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The Delicate Art of Scrimshaw

The delicate art of carving or engraving intricate designs on whalebone, whale ivory or walrus tusks is called "scrimshaw".

Most of the early scrimshaw was done on board ship, particularly by the crews of Arctic whaling ships. With very few ways to entertain themselves (no movies, TV, computers, internet, etc.), sailors took up crafts to occupy their minds.

They worked with the materials that were available, and aboard a whaling vessel there was usually a good supply of fresh, soft, raw material (teeth or tusks from freshly killed Arctic animals). As a result, early scrimshaw will have distinctive furrowing or raised areas throughout the engraving, caused by the drying and curing of the fresh teeth or tusks over time.

Although some carvers were better artists than others, most examples of authentic 19th century scrimshaw show a distinctive style, charm and "naiveté" equal to the best folk artists of the day. In addition, most of the sailor-scrimshawed scenes are correct with regard to boats and ships, animals, hunting methods, voyage facts, etc. These guys knew their stuff!

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