Scrimshaw is a traditional American art form that is etchings or carvings on bone, tusks, or animal teeth. Elephant tusks, whale teeth, and even the preserved tusks of woolly mammoths are the most common materials used for Scrimshaw. Many Scrimshaw pieces have maritime carvings and others feature animals.
Scrimshaw started as a seaman’s art and the first etchings were done on whale teeth, which were readily available to sailors. They became very beautiful and valuable items and were often used to barter and as currency. In modern times Scrimshaw has expanded to other materials such as bone, antlers, tusks, and ivory. The art of Scrimshaw is very intricate and it takes a skilled artisan to create these beautiful works of art. The etchings are carefully carved and include many details of the subject they portray. Sometimes a Scrimshaw etching is left plain, and other times it is colored with high quality ink to further accentuate the details.
Although Scrimshaw is an art that originated centuries ago, it is still practiced today. Antique pieces are extremely valuable, some fetching thousands of dollars. Modern pieces are valuable as well, but not as sought after by serious collectors as authentic antiques. Because of the durable medium Scrimshaw is created on, with proper care a Scrimshaw piece will last for generations, if not forever. The care and cleaning of Scrimshaw is not too difficult, but it is important that Scrimshaw be properly maintained in order to preserve it for a lifetime. Pieces colored with ink are especially susceptible to damage and all Scrimshaw art should be handled carefully to avoid damaging it. Scrimshaw should be displayed in a dry place, away from moisture and out of direct sunlight. Moisture and sunlight can cause the ink to fade and can cause pieces made of ivory to crack and discolor.
Cleaning Scrimshaw is a simple process, and should only be done if it is absolutely necessary. The best way to clean a Scrimshaw piece is to use a cotton swab dipped in rubbing alcohol to gently wipe the surface clean. You should not apply much pressure as it can damage the etching or ink. Abrasive cleansers or cleaning materials should never be used to clean Scrimshaw. Ivory Scrimshaw can benefit from light waxing to help preserve it and prevent damage caused by aging. Natural beeswax is the best type of wax to use to preserve ivory Scrimshaw and will prevent drying and slow down the ivory’s natural aging process. Only a light coat of wax should be applied with a very soft cloth after each cleaning.
Scrimshaw is a beautiful art form and can be passed down from generation to generation. With proper care it will last many lifetimes and will increase in value as the years go by. Scrimshaw treasures make great gifts, and if you already own a Scrimshaw piece it is sure to be treasured by your children and grandchildren for years to come. Scrimshaw is fun to collect and will give both children and adults an insight into the history of the art.