Why is scrimshaw valuable and collectible?
First and foremost, Scrimshaw is fine art, and art has value for its own sake. Also,
unlike painting, scrimshaw is done on a unique canvas of ivory, a canvas that is far more
valuable than any foundation of stretched cloth or linen. Also, the handcrafting of
scrimshaw is part of American heritage. It is the oldest of all North American art forms.
No other art form in America has a longer history. No other expression of art has such
significance or influence on the American spirit.
What does the word "scrimshaw" mean?
Scrimshaw is a word caught up in controversy. Many say it comes from an old English
nautical slang expression meaning "to waste time." But others have supported origins
for the word that range from America to China. While the word’s origin may always be
debated, it is a style of art and craft generally described as the incising, engraving,
carving or fashioning of primarily ivory and bone (but may also include other natural and
man-made materials) into works of art or other decorative or useful articles.
A Scrimshander is a person who creates works of scrimshaw.
Didn't Yankee sailors invent scrimshaw?
Archaeologists in North America have found works of art comparable to scrimshaw
made by native peoples from land and marine ivory and bone that date back as far as 100-
200 AD, but it was the Yankee whalers of the 1800’s who are actually attributed with
creating, popularizing and naming the art form, making it a traditionally American art form.
With long periods of time on their hands between one whale and the next on what could
be as much as three years or more at sea, Yankee sailors took up the art form as a way
to pass the time. But at sea, the only ivory and bone available to them were from the
whales they hunted. This nautical expression of the art form soon passed from ship to
ship and it wasn’t long before scrimshaw was practiced by whalers and sailors from
numerous countries around the globe. Hence, scrimshaw has forever after been
associated as an art form started and practiced by whale men, sailors or others
associated with nautical pursuits. Unfortunately, this is an lamentable slight to the
North American cultures who are also credited, however grudgingly at times, with
working in the art form.
Isn't ivory illegal?
The answer is both no and yes. This is because ivory carries different levels of
restriction depending on the type.
~Prehistoric mammoth and mastodon ivory are completely legal and carry no
restrictions. In the U.S., anyone can dig up mammoth and mastodon ivory as long as
they have a permit and the material comes from non-archaeological sites.
~Modern wart hog, hippopotamus, and elk "whistler" ivory (the top two canine teeth) are
~Modern (or white) walrus ivory is generally less than a hundred years old. White walrus
ivory can only be purchased from a native Alaskan and the ivory must also have some
form of native work on it, carved or scrimshawed. It is not legal to buy or sell any
unworked fresh walrus ivory. The exception to this are tusks with a copper tag attached
that have a serial number on the tag. These tusks are from an Alaska State culling
program from the 1960's and they are legal to buy, sell and trade across state lines in
their natural, unworked form as long as the tag is there.
~Fossil, fossilized, (ancient) walrus ivory generally ranges from 300 to 3,000 years in
age and is most often excavated from the Alaskan permafrost in August and
September of each year. Only native peoples are allowed to dig for fossil walrus ivory
on their lands. Once purchased from them it can be sold and resold across state lines
~Ivory from African Elephants can no longer be imported into the U.S. per the
"CITES" treaty; however, any elephant ivory already within the US prior to June 9,
1989 is legal to buy and sell across state lines.
~The sale of whale teeth and bone are tightly restricted. According to The
Endangered Species Act of 1973 and USFWS officials, any sale or offer to sell
whale teeth or bone carries a $12,000 fine - per act - and possible imprisonment. All
other marine mammals and their body parts are considered protected under the "Marine
Mammal Protection Act," and similar restrictions apply. The legal sale of sperm whale
teeth falls into the following three categories according to articles of The Endangered
Species Act of 1973 under SEC.10, (f)(1)(A)(ii), (B); (f)(6)(D); and (h)(1)(A).
1) Antique - is any tooth that has been determined to be 100 years old or older, dating
back from 1972 (1872 or older). This ivory is legal to buy and sell across state lines in
any form. If you purchase an antique or pre-banned whale’s tooth, you should expect
that the seller will include a Certificate of Exemption for the tooth and/or a
Certification of Subsequent Seller/Shipper/Exporter. These required federal
forms prove that the tooth has been certified as legal for resale and meets the
requirements for resale in the U.S.
2) Pre-Act Teeth - are teeth that date from 1872 to 1972 and are covered by a U.S.
Government exemption certificate. These teeth are legal to buy and sell if they are
accompanied by a U.S. Government exemption certificate, but cannot be shipped
across state lines in their raw form (they must be carved, engraved or scrimshawed).
3) Any other teeth that were in the country prior to 1972 and not covered by an
exemption certificate - These teeth must at the very least be accompanied by a
notarized statement from the seller stating that they were in his/her possession, in this
country, prior to the 1972 moratorium. These teeth cannot be sent across state lines
for commercial resale. The scrimshander must buy these teeth, work on them, and sell
them only within his/her state of residence and then only if such purchase and sale is
legal under the laws of his/her state.
~The only completely illegal ivory at the present time is Indian elephant; this animal is
considered highly endangered because there are few to none left in the wild. They are
almost totally zoo or circus-bred animals, or are domesticated beasts of burden in India.
How do I tell if something is ivory, bone or an ivory substitute (plastic or resin)?
Ivory is actually the natural tooth of an animal. Teeth continue to grow throughout an
animal's lifetime and as a result, they have a noticeable structure and "growth lines"
(called Schreger lines). Look at the piece carefully under a magnifying glass. Under a
10x magnifier, elephant and mammoth ivory will have visible striations or grain that often
show up as diamond or "V" shapes or cross-hatching on the surface or edges of
polished ivory. Bone lacks such noticeable striations and will appear more uniform
across the surface. Under magnification bone usually shows circular or oval shaped
dots on cut surfaces. These dots are the remnants of tiny vessels that once supplied
the living bone. Resins or plastics have a uniform surface, usually with no striations or
diamond or "V" patterns, however some manufacturers are now introducing faux ivory
with an attempt to reproduce some of these features.
When looking at a piece, check the bottom or sides for the diamond or cross-hatch
pattern typical of real ivory. Then check again for a slight wood-grain pattern, this is
also typical of real ivory. Next, check the feel. Real ivory should have a cool-to-the-
touch feeling. Resins or plastics may duplicate one or some of these features, but none
duplicates them all.
Also, color often varies slightly (I emphasize slightly) throughout natural ivory (more
variable in mammoth) from a creamy white to a creamy yellow-tan or a creamy, light yellow-
brown, whereas bone and plastics are either consistent in color throughout, or their
color variations may be extreme, especially in stained or colorized resins and plastics.
The next test involves using an inexpensive black light which you can find at most
department or home improvement stores. Shine the black light on the piece, preferably
in total darkness. Ivory develops a beautiful natural patina with age which shows up as a
yellow-brown overall color under normal lighting conditions. Under black light this
patina will show up as a dull mottled yellow with an occasional spot of bright blue or
white/blue where the original surface shows through from wear. Bone, and especially
plastics, are often given a patina to simulate ivory’s natural look by soaking the piece in
chemicals, manure, or even tea. These usually reflect a bright yellow under black light.
When using an ultraviolet light, regardless of the appearance or chemical composition of
the manufactured ivory substitutes, they all share a common identifying characteristic.
When ultraviolet light is shined on manufactured ivory substitutes that do not have an
artificial patina they absorb the ultraviolet light exhibiting a dull blue appearance. Ivory,
without a patina, on the other hand, has a bright blue or white/blue florescent
You can also take a Q-tip, dip it in alcohol and rub the piece in an inconspicuous area.
If the patina comes off and colors the Q-tip, chances are good it's a paint or varnish or
some other substance that was applied to give the impression of age.
There is one other way to tell if a piece is ivory or plastic, but be aware this should be
used only as a last resort since it can be a destructive test, especially to plastic. It is
the "so-called" red hot pin test. Take a pin and heat it in a flame until it is red hot.
Touch the hot pin to an inconspicuous area of the piece. If it is real ivory, nothing much
will happen. It may, however, produce a tiny smooth scorched point (which is never good
for the resale value of a genuine ivory piece). If, on the other hand, it is resin or plastic,
the needle will easily melt into the surface and produce a "burr" or small rough. If you
are very close when you touch the pin to the piece, you may even smell burning plastic.
The "hot pin test" is actually more myth than practice. The test results are actually very
difficult to verify and let's face it, no seller is going to let you touch a hot piece of metal
to real ivory and a fraud won't let you do it to their plastic piece either.
For more information on this topic, you can check out the U.S. Fish and Wildlife
Service web site. They have many web pages devoted to identification, including
diagnostic features and photos.
Why do Scrimshanders use real ivory instead of ivory substitutes?
Substitute or faux ivory is made from plastic, and plastics are far from environmentally
friendly. They are not biodegradable, and they use scarce petrochemical resources.
As far as resources used, responsible Scrimshanders only use materials that come
–Extinct animals, ie: mammoth and mastodon (and fossilized walrus),
–Materials naturally shed by animals, ie: antlers,
–Materials taken from animals long ago, ie: piano keys, pool balls, etc.
–Materials taken annually by legal hunting or by fish and game officials, ie: elk "whistler
–Materials that do not violate Federal or State laws
When working with substitutes, micarta easily chips when scratched instead of
producing a fine line, corian doesn't hold ink or pigments well, and ivoryite fails in all
areas for detailed scrimshaw work. Vegetable ivory or the "tagua nut" is good for
carving, but its natural oils resist ink and other pigments.
What materials other than ivory do scrimshanders work on?
Scrimshanders work on a variety of materials other than ivory that do not endanger
living species. They use naturally-shed antler from deer, elk and moose for unique
collector pieces such as pen bases, letter openers, key rings, fireplace sets, cribbage
boards, chandeliers and lamps, and more. Antler is tougher than ivory and is also used
for knife scales, handles and other pieces that get a lot of wear. They also use Tagua
nuts, a vegetable ivory, to make small unique pieces of jewelry, small game board pieces,
etc. Some sea shells, such as abalone, have been scrimshawed and horn, particularly
cattle horn, is also scrimshawed. Horn scrimshaw is most often seen on black powder
hunting horns. Some extremely hard woods, like ebony, can lend themselves to
scrimshaw if properly sealed before work begins. Scrimshaw has even been done on the
back of plastic dinner spoons, though these will probably never become "collectible."
While other materials may lend themselves to scrimshaw, it is ivory that holds the most
value to collectors and artists alike.
How is scrimshaw made?
Mass-produced scrimshaw is usually photo-transferred, or it may be mechanically
painted, laser cut or otherwise mechanically etched into the surface, or, as in the far
east, produced by a workshop of people, each one doing just one part of the work and
then passing it off to the next worker who does their part, then the next, and so on.
Museum and collectible quality scrimshaw is done by an individual Artist, start to finish.
Their individual technique is recognizable throughout the piece.
The ivory must first be worked to a fine polish in the area where it will be scrimmed.
Polishing seals the surface and keeps pigments that are added later from staining the
material in unwanted areas. Some artists then draw designs freehand onto the surface
while others first draw on thin paper and then transfer their design to the surface.
However they start, the next step is to incise the surface of the material with fine
scratches or thousands of small holes (called stippling), using sharp tools such as a
steel scribe or hobby knives or sewing needles held in a pin vise. Many Scrimshanders
make their own tools for this task. Some Scrimshanders use a modern mechanical
device similar to a modified tattoo artist's tool rather than work by hand. Such a tool
can greatly decrease the time it takes to produce a piece, but many Scrimshanders and
Collectors prefer the look and distinction of a handcrafted piece.
Next, pigment is then applied and then removed from the surface, leaving behind color in
the scratches or holes. It is the unique way Scrimshaw is line or dot shaded and the
subsequent "inking" that makes a picture come to life on the surface of the material.
How do I care for my scrimshaw or ivory sculpture pieces?
Scrimshaw should be treated in most ways just like fine jewelry, but it also has some
unique care requirements.
The scribed picture is permanent, but wear and some substances can remove the
pigment or damage or stain the polished surface and even remove fine lines in some
Do not get ivory wet unnecessarily. The pigments, especially colors, may fade or be
removed entirely and the ivory could swell and/or crack as a result of exposure to high
moisture levels. If your ivory does get wet, dry it thoroughly and as soon as possible
after the event.
Direct, bright sunlight can, over time, overly dry your ivory and cause "checks" (cracks)
to develop. Sun can also fade certain colored inks and other pigments. Soap,
detergents, shampoo, heavily chlorinated water, and especially jewelry cleaning
solutions dull the ivory surface and will also remove the pigments and can even eat away
some of the fine scrimmed lines. Some jewelry cleaning solutions not only remove the
pigments, they also leave a horrible stain in the ivory surface that cannot be safely
Most dirt and oils may be removed by simple dusting or a gentle wiping with a clean, soft
cotton cloth. Stubborn dirt can be removed with a cotton swab moistened in rubbing
alcohol and wiped gently over the surface. Whatever you do, DO NOT SCRUB!
A rough scrubbing can remove pigment from fine lines or even damage fine lines so they
will no longer hold ink.
While not always considered necessary on properly dried ivory, you can use a light coat
of warm beeswax rubbed gently and carefully on the ivory once or twice a year to
preserve its look. In lieu of warmed beeswax, a quality paste wax can also be used as
long as it has no additives. If you do wax your ivory, it should be repeated whenever the
ivory is cleaned, as any alcohol used in the cleaning will remove it. Many owners like the
high-gloss and shine of waxed and polished ivory. I recommend Renaissance Wax. This
is what most Museums use to protect their items.
Treated with care, scrimshaw is a valued piece of jewelry or art - an heirloom to be
passed on for future generations to enjoy.
Can old scrimshaw or ivory sculptures be re-inked or restored?
Yes, if it's real ivory. Faux ivory and vegetable ivory don't restore well.
Re-inking, re-etching and restoring pieces, including mending cracks and broken or
missing parts, is also possible in the hands of a master scrimshander/restorer. In the
hands of an amateur, restorations are often so poorly done that the restoration itself
ends up devaluing a piece.
Courtesy of Jim Stevens "The Scrimshaw Studio"