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

Abandoned Grand Piano

Photo Credit: Rick Harris on Flickr.com

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: http://www.ebay.com/itm/Piano-Keytops-Simulated-Ivory-for-replacing-key-top-/110428048307

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: http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/
Find your Senators: http://www.senate.gov/general/contac…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 “questions@scrimshaw.com” 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 http://www.artifactsguide.com/discus/messages/12/11427.html?1071787182

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 Amazon.com:

  •  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 Amazon.com.

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

Casein – The “New” Old Plastic for Scrimshaw

Casein Rod by John BerkelyWe’ve been testing a “new” old ivory alternative called “casein”.

This is a plastic made from milk.  You’ll find many DIY articles on the net and usually people say “meh.” when they’re finally done, but this was a common alternative at the turn of the last century through about the 1970′s in western Europe. We were able to get a couple of samples from “across the pond” and it’s quite interesting.  Extremely dense, polishes beautifully and doesn’t “crater” like typical plastics. We got our samples as rods, mostly used to cut buttons or to turn on a lathe, and went about cutting medallions. It took a long time to cut through it, and the dust is awful – it stays airborne a long time and due to the way it’s made, you’ll definitely want to upgrade your dust masks. Plain casein plastic is made from milk as stated.  In order to make it resilient casein is subjected to a formaldehyde bath for up to one year depending on the thickness where the formaldehyde molecules bind with the casein making it harder and more resilient.

The casein is  finally rinsed and dried, most of the harmful chemical leaving the end product by off-gassing and repeated rinsing. Ford at one point had experimented making a “plastic car” substituting casein based plastics with soybean and hemp based plastics (see “Henry’s Hobbies“, pg 283).

By the looks of http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ie50459a024 the amount of formaldehyde would be negligible for normal handling, but there are no MSDS for this material available that we’ve been able to find, so it is far better to be safe than sorry.

They still make casein plastic knitting needles, and it’s supposed to be some of the finest knitting needles available.

casein medallion cut too thin warps over time.

If you cut casein too thin, it can warp over time. 3/16″ seems fine.

Instead of formaldehyde, companies are creating casein plastic successfully using “glyceraldehyde” which is not considered harmful by OSHA (see http://datasheets.scbt.com/sc-300881.pdf).

We’re probably not going to see this material processed either by formaldehyde or glyceraldehyde any time soon because it can take up to one year for it to be ready, but our source for the casein we’ve been working with is listed at the end.

As stated, casein itself only takes a day or so to make and dry, but it does have to soak for a long time in the fluid for it to permeate completely.  Any DIY’ers out there may be able to make a small side business offering cabachons or possibly knife scales provided the total thickness is less than 1/2″  If you look around etsy you can see a lot of vintage casein buttons as well as other useful items that were once made from this material (see Instructibles for the one of many articles on creating your own plastic).

We’ve also come across an “alternative casein” available for turning and possibly for scrimshaw but we haven’t purchased any yet, and are unsure what the “alternative” is: whether it’s an acrylic or polyester made to look like casein or if it’s a “green” casein made from glyceraldehyde. It’s available from “Exotic Blanks” .


Owl on casein in progressSo how well does it scrim? It works great for both line scribing and for stippling. The only problem we found with our samples were small air holes in the faces we’d cut.  These would vary from few to numerous, most of them very small and could be incorporated into the scrimshaw design or a “squirt and fill” may also work using a cyanoacrylate glue (crazy glue) and some of the powder from cutting which is a popular way to fill voids in other materials. We found our best piece and scrimmed an owl which you can see in progress.  We followed tried coloring the back of the template and piercing the paper once it was secured and it worked quite well.

Owl on casein medallion in progressMost of the owl is done in the stipple technique, though we tried a few lines going “dot-to-dot” on the upper right hand side of the owl’s head.  Very little cratering, and the material holds both ink and aquarelle black pencil well.


We’d like to find this material in sheet form at 3/16″ thickness, and if you come across a supplier, please let us know.

Owl on Casein - finished


voids shown in some casein medallions

Some typical pitting or voids found when casein rod is cut into medallions

Casein in rod form is available from http://www.johnberkeley.biz/page15.html

Further reading on Casein Formaldehyde: Green Plastics: An Introduction to the New Science of Biodegradable Plastics 

Posted in Uncategorized

Scrimshaw on Sale: Mammoth Ivory Ship Temporary Price Drop

Jason R. Webb's "Whaling Bark" Scrimshaw on ancient mammoth ivoryScrimshaw on sale: One of Jason R. Webb’s premier works of art is taking a temporary price drop!

Jason’s “Whaling Bark”, a scrimshaw of the C.W. Morgan was entered in the 2013 International Scrimshaw Competition and stood up well against some incredible competition.  

Jason’s style is unique in the world of scrimshaw.  Using both scribe lines and stipple, Jason is able to create the subtle texture of the canvas on the sails and the texture of the wood of the ship, along with an excellent frothing sea that fades gracefully toward the bottom yet still reflects the mast. Using sweeping scribe lines the sails billow and the salt water splashes against the side of the ship. Taking four months to complete, this is one of his first ships on rare mammoth ivory. Standing five inches tall (12.7cm) it is mounted on a rich dark wood base.  The back of the piece is signed and dated by the artist.

Jason’s original private sale price was $1500, but he is putting his scrimshaw on sale for $999 to help defray costs of his move to a larger place so he and his new family will have room to grow.  This magnificent piece is on ancient mammoth ivory as evidenced by the Schreger lines on the base, and is legal for sale worldwide.

Once Jason has moved, this piece will likely return to the original price, so act fast. Contact Jason at jasonwguitar@gmail.com

See this one of a kind piece from start to finish: “Whaling Bark”

Posted in Artists

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