More densely packed lines or dots create darker shading, while lighter shading requires a more spaced-out pattern. Detailing in scrimshaw is a meticulous process, requiring a steady hand and fine engraving tools to create intricate designs. It’s a practice of patience and precision, with each puncture contributing to the overall image.

Is there a particular technique for transferring designs onto the engraving material?

There are several methods to transfer designs onto your scrimshaw material. One common technique is to use transfer paper which allows you to trace a design onto the surface. Another method is to draw the design directly onto the material using a pencil, which can then be engraved over it. Alternatively, some artists prefer to work freehand, engraving designs directly onto the material without a pre-drawn guide, although this method requires a high level of skill and confidence in one’s artistic ability. Each of these methods has its own set of advantages and can be chosen based on the artist’s preference and level of experience.

Video credit: Newport Scrimshanders.

Tips and Conclusion

Upon the culmination of the engraving process, it’s imperative to scrutinize the work meticulously once more. This step entails juxtaposing your engraving against the original image to ascertain the level of accuracy and likeness achieved. Should some areas necessitate additional refinement, this is the opportune moment to make those essential touch-ups to enhance the precision and overall aesthetics of your scrimshaw piece.

In wrapping up, I wish to underscore several pivotal considerations that could significantly impact the outcome of your scrimshaw endeavors:

Patience is a Virtue: Scrimshaw is a craft that calls for a gentle hand and a patient spirit. Rushing through the process could lead to irreversible mistakes or a finished piece that falls short of your envisioned masterpiece. It’s crucial to adopt a methodical and attentive approach throughout the journey.

Heed Your Body’s Signals: If fatigue sets in or your eyes feel strained, heed these signals and step away from your work. It’s more prudent to resume with a fresh set of eyes and a reinvigorated spirit, which will ultimately reflect in the quality of your work.

Direct Engraving Versus Tracing: It’s advisable to steer clear of attempting to engrave the entire image by merely tracing a printed drawing. Such an approach could stifle your artistic flair and lead to a lackluster result. The aim should be to breathe life into the engraving, which often comes from a deeper understanding and interpretation of the image.

Tackle in Segments: Rather than ambitiously attempting to cover vast expanses of the drawing in one sweep, it’s wiser to tackle small sections at a time. This way, you can devote your attention to filling in and coloring each section meticulously before moving on to the next, thereby ensuring a more harmonious and detailed outcome.

Adhere to the Light-to-Dark Principle: A golden rule in scrimshaw is to progress from light to dark as you engrave. Commence with light, delicate punctures, barely allowing the needle to kiss the surface of the plate, before gradually darkening the necessary areas. This technique provides a solid foundation for building up the contrasts and depths crucial for a captivating piece.

Master the Art of Shading: Shading in scrimshaw is not about the depth of the punctures but rather the frequency of punctures within a specific area. By increasing the number of punctures, you can achieve a richer grayscale, which is instrumental in rendering a more nuanced and realistic portrayal.

Strive for High Resolution: Much like in photography and videography, resolution is a telling metric of quality in scrimshaw. Aim for a higher count of dots (or punctures) within a given area to capture a finer grayscale, which in turn translates to a higher-quality scrimshaw. The denser the punctures, the better the grayscale rendition, culminating in a piece that’s not only precise but also aesthetically pleasing.

By adhering to these guidelines and continually honing your skills, you’re well on your way to mastering the ancient and revered art of scrimshaw, creating pieces that resonate with you and the beholders of your craft.

We at Noblie collaborate with the world’s best scrimshanders having high-class expertise and professional experience of at least 7 years. You can enjoy the high refinement of any of Noblie scrimshaw knives that have required a high attention focus, patience, and a long time to create.

Author: Aleks Nemtcev | Connect with me on LinkedIn



Leave a reply

We don't allow links in the comments. Any comment containing links will be declined.

Thank you for your comment, it is currently under review.
Fill in all fields for commenting!


  • Juan tisera

    Excellent, very clear explanation. I’m captivated by this technique.

  • Mikola

    Is there an option for finishing images?
    Varnishing, pasting….


    Yes, there are several options for finishing scrimshaw images to enhance their appearance and longevity. One particularly revered finishing product is Renaissance Wax. This micro-crystalline wax polish is used to provide a durable, protective finish on the engraved piece.

    Renaissance Wax is favored for its ability to provide a moisture-resistant barrier without discoloring or harming the material it’s applied to. It’s a versatile product that’s safe for use on a wide range of materials including ivory, bone, and synthetic materials commonly used in scrimshaw.

    Applying Renaissance Wax is straightforward. Simply apply a small amount of the wax onto the scrimshaw piece using a soft cloth, and buff it gently until a sheen appears. This will not only enhance the visual appeal of your scrimshaw but also provide a protective barrier against dirt, fingerprints, and moisture, helping to preserve your artwork for years to come.

    Additionally, Renaissance Wax dries clear, allowing the intricate details of your scrimshaw engraving to shine through while providing a professional, finished look. The wax is also reusable; if over time the finish dulls, the piece can be re-waxed to restore its luster.

    Renaissance Wax is a reliable and effective option for those looking to provide a finished, protective coating to their scrimshaw artwork, ensuring the beauty and integrity of the piece are maintained over time.

Related materials
The finish quality of the blade is determined by the Grit of the finishing grind. These can range from a low-shine 280-320 grit finish to a mirror-shine. The high polish shine can be accomplished by buffing with chrome oxide (ex. white chrome, green chrome), hand rubbing with extremely fine wet-or-dry abrasive paper, or with a Japanese water-stone, which has an approximate grit of 10,000-12,000. Most high quality manufactured knives have about an 800 grit finish.
Mosaic Damascus Steel is a type of pattern-welded steel renowned for its intricate designs and exceptional durability. This results in each Mosaic Damascus piece being a unique blend of art and functionality.
In the production of a custom knife, great attention must be given to the selection of steel used for the blade. Blade steel, along with edge geometry and design, is a critical factor that determines the performance of the knife.
Rating: 4,9 - 64 reviews