Scrimshaw Tools – The Coulter Precision Scribe

close-up of the Coulter scrimshaw scribing toolThe Coulter Precision scribing tool was first brought to my attention by Bob Hergert during an interview a couple of years ago.  Since then, I had hemmed and hawed, decided that my tools work just fine, and I can sharpen mine easily as opposed to a tungsten carbide precision point that would be next to impossible to sharpen with my rudimentary drills and stones.  This internal dialog kept me away from an excellent tool for a couple of years, and if I ever find myself alone in a dark alley… Save to say, I missed out on a couple of years with an excellent tool.  The precision point is not only excellent for stippling, but the lines you create have a nice deep “V” that holds the pigment well.  I’ll try to do a comparison of the different tools I use, if I can get a good enough picture setting it on “Super Macro” – but my photography skills are mediocre at best. As a scrimshaw tool, this is one of the best you can buy.

20170708 – Update:  Charles’ Etsy site is currently empty, but the eBay site is still active:

You can find the Coulter precision tool on Etsy

14 Replies to “Scrimshaw Tools – The Coulter Precision Scribe”

  1. I have done a lot of miscellaneous types of art and preparing to do some engraving and some bone/antler carving. I understand what I need for engraving, but for scrimshaw I am misunderstanding one fact. the tools from Coulter precision, do they require power, or is all scrimshaw created by hand power? I guess my confusion is, the bones and materials I have, antlers mostly, are pretty hard materials. are we saying that in order to do stipple type work on these material, this tool is hard and sharp enough that just by pushing I can make dots and lines? and, can these same tools be used for bullion, in metal? or that a different thing all together? thanks for any enlightenment.

    1. Hi Bob, thanks for asking!
      Here’s a quick bullet list of the technique, then I’ll elaborate:
      – Polish surface to a mirror like finish
      – Seal the surface with a wax (bees wax, HUT PPP wax, Renaissance wax) to prevent staining
      – Incise or stipple the surface to allow staining
      – Stain
      – Wipe away pigment as soon as you can, the stain remains in the incisions and/or stipples
      – Repeat until image is complete, then seal again with wax.

      It doesn’t take a deep incision to capture pigment on a very smooth surface. Since the pigment wipes off of a smooth sealed surface easily, it only needs the slightest crevice to catch in. Several crevices close together or several stipple dots will appear as a thicker or darker line. The COulter precision tool is a hand tool and is usually used to stipple or to incise in a similar fashion as you would use a pencil: you angle the top of the tool slightly toward you and you draw the tool toward you. I’m intrigued by bulino though I’ve not tried it. According to what I’ve seen, the technique is almost the opposite where if you were to angle top of the tool toward you and and push away from you – almost digging the point into the material. Difficult to describe with words, the site (in Italian, but Google can translate it) has an excellent description and even better illustrations to show the metal engraving technique.
      There are a couple of different powered machines that people use for scrimshaw – one is a high-speed rotary tool (think dentist), and another is similar to a tattoo pen, where a sharp point or points quickly move back and forth like a reciprocal saw. The latter makes short work of shading I’ve been told, and when doing a large area I entertain thoughts of buying one, but never have.

      Bone and antler have small pores in them where capillaries once pumped blood. Not sealing them prior to scrimshawing will result in a grey or stained appearance similar to what you see in the images in the article about tagua nut. As to the hardness of the tool, it is tungsten carbide, plenty hard! From reading his site and looking closely at the point he grinds them on a diamond wheel. They’re my first choice for scrimshawing.

      Hope this helps, if you have any other questions or need further clarifications or anything, feel free to inquire, I’m always happy to help.


      1. Thanks for the insight Andrew. I will be attempting this hopefully in a few weeks. I don’t have any tool so thought this one may be what I want. I had no idea about the wax prior. I was ready to just knick up the bone and spread some ink on it then seal it. I also will spend some time looking around your site. thanks again.

  2. New to scrimshaw here, total rookie although I do have experience in sketching and art. I’ve been practicing on cattle bone I bought at the pet store (Dog chew). It is a beautiful material and shapes and polishes out nicely for the knife handles I make.

    However, when I try to scribe a line it tends to cut for a bit then it slips out, causing a long scratch and ruining the piece. I’ve tried an assortment of scratchers, sharpened nails and x-acto knives (with new blades). Still have the problem. Different pressures, angles etc. No luck.

    I saw your recommendation for the Coulter Scribe. Will that solve but “kick out” or “slip” problem? Is there any reason why cattle bone doesn’t scrimshaw well?

    Thanks for your time and advise.

    1. Hi Kent, and thanks for writing! I think I’d need a little more information about the material. Is this dog chew a manufactured bone or a real bone they’ve cleaned up to look nice?
      There are two possibilities from your description:
      1) I know there are small pores in just about any bone. many people will fill in the cracks with the sandpaper dust from sanding it, then put a coat of thin superglue on it to fill it in, sanding it smooth once again. It’s possible your tool may be catching in these, or
      2) a highly polished surface only needs a slight scribe line or incision for the ink to seep into. Once you’ve scribed a line and then painted over it with India ink or oil paint, wiping the a cloth will only remove the pigment from the polished surface. It’s possible you may be trying to scribe too deep.
      The Coulter tool is a tungsten tipped scribe that has been expertly sharpened (see his site on Etsy).
      3) it may be the angle you’re holding the tool at. The way I use the tool is to hold it vertically when I scribe, though I sometimes find myself holding it at a bit of an angle like a pencil and that’s when I run into trouble with my tool catching if I’m scribing toward the tip (an example – if I’m scribing to the right and I’ve got it angled like this: \ ), or just creating a nicely rounded furrow (that’s when I’m holding it at a very steep angle drawing away from the point).
      I’d love to see a real good close-up of the surface of the material, but sadly most people’s cameras can’t see what a low power microscope sees. I’m not near many of the big barks stores typically – but they may have an online store I can purchase one from to investigate further.

      Hope this helps, if you’d like I can look further,


        1. Thanks for your prompt reply, Andrew. The cattle bone is all natural with a smooth surface and seemingly consistent texture. It is not hard, a motivated dog can make little dimples in it although I’ve yet to see one actually crack or chew up the bone. So, it’s an interesting substance. Polish it just a bit and you might have a hard time differentiating it from ivory. I’ve made a couple sets of knives with these bone handles, not scrimshawed, and folks seem to really like them.

          I have ordered a Coulter scribe and will give it a try, experimenting with the information you’ve given me about angles and pressure. It stands to reason that such a sharp instrument will do better than my nail or X-Acto knife.

          Thanks for your time, sir. I appreciate it!

  3. How does this tool compare with a carbide tipped scribe? Would there really be much of a difference? I am just getting started in scrimshaw and it has become very apparent that a tool would be more useful than the needle and screw I am using at the moment! Thanks – Ben

    1. Hi Ben, thanks for writing in. The carbide tipped scribe works extremely well since it is so stiff and it holds it’s point for a long time. The only downside is the when it finally does become dull, it’s almost impossible to resharpenn it without a diamond lathe and extremely precise jig. Coulter tools has a solution for this, though. They offer a resharpenning service, and when you find the tool is not performing well, you can purchase five tips for about the price of the tool – a great bargain considering you can send a couple or three tips back and still have a tool to work with and a backup.
      Coulter also will custom grind a point if you like a different angle. Jason Webb had this done for a couple of his tips and likes the results. My own tip I epoxied into a stubby handle so I won’t be breaking that out to send it back, but it’s still doing great even after using it on a variety of materials.
      I’ve also tried the “stock” carbide scribes from big box stores but don’t recommend them since their points are not as well defined as the Coulter. It’s worth the investment in the tool – I always go back to it when I try something new.

      Thanks again for writing, would love to see your work. Send a pic or two when you get a chance and enjoy the Holidays!

  4. You can purchase a microscope that connects to your computer for very little money. There are some made or children that take pretty nice pictures.

    1. Good idea! Thanks for sharing it. The blue ones lag a little bit or at least did a couple of years ago, but they do allow you to zoom to around 400%! Most of them now plug in via USB which makes it easy. One we’ve been using in the schools is called an IPEVO Point 2 View USB Camera. There are several models available and there is a magnifying lens as an accessory too.
      If you go for the less expensive versions, try to get “USB 2.0” since the signal will be faster through the camera to your computer.

      Thanks again for the idea!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *