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The Art of Historic Scrimshaw and Whales

Updated on July 16, 2019
PAINTDRIPS profile image

Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40+ years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.

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Faux Scrimshaw

The sea was calm. The captain strode the wooden deck of the whaling vessel. The sailors had been at sea for 16 months and were going to be at sea maybe another 16 months or more f they hadn't filled the hold with barrels of oil. There was nothing to do but eat, play games, do chores, and sleep. They were hunting whales. Sperm whales, to be exact. People needed whale oil to light their lamps and make candles and other necessary items back home. The captain had an announcement.

"Men," the captain began, "We have had a successful voyage so far and I want to share the profits with you. I have here in this trunk, the whale's teeth from our haul this week. If you wish, you may divide them up and carve scrimshaw for your loved ones."

Many men took the whales teeth and carved designs of ships, whale hunting scenes, or pictures of their sweethearts they left back home. They had to sand the teeth smooth first because the teeth were scratched and pitted from a diet of fish and shrimp. The sailors used the large needles that were for mending the sails, to scratch the design onto the hard surface. Then they rubbed lamp soot or black paint into the scratches and grooves to create the scrimshaw design. Sailors would then bring the scrimshaw home and sell them in shops to buy goods for their families, or they took them home to give their sweethearts. Either way, scrimshaw became a very familiar folk art form along the U.S. coastline for two hundred years or so.

Make Your Own Whale's Tooth From Plaster


Let's Make Our Own Whale's Teeth

Imagine you are a sailor on a whaling ship 150 years ago with no Gameboy or radio to keep you company. Nothing to do but eat and sleep for days on end. So you pick up a tooth to carve.

Today it is illegal to have any bones or teeth from a whale if it has been sucking seawater since 1984 because of the International Whaling Commission's ban on all commercial whaling. But we can still make a scrimshaw-like project using plaster and paint instead of a real whale's tooth.


The materials you will need are:

White drawing paper (8.5 x 11 or larger)

Pencil to draw design on paper and plaster

Plasticine clay (or Crayola brand modeling clay)

Plaster of Paris

Black tempera paint and an inch brush

Long fine point nail or ice pick.

Sandpaper (120 grade wet-dry paper)

Acrylic spray sealant

Step 1. Making the Whale Tooth Mold

Plasticine clay is a type of oil-based clay that never hardens. The warmer it gets the more moldable it is. Crayola makes a type of clay-like this called modeling clay which comes in many colors. If you use Crayola modeling clay try to use the lightest colors possible as the darker colors will stain your plaster and make your tooth pink... or blue... which could make people wonder what your whale has been eating!


A whale tooth is about the shape of your thumb but a little wider and longer. To make this mold, make a model of your thumb from the plasticine clay, as in the diagram. It should be about 4 inches tall and 2 to 3 inches in diameter. Then roll out more clay to about a thickness of three-quarters of an inch and wrap it around your tooth model gently.

Dishwashing Liquid Shield

Be sure not to press the model into the mold or it will stick together. One sure method to keep the model and mold from sticking to each other is first painting the model with dishwashing liquid. The soap forms a shield.


Free Standing Mold

Make a base so the mold will stand up on its own and pull out the model tooth from your new mold.


Step 2. Pouring the Plaster

Now you are ready to mix the Plaster of Paris. You may want to wear gloves for this because the plaster will dry your skin. Measure about two cups of dry plaster into a bowl you don't care about (not a good mixing bowl). Use cold water to mix the plaster or it will harden too fast.

Mix with your hands, pouring a little water in at a time until it looks like smooth pudding. Slowly pour the plaster into the tooth mold.


Tap Bubbles Out

Gently bounce/tap the mold a couple of times to ensure all the extra bubbles have escaped. Allow it to sit undisturbed for about an hour or more. Never pour the left-over plaster into the sink or wash your hands over the sink, as the plaster will continue to set and will harden inside your pipes. Wash your hands in a bowl and pour left-over plaster outside in the dirt or grass. It will become a rock.

Boys Love This Craft


Step 3. Prepare For The Carving

While you are waiting for the plaster to set, drawsome trees, houses, ships, whales, flags, or anything you wish on some drawing paper. This is where you will decide what you will draw onto the tooth. It can be two images, one on one side, one on the other. Or it can be a circular image that goes around the tooth.



When the tooth model is set, it should be cool to the touch, not warm. If it is still warm it is a sign that the plaster has not finished transforming into a stone. You may need to rip the plasticine clay mold off the plaster tooth. Don’t worry. You can always make another mold from your original model. If the tooth has bumps or pits, you will want to sand them smooth with the coarse sandpaper before drawing the design onto the surface.


Consider putting a border around the bottom or running up one side as in the diagram.


Step 4. Etching Your Scrimshaw

With the cool, smooth tooth in your hand, you may begin drawing or tracing the design you chose with a pencil onto the plaster. If you make a mistake just sand it off and begin again. Now take a sharp nail or an ice pick and scratch or etch a groove into the plaster along the pencil lines. This will take some time. The lines need to be deeper than just a small scratch on the surface, so you will have to press hard as you are scratching/etching the lines. Be careful not to cut or poke yourself with your tool. Some adult supervision may be helpful.

Step 5. Painting the Scrimshaw

Once you are happy with your design scratched into the surface of your tooth, paint the entire tooth with black tempera paint and wait for it to dry. Make sure you get the black paint into all the scratches and grooves you worked so hard to make. The drying time could take an hour if it is warm and dry out, or overnight if it is a cold, wet day. When it is finally dry, take your fine sandpaper and gently sand off the extra black paint right down to the plaster. You should see that the black paint has stayed in the scratches you made and is only coming off the smooth areas.

Step 6. Finishing

When you are done, you can spray the scrimshaw with an acrylic sealer or even hair spray.


All done

These make great paperweights, Father's Day gifts, or even just historic conversation pieces. Did you know that President John F. Kennedy had scrimshaw pieces on his desk in the White House? Now you will have one on your desk too. Who knew you could be so creative and know so much about our seafaring history?

In Search of the Whales

Today We Only Shoot Them With Cameras

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Carved Comments

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      5 years ago from Fresno CA

      The history of carving in unusual materials is vast.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      6 years ago from Fresno CA

      @PaigSr: Me too. I love historic things and wanted to create something the kids could get involved in history and art together. This was a fun project.

    • PaigSr profile image


      6 years ago from State of Confusion

      This was one of the tings I always looked forward to at the state fair. Just watching these guys and wondering how they were able to do these carvings.


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