Right Whale -the right whale to hunt because it was a lethargic swimmer and a good source of baleen.

Scrimshaw :

The art of carving or constructing decorative, often useful, objects as done by whalemen, sailors, and seafarers during the age of whaling (in America, 1700's to the 1860's). The basic materials were those derived from whaling but they also included shells, various forms of sea life, the wide range of materials gathered in ports-of- call, and the materials carried aboard ships including metals and woods. The artifact must have one or more nautical associations with respect to the maker, motif, method, or material to render it authentic scrimshaw.  


Because of the great demand for scrimshaw collectibles, there are a lot of fakes in the marketplace including plastic reproductions.

Authentic Scrimshaw Materials

by Rod Cardoza

It is relatively easy to distinguish ivory, bone, and baleen from one another. Baleen, called "whale bone" during the whaling era, is a flexible, striated material occurring in tapered "hairy" plates up to 16 feet in length and a foot wide. It varies in color from jet black and gray to greenish brown, greenish yellow, to a semi opaque yellow. It is fibrous and examination of an end piece will reveal a "grain" not unlike the end grain of porous wood. Baleen can be polished to a lustrous surface similar to plastic in appearance. Indeed, baleen was the "plastic" of the 19th century, being used in a variety of manufactured goods from toothbrushes to umbrellas and corset stays. Its acquisition was the mainstay of whaling during the waning years of that industry.

It is a little trickier to tell the difference between bone and ivory. In particular, pan bone, the flared spoon like rear portion of the sperm whale jaw, was the second most popular scrimshaw material of the whalemen. Only the whale teeth themselves were more prized. The reason was that the pan is the largest and densest bone occurring in nature and lent itself to being cut, carved, and engraved in large segments. Many objects made of pan bone are incorrectly labeled as "ivory" by the unknowledgeable.

Under moderate magnification all bone exhibits grain like parallel striations, dark flecks of dried blood, and minuscule cavities (all not present in ivory). Ivory, being most dense, will reveal a smooth, homogeneous surface, free from occlusions and flecks. However, old polished whale ivory often has acquired a light yellow to golden brown patina which evidences itself in the wavy, irregular grain patterns of the enamel and dentin of the tooth.


Scrimshaw was a sailor's answer to idle hours and weeks spent at sea waiting for the excitement and danger of capturing a whale. With a jackknife or sail needle, he fashioned marvels in ivory and bone. Scrimshaw's diversity demanded the skills of a good carver, joiner, turner, engraver, and inlayer. It also demanded a lot of time. Time to scrape a whale's tooth clean, time to polish it with sharkskin or ashes, time to incise a design and bring it out with India ink, diluted lampblack, soot from try pots, tar, or even tobacco juice.

Differentiating between the types of ivories is most difficult. Antique ivory came from five primary source mammals. In the order they most commonly appear in antique items, they are elephant, walrus, whale, boar, and hippopotamus. Of these only whale ivory is referred to as "teeth" while the others are the elongated "tusks."

Most ivory, virtually all Oriental and Indian ivory is from elephant tusks. Elephant ivory in general bears smooth, tight, and regularly occurring surface striations. This striation or grain is subtle and can often be seen as translucent. The end grain of elephant ivory is particularly telling, recurring as "crossed arches" in a regular crisscross pattern.

Walrus ivory is distinctive in that the outer enamel layer is dense white with little graining (as in whale ivory), while the softer inner dentin "core" has a granular, tapioca like appearance. Generally walrus ivory can be identified because of the stark contrast between the two layers of the tusk as formed. However, if a small object is fashioned out of the enamel layer of the tusk, omitting any dentin, it is little distinguishable from whale ivory.

As might be expected, the majority of Eskimo-produced ivory artifacts were fashioned of Walrus tusks. However, late in the 19th and on into the early 20th centuries, it is documented that American whalers in the arctic took thousands of pounds of walrus ivory. This raw material eventually found its way into commercial trade in the form of walking sticks, umbrella handles, cutlery, etc.

Whale tooth is near enough like the other types of ivory as to be easily confused. Size is the easiest distinguishing characteristic. Whale teeth range in size from 3 to II inches in length (although larger examples exist!) and their length to width ratio is smaller than that of elephant or walrus tusks. The surface grain and color can often be nearly identical to tusk. But one very telling difference in whale ivory, either cut or whole, is the frequent existence of circular nodules or polyps in the root cavity of the tooth.

Boar tusks most commonly are in evidence in today's antique marketplace as cane handles and corkscrews.

Hippo tusk is the hardest of all ivory and also the rarest. The tusk is so hard that it can be made to spark steel, and for this reason was little used except by the most determined artisans. Hippo ivory has a smooth cream colored appearance with a very fine grain. The shape and size of the tusk is most telling as almost all are under a foot long and distinctively curved (describing the arc of a circle) along their entire length. Of course this does not preclude small sections from being squared up, as in the case of other ivories. But with hippo, the dimensions would be limited to 2 or 3 inches.

Other animal materials used less extensively in scrimshaw were sea tortoise shell, a variety of sea shells like abalone and mother of pearl, shark and ray skin, seal skin albatross bills, sawfish and swordfish bills, and coral. Each of these has distinctive characteristics, which make them easy to identify.  

There were many terrible ways in which a maddened Sperm Whale could destroy a boatload of men.

Whalers were often gone for years at a stretch; then they would sail home laden with a treasure of oil, bone, the rare ambergris (used in perfume), and spermaceti (used to make candles). The ship owners and the captains became rich from their cargo but a sailor sometimes only came home with his room & board paid for during the length of the voyage, scrimshaw gifts, and a whale of an adventurous tale to tell.