Scrimshaw FAQ

A Presidential Advisory Committee that met 12/16/2013 plans to recommend a total ban on ivory sales within the US to the task force on Wildlife Trafficking.  This recommendation is not only a ban on new ivory (which already exists), but a ban on the sale of ALL ivory that is in any form. To read more about this, please

Frequently Asked Questions about Scrimshaw and IvoryTo see examples of my current work or to purchase, visit my Online Catalog;
my Gallery contains works already in private collections.

What is scrimshaw?
How do I care for my scrimshaw?
What types of materials do you use?
Isn’t ivory illegal?
How do you tell different kinds of ivory apart (including ivory substitutes)?
I think I have an old whale tooth or walrus tusk.  How much is it worth?
Why do you use real ivory instead of environmentally-friendly materials?
How are the designs made?
Do you re-ink and restore old scrimshaw?
Can I mail-order?
Do you have a catalog?
Do you do special orders and commissions?
Do you take plastic money?Scrimshaw

Scrimshaw — Painstaking etching on ivory or bone — is one of only a few indigenous American crafts.   Practiced for centuries by the Inuit and other native groups along the Northwest Coast, it was adopted by the Yankee whalemen of the early 1800’s. Two- to five-year voyages quickly became monotonous, so the whalemen turned to working with baleen, whale teeth, and jawbones, all of which were in abundant supply — in fact, on many ships, whale teeth were part of the pay, and were often traded to shopkeepers in port for goods or services.  Common subjects included whaling scenes, ships, women, and scenes copied from magazines of the day.  The origin of the word is obscure; one interesting etymology is a Dutch phrase meaning “to waste one’s time”!   The term “scrimshaw” also applies to carved or pierced bone or ivory, since much of the whalemen’s work was carved rather than etched.
[Return to top of page]Materials used in my work

I use naturally-shed antler and three types of ivory, all of which are obtained legally and do not endanger living species:

Naturally-shed deer, elk and moose antler are used for unique collector pieces and desk accessories, such as pen bases, letter openers with fine hardwood blades and antler handles, keyrings, fireplace sets, and cribbage boards. This material is also used for knife scales and handles and other pieces that get a lot of wear because it is tougher than ivory.  Items currently for sale include cribbage boardsdesk accessories and keyrings made from antlers.

Piano keys — These are actually “recycled” elephant ivory, and may be any shade from brilliant white to yellow-brown. These pieces are quite thin — less than 1/16 inch — and often have a wood-like grain. The last US-made keys were produced in 1953 in Ivoryton, CT., long before CITES or the Endangered Species Act went into effect. Due to the size limit, roughly 1″ x 2″ for “tops” or “pads” and 1/2″ x 4″ for tails, the size of finished pieces is also limited. These lend themselves well to pierced work (backed with fine wood veneers) made from the tops, and bookmarks and sewing rulers (either 4″ or 10 cm) made from the tails (between the black keys).  I have pendantsearrings, and bookmarks of piano keys presently available.

“Fossil” walrus ivory — This takes the form of either teeth (shed by the walrus periodically and washed onshore) or tusk pieces. The latter can be either “fossil” ivory artifacts found near centuries-old Eskimo villages, or fresh ivory taken legally by Eskimos and distributed by the Alaska Fish and Game Commission. Centuries of burial or immersion in cold seawater color this material a light tan to a deep brown or gray. Teeth are used whole, or they may be cut in to slabs or crosscuts, displaying a chatoyancy similar to tiger-eye or star gems. Tusk ivory has a mealy (“Cream of Wheat”) appearance in its center, which can be very appealing. Thin tooth sections focus transmitted light from one side into a small area, a phenomenon which I use to advantage by scrimming lighthouse pendants with actual “lights” in them!  View my available walrus ivory pendants.

Mammoth or mastodon ivory — This is truly a fossil ivory, and is rarely found in large pieces suitable for scrimshaw. Ivory buried underground or in bogs (“mud ivory”) tends to be soft or punky, but Alaskan or Siberian ivory found in glacial till and preserved by cold is an excellent medium for scrimshaw. Partial mineralization of this material often makes it quite hard, and imparts colors ranging from creamy white to dark brown; occasional pieces with a blue or green hue are found.  Pieces often have a strong pattern or grain. This ivory is at least 10,000 years old; some pieces may be much older.  I have mammoth ivory pendants, both with and without silver setting, available now.

I also have a small selection of thicker elephant ivory pieces.  This has all been obtained legally.  I have not purchased any of this material for a number of years, since well before the import ban went into effect in 1990.  When the stock runs out, it will not be replaced.  Included are a few hair combs and thimbles, as well as some other carved or pierced pieces, a couple tusk hollows, and standard-sized pieces for pendants.  This is a beautiful material, but is somewhat softer than the fossil ivories or those from marine mammals.  It acquires a tan or yellowish patina with age.  This is nothing to be alarmed about; neither can you do much about it, so enjoy it!
[Return to top of page]Care and cleaning

Treat your scrimshawed ivory as you would any fine jewelry. Do not get it wet unnecessarily, because the inks, especially colors, may fade. Keep your scrimshaw out of bright sun; this dries and cracks the ivory and may fade certain colored inks. Detergents, shampoo, heavily chlorinated water, and jewelry cleaning solutions should be avoided, as they turn the ivory surface dull and remove the etched lines. Dirt and oils may be removed with a cotton swab moistened in rubbing alcohol and wiped gently over the surface. Do not scrub, as this will remove some ink from the fine lines. I use a light coat of warm beeswax rubbed into the ivory to preserve the scrimshaw and keep the ivory from drying and aging too fast. Waxing should be repeated when the ivory is cleaned, because the alcohol removes it. If you treat your scrimshaw with care, it will give you many years of pleasure and may become a treasured heirloom.
[Return to top of page]Isn’t ivory illegal?

The quick answer is no.  The more involved answer is that the level of restriction depends on the type.  Mammoth and mastodon ivory carry no restrictions because they are from extinct animals.  Wart hog, hippopotamus, and elk “whistler” ivory are also unrestricted.  Ivory from African elephants can no longer be imported into the US per the CITES treaty; however, any elephant ivory within the US can be legally bought and sold without restriction.  Sperm whale was recently downlisted on the endangered species list; it is now considered “threatened”.  Its teeth can be bought and sold via interstate commerce only by people with USFWS permits; however, they can be sold from person to person as long as the transaction is not across state lines.  All other marine mammals are considered “protected” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.  Whole walrus tusks can only leave Alaska if they are genuine native artwork or have special clearance; partial tusks must be tagged by the Alaska Fish and Game Dept. The only strictly illegal ivory I am aware of is Indian elephant; this animal is considered endangered because there are few truly wild ones left — most are circus or zoo animals, or are domesticated beasts of burden.
[Return to top of page]How do you tell different kinds of ivory apart (including ivory substitutes)?

Ivory is a natural tooth substance that continues to grow throughout the animal’s life. As a result, it has noticeable structure and “growth lines” much like a tree’s growth rings. Artificial ivories do not have this kind of structure, and are usually a consistent color throughout. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has put together an excellent page devoted to this, including diagnostic features and photos for elephant, mammoth and mastodon, walrus, sperm and killer whale, narwhal, hippopotamus, and wart hog ivories, natural substitutes, hornbill “ivory”, vegetable ivory and synthetic substitutes. The easiest way to tell definitively (though a tad bit destructively!) whether the piece you have is ivory — if you can’t find the growth rings or Schreger lines — is the “hot pin test”. Heat a pin to nearly red hot and touch the tip to an inconspicuous part of the object. If it is ivory, it will scorch and smell like burning bone (a dentist’s office smell). If it is polymer or celluloid, the pin will melt into the piece, and smell like plastic or bakelite burning.
[Return to top of page]I think I have an old whale tooth or walrus tusk.  How much is it worth?

First of all, most of the old  (meaning early to mid 1800’s) pieces of scrimshaw are in museums or private collections already.  The chances of your finding one at a garage sale or flea market are about the same as finding a Monet or Van Gogh.  If a piece has been handed down through your family for several generations and you know one of your ancestors was a whaler, chances are much better.  Keep in mind that most scrimshanders before 1960 rarely signed their work, and pretty much the only dates found on early scrimshaw are commemorative in nature — particular sea battles, wedding dates, holidays, etc.  The most notable exception is the Susan’s teeth, a group of teeth worked by Frederick Myrick on board the whaler Susan in the late 1820’s.Several enterprising companies have taken it upon themselves to make excellent replicas of museum holdings.  One individual (Stephen Barlow, the Thomas Kincaid of this genre) has made copies of his own work and that of others, and marketed it to “fine” gift shops everywhere as “Barlow scrimshaw”. These replicas, known as “fakeshaw“, are actually quite common.  The reputable museum replica makers have put a stamp on the bottom of the piece to let buyers know they have a replica, but others do not.  The Kendall Whaling Museum has put together a list of the known replicas with descriptions.  Before you contact me about an old tooth or tusk you own, please look through the fakeshaw list.
[Return to top of page]
Why do you use real ivory instead of environmentally-friendly materials?

For one, I do not consider plastics to be environmentally friendly.  They were never intended to be biodegradable, and they use scarce petrochemical resources.  Second, I only use materials that come from Extinct animals — mammoth and mastodon, Materials discarded by animals so they can grow new ones — antlers and walrus teeth, and Materials taken from animals long ago that would be taking up space in an environmentally-unfriendly landfill if I didn’t use them — piano keys.For a more complete description of these materials, see my Materials Used section.As far as substitutes go, micarta produces a series of tiny chips instead of a fine line, corian doesn’t hold ink well, and ivoryite just doesn’t work well for me.  Vegetable ivory is good for carving, but its oil resists ink.  ‘Nuff said.
[Return to top of page]How are the designs made?

The designs are hand-etched into the ivory surface with a sharp tool, and ink is rubbed into the scratches.  My colors are not painted on, as is the case in mass-produced “scrimshaw” (Beware the unicorn with a colored rainbow in the background!).  The black is India ink, and the colors are Dr. Martin’s radiant watercolors.  The latter are more a dye than a pigment, but only dye the ivory where the scratches are made because the surface is sealed when it is polished.  These etched-in designs are permanent, but abnormal wear and some substances can remove the ink or damage the polished surface, removing the fine lines.  See my Care of Scrimshaw section for more details.
[Return to top of page]Do you re-ink and restore old scrimshaw?
Yes, I will, as long as it’s on real ivory.  The plastic stuff isn’t worth my time.  Re-inking is free, if return postage is provided.  Re-etching and restoring pieces, including mending cracks, is at the same rate as a commission, $30/hr.  I will provide a rough estimate of the time involved, but it is not subject to the same “within 10% guarantee” as commissions because working on someone else’s piece or trying to restore another artisan’s work is not easy.  
[Return to top of page]Can I mail-order?

You sure can.  Shipping charges are 5% of the item’s value, with a $6.00 minimum.  Next-day mail service is an additional $11.00.  Michigan residents must add 6% sales tax to the value of the item, exclusive of shipping.  My online ordering system will calculate all of this for you and give you a printable invoice upon completion.  I ship items from my online catalog via Priority Mail (2-3 days) or Express mail (next day) within 24 hours of payment confirmation.Pendants come with a sterling silver chain, and earrings are sterling silver posts or wires.  
[Return to top of page]Do you have a catalog?

The catalog on this website is is about as much of a catalog as I have.  All of my works are original, handmade pieces, and no two are identical, unlike those plastic replicas sold in gift shops everywhere.  If you want four pieces exactly alike for you and your siblings, talk to Mr. Barlow, or get a Zippo lighter!  All kidding aside — There is no way I can really put out a printed catalog that would be cost-effective, because my pieces are not cookie-cutter copies, and my stock turns over too rapidly.
[Return to top of page]Do you do special orders and commissions?

Most definitely.  I will work with you to figure out exactly what you want.  Prices are figured on cost of materials + labor ($30/hr).  This might sound high, but I work fast, completing something such as a large Nantucket basket plaque (2.5 x 4 inches) in 15-20 hours.  Before I begin, I give you an estimate guaranteed to be within 10% of the final cost; if I go over, I lose out.  I also require 50% of the estimate to begin (half of which is refundable), due to the cost of materials.  If you are not pleased with the result, you will get a refund upon return of the item. If you provide your own material, I only require a 25% deposit, but this is non-refundable — it will partially compensate me for the time spent if you reject the work.
[Return to top of page]Do you take plastic money?

I take orders via PayPal (VISA, MasterCard and others) and checks through my online ordering system.  I can also take deposits for commissions through PayPal; email me for instructions.  Orders from outside the US are best handled through PayPal, but I cannot ship any elephant ivory items internationally — only antler, mammoth and fossil walrus — due to CITES restrictions on international trade of elephant ivory.
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