Check Twice, Drill Once (preferably from the front…)

Casein Scrimshaw drilled at the bottom by mistakeI was setting up the “Sun Motif” scrimshaw I had created on a casein cabochon and decided I should go ahead and drill the one-off light house to put on a chain as well.  Carefully measuring I marked the back and drilled a hole through – on the bottom.  Oops. Oh well, sour grapes, we’ll see how it holds up to a second sanding.


The sun came out better, checked and sure enough, I’d marked it at the bottom instead of the top.  Think drilling face-up should be my preferred method.

Sun motif scrimshaw on casein

Posted in Projects

Ivory Ban News: Ivory (including mammoth ivory) Illegal for Sale in New Jersey

Ivory Ban News Update:

Sadly, mammoth ivory got the ax as well as elephant ivory. This same knee-jerk reaction may hit New York as well. see MongaBay for more…

You can’t hide an elephant (or ivory clad bagpipes) under your kilt and cross the border…

US Fish and Wildlife confiscated two bagpipes from a pair of 17-year-olds who were to compete on an international level. Ivory harvested since 1976 is banned in the U.S. … – read more.

Posted in FYI

Ivory Alternative – Piano Key Tops: Some Aren’t so Great for Scrimshaw

Abandoned Grand Piano

Photo Credit: Rick Harris on

Reclaimed Piano Keys…


Reclaiming piano keys have been a great way to utilize a resource that would otherwise curl away on abandoned pianos or get put into the trash after being replaced.  They are often chipped, discolored and are otherwise useless for their intended purpose.  Sadly, they are from elephants and though long-since dead, are unsellable in today’s market or will be soon.


Piano key ivory is thin, usually 1mm thick but made great bookmarks or when glued to the outside of a box or zippo lighter made a great miniature canvas for the modern scrimshander.

So far, we have only tried one supplier of alternative ivory keytops and frankly we are not impressed.  While the material looks alot like ivory keytops, they fall short for our use.

The piano keytops we purchased online probably work very well for replacement keytops and would blend in quite well with little effort, so realize it’s not a slight on their intended purpose, but for scrimshaw, they are soft – too soft for anyone who wishes to create a treasure to sell or give as a gift.  That being said, they are very inexpensive and would work great for beginners or the young if you were to create a class project that students or day campers could try their hands at and would give them a treasure of their own design.

alt-piano key ivory and other alternatives lovingly scribed by my 10 yr oldMy set of keys have been used by my industrious daughter to create a bagful of her own scrimshaw, and she has had a great time working with it. She also found my other material including some very nice mammoth ivory which now has her beginning scrimshaw art carefully tucked away, since she created them and presented them to me for my birthday.  Can’t get angry for that, it was a thoughtful idea, and I wouldn’t sand them down if they were the last pieces of mammoth ivory on earth.

If you need piano key replacements or an inexpensive miniature alternative ivory “canvas” for busy industrious hands you can pick them up here:

Ivory Ban News

iKnifeCollector has introduced two bills to protect knife collectors from the ivory ban
Legislation to stop the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from seriously harming millions of Americans by unnecessarily banning interstate commerce of decades-old legal ivory and products containing legal ivory, such as ivory handled and ivory decorated knives, was introduced in both the House and the Senate. Representatives Steve Daines (MT) and Jeff Miller (FL) sponsored H.R. 5052, and Senator Lamar Alexander (TN) sponsored S. 2587. These bills complement a House appropriations bill passed out of sub-committee on July 9th that would defund Fish and Wildlife Service’ enforcement of its irrational new ivory policy that needlessly punishes innocent Americans, while allowing the Administration to protect African elephants and other wildlife from poaching.

Please CALL or EMAIL your Representative and Senators TODAY and ask them to Co-Sponsor H.R. 5052 and S. 2587.

Find your Representative:
Find your Senators:…nators_cfm.cfm

From iKnifecollector

We’re on vacation for a week, may bring some tools and pieces to pass the time. I’ve been working on a couple of cougars, one on “Alternative Ivory” and one on Tagua nut, So far, they’re shaping up nicely, though a snack on a chewy granola type bar has cracked one of my ivories and will be going to get the rest of it extracted later today…

Coming up soon: Casein Revisited: we’ll be reviewing casein made in 3mm sheet form from England (it’s on a tall ship making its way across the “pond” as I write), more ivory alternatives and then we’ll be starting to focus on techniques in the newsletter.  Any suggestions, any frustrations you may be experiencing either starting or finishing a piece of scrimshaw? Write to “” and we’ll be glad to help

Posted in Uncategorized

Bone – An Abundant Ivory Alternative for Scrimshaw

Scrimshaw can be performed on any hard material that will hold a contrasting pigment.  Scrimshaw on bone handled knives as well as bone cabochons or beads are popular alternatives to ivory, and there are plenty of materials out there.

Bone is a naturally porous material which will take on moisture and oils as well as expand and contract with the variations in temperature and humidity. It is best to either find a stabilized source or to stabilize it yourself before you take the time to ply your craft.

Stabilized bone can be found in most knifemaker supply houses as either cow bone, camel bone or in some cases other “bush meat” bone that has been cleaned and preserved.

You can find blank material to work on in several places depending on your end product. Amazon has bone knife scales from time to time, and there are also buffalo bone nut blanks often used in the luthier trade. You can sometimes find them oversized which works well for smaller knife handle material or for creating cabochons or inlay.

As to the material when it comes from the source, unless it clearly states that it has been or is stabilized, figure that it is not, and it will be porous.  There are several ways you can stabilize or seal them yourself, or you can re-ship them out to a stabilizing service – they often do the same for bone, antler, spalted wood, etc.

Stablilizing Bone for Scrimshaw – top coat:

  1. The first Method requires dry bone cut roughly or completely to the shape intended,
  • cyanoacrylate glue (super glue like Loctiteor Bob Smith 103 )
  • small paint brushes – don’t use good ones, get cheap ones you can throw away or use q-tips
  • Newspaper to cover the area you’ll be working on.
  • gloves
  • ventilation
  • eye protection

Coat the piece you intend to scrimshaw by squirting the glue on then coating the rest of the surface using the brush. Let the piece dry.

Once dry, sand it down lightly so it’s smooth. We tend to use 320 grit sandpaper then wipe off any dust and recoat it.  Second time we sand it we move up to a 600 grit and inspect it carefully.  Sometimes two coats is all you need to fill in any voids.  If it’s good, we work up to 3000 grit, then a polish with HUT wax and start to scrim.


bone blank slightly yellow

Stabilized bone after minwax vacuum immersion

Stabilizing Bone for scrimshaw – method 2: Immersion

We tried this using Minwax Wood Hardener and came up with useable but “antiqued” looking bone and tagua nut buttons.  They ended up with a yellowish patina.  In this method you’ll use a glass mason jar or ball jar with the vacuum type lid, you will be standing the jar upright and immersing your pieces in either the Minwax wood preservative or a mixture of acetone and duco cement as mentioned in

Either one should be done in a well ventilated area with no open flames sparks etc.  Realize also that any rubber or plastic (like the wine stopper and the lid) will disintegrate – wear gloves when removing it and discard appropriately.

I used a Vacu Vin, drilling a hole into the top of the metal ball jar lid that fit the stopper almost perfectly.

Jar mouth sealerAnother way to accomplish this would be to use a FoodSaver T03-0006-02P Regular-Mouth Jar Sealer which may last longer if you can remove it quickly enough.

Here’s a video of someone stabilizing some material similar to what we’ve just described:

Here’s another one from another individual:

Pre-stabilized bone can be found in cow, camel and giraffe, though many times it is died or “jigged” – where a pattern is cut into it to allow for a better grip. Texas KnifeMaker’s Supply has some nice supplies including cow,



Here are several links to knives you can scrimshaw. Most have bone handles from

  •  Bone Handles Barlow
  • Magnum Damascus
  • Browning Folder


Posted in FYI, Projects

Quiet Sunday Morning Updates

Added a couple of pics to existing posts.

Buffalo scrimshaw on paper micarta in progressFinished Buffalo on Micarta next to quarter on left
The Buffalo on Paper Micarta is slowly ambling its way to completion as I experiment with textures. It is a medium that can capture lines far better than I first imagined, but it is still softer than ivory.

Update 5:00pm EDT  Decided to finish it off this afternoon after a frenzied camper dropoff.

Rose on Tagua Nut using Oil for the initial black and India Ink for the color. Test scribes below the rose
Added the final pic of the Tagua Nut Rose experiment, carefully inking the colors using India ink and a 000 brush. Like the effect but you have to be real careful with the ink.

Owl on Casein - finished
The “Merlyn’s Owl” is finished and the recipient is thrilled. Coated it with a final layer of Renaissance wax once it dried and sent it off.


Look into the comments section, too – have an inquiry for a husband and wife scrimshaw team that worked in Ohio in the 1970′s that an individual has asked about.  Preliminary search didn’t find them, hoping to get some pics of their work so we can put them up as a “Mystery Artist”.

Posted in FYI, Projects

The “Ivory Boom” of the Mid-1800′s

What better way to celebrate Independence Day than to write about the ingenuity of the U.S. inventors and things that can go boom?

So what do you get when you mix alcohol, testosterone, gambling and gunpowder? A saloon. Now ­ mix in spherical ivory alternatives that strike each other and what do you have? You have a crowded saloon.

In the mid-1800′s a $10,000 reward was raised by Phelan & Collander, one of the largest billiard ball manufacturers for the first usable ivory alternative. John Wesley Hyatt, most likely spurred by this, not only came up with an alternative, but also created processes that would create perfectly round billiard balls. (Site down for maintenance as of the writing of this article, see the “wayback machine” for an archived version of this)

Celluloid was one of the first plastics to be used in place of elephant ivory. The Hyatt Manufacturing Company created billiard balls that were similar to the size weight and resilience of their elephant ivory counterpart. Unfortunately the chemical composition of these new billiard balls had a couple of downsides: they were extremely flammable, exploding with the sound of a gunshot when a careless cigar or ash came in contact with them (there are stories of everyone in the saloon drawing their guns due to this fact), and they would form a paper thin skin that dust and dirt would adhere to. By mixing camphor in with the ground cellulose nitrate and adding heat, they were able to make a more stable compound.

Celluloid from this period was used to make many items that were popular in the day which tortois, ivory and wood were made of, including dolls, toys, handles for every conceivable item including razors, combs brushes and more. It was also useful as an alternative to ivory in the luthier trade.

Today, celluloid nitrate is still available but it is considered a hazardous material due to it’s flammable nature. You can find it in various forms from 0.020” thick to 0.25” thick.

It’s flashpoint is 165 degrees C (329 degrees F).

You can still get this material if you wish from Axiom, Inc.

Posted in FYI

Ivory Alternative: Tagua Nut

Ivory Alternative: Tagua Nut

A Renewable Resource You May Already be Wearing

Tagua nuts have a varied history for the west, acting as a ballast medium for ships setting sail from South America*. This material has been popular for a long time as a substitute for ivory and has been making a comeback as a material for buttons and jewelry.  It’s also used for making carvings such as netsuke and other small adornments.  Tagua was used by the US Army during World War II for uniforms, gradually being replaced with plastics afterward.

What Is Tagua Nut?

Tagua nut is the seed of a palm known as Phytelipas Aequatoralis, it does have a distant cousin in the Solomon Islandsknown as ivory nut and Metroxylon amicorum from the Caroline Islands of Micronesia, as well as Hyphaene ventricosa from the Zambezi River of Africa*.  Tagua nut is the most plentiful and accessible. It is a dense seed that is dried then either cut or sometimes sanded and polished as is and can be found on

As a wood, it is one of the densest around and inside, it has a challenging secret: there are almost always voids, so acquiring a tagua nut with the intent of slabbing it will end in a lot of waste and frustration.  On the upside, you can get them pre-cut with slabs or “potato chips” in thicknesses from 1/8″ to almost 3/8″ (3.2mm to 9.5mm).

Scrimshaw and Tagua Nut

Tagua nut polishes to a high luster and looks like a great substitute at first, and can be as long as you follow a few guidelines:

  • Sand and polish to at least 3000 grit starting at about 150 grit, first in one direction, then perpendicularly when you move to the next finer grit (up and down for 150 grit, back and forth for 300 grit, up and down for 600 grit, etc.)
  • Let it sit between steps for at least one day.  Sanding to about 1000 grit  will heat the wood making it expand slightly. If you are using machines it will probably heat it up even more (we always rough sand flat, wait a day, then progressively sand to 600 grit, wait one day, then do the final sanding to 3000 grit).
  • As you will see, HUT Wax applied with a felt wheel has given us the best results so far (yes, wait one day, polish, wait one day, then scrim)
  • India ink has a tendency to stain, using oil paint and wiping it off wet is the best way to make your scrimshaw appear.
  • Scrimshaw everything first – repeated coatings of pigments will get under even some of the best coatings and stain the micro-pores within the tagua nut. This can be tricky if you’re first starting out scrimshawing, but it will yield the best results.

A fine (000) paint brush and careful application will allow you to fill in darker areas but at this point you will need to paint carefully and let the paint dry completely, don’t try to wipe it off, since you can’t repolish once you’ve scrimshawed.

Another way around the micro-pores issue is to send your material out to have it stabilized, or stabilize it yourself.  There are several YouTube videos that show people stabilizing their own using vacuums and MinWax wood restorer.  We tried this and found the distillates disintegtrated the latex seals quickly making a sticky smelly mess (it did take a couple of days for this to occur, it wasn’t minutes), and the creamy white tagua nut turned an antique yellow.  We’ll continue to experiment, but you may also want to try sending some samples to businesses that specialize in stabilizing wood and antler.

One other idea that looked good on paper that didn’t work was to spray the tagua nut with spray varnish.  This left a film that was difficult to scrim, peeled, and ended up unsuitable.


Tagua nut can be a good eco-friendly substitute for ivory as long as precautions are taken and a commitment to scrimming once, then patiently rescrimming and only filling in the re-scrimmed areas with a small brush.

Tagua nut with India ink (top) and oil paint (bottom) applied with no scrimming

Tagua nut with India ink (top) and oil paint (bottom) applied with no scrimming

The same tagua nut that India ink and oil paint were on, wiped it away. The India ink left a stain.

Wiping away after the ink dried (the oil paint still wet) the India ink left a stain.

Polished tagua nut (center), HUT wax bar (top) and dremel felt wheel (bottom left)

Second tagua nut sample polished and buffed with HUT Wax, then left to sit for one day.


"OIL" scribed into tagua nut and oil paint applied then wiped away.

Tagua nut polished with HUT wax under a microscope after wiping away oil pigment.

Tagua nut under the microscope after polishing with HUT wax and india ink applied to the scribe lines. The ink penetrated the tagua creating a stained area.

Clicking on the picture will show you the staining in the micro-pores of the tagua nut by the India ink

Rose on Tagua Nut using Oil for the initial black and India Ink for the color. Test scribes below the rose

Rose on Tagua Nut using Oil for the initial black and India Ink for the Color

Posted in Projects, Uncategorized

Sign up for our Newsletter

Get the latest from right in your inbox. We don't spam, we will only send you pertinent information about scrimshaw and the site
Sign up today and get three scrimshaw illustration templates free!
* = required field

powered by MailChimp!

How Do I Start?

Notable Scrimshaw for Sale

Jason's first scrimshaw ship on mammoth ivory is now for sale! Click on the ship for more information..

Scrimshaw Templates

Images to Scrimshaw

The Scrimshander's Secret Scrapbook of Whaling Era Images