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The Art of Historic Scrimshaw and Whales

Updated on October 21, 2017
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Denise has been studying and teaching art and painting for 40 years. She has won numerous prestigious awards for her art and design.


Create your own Faux Scrimshaw while studying about whales and whaling ships.

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 whales 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. If you use Crayola modeling clay try to use the lightest colors 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.


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.



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 plaster will dry your skin. Measure about two cups of dry plaster into a bowl you don't care about. 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.



Gently bounce/tap the mold a couple of times to insure all the extra bubbles have escaped. Allow it to set 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 you hands in a bowl and pour left-over plaster outside in the dirt or grass.

Boys love this craft


Step 3. Preparing for the carving.

While you are waiting for the plaster to set, draw some trees, houses, ships, whales, flags, or anything you wish on the 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 mold 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 sand paper 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. Carving your Scrimshaw.

With the cool, smooth tooth in your hand you may begin drawing 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.

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 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.


In Search of Whales

It was because of oil. Whale oil. People needed it to light their lamps, make candles, soap, and produce make-up and cosmetics. At first the early Americans only went after the Right whale. It moved slow and close to shore so it was easy to kill. It was called that because of it's size and because it was the right whale for the most oil. It was said the when the Pilgrims arrived Cape Cod was teaming with Right whales. To get oil from a whale the sailors had to cut off the blubber, a layer of fat under the skin, and boil it down.

After killing most of the Right whales, New England sailors discovered that there were other whales, if only they ventured farther away from shore. The humpback whale was a little smaller, so they had to kill more of them for same amount of oil. Also these whales were fighters. They were a little harder to kill, but the whalers found a way. However this whale was found to have a kind of oil and wax in its head. So much oil that the sailors had to bail it out with buckets. Candles made from this oil burned brighter and cleaner. It didn't smell bad like the candles made from Right whales and so they became very popular.

After a while, the whalers discovered if they built a brick rendering pot to boil down the blubber right there on deck of their ships that they wouldn't have to go back to shore for years until the hold was full of barrels of oil. This could take as long as 4 years. The whalers discovered where the whales migrated during certain times of the year and so they followed them around the globe, killing as they went.

At first the whalers harvested every part of the whale: teeth and bones, blubber and meat. But after a while, the blubber and wax would be harvested and the rest of the whale cut loose to sink into the sea.

These whales had teeth unlike the Right whales who had baleen to strain krill out of the water. It was soon discovered that when sanded the whale's teeth were like ivory and decorative designs could be carved or etched into the surface. This art form called "scrimshaw" became very common and popular in the New England states. Scrimshaw can be carved on whale's teeth or bones. The sailors were not paid wages but a portion of the profits. If the market for oil was good the sailor made good money and if the market was poor the sailors made almost nothing. But as part of the profits the sailors shared the whale's teeth also. The scrimshaw etchings made them even more valuable. Today you can buy an authentic 200-year-old scrimshaw tooth for the price of a small car.

When fossil fuels, such as petroleum and coal gas, and vegetable oils, such as linseed oil and peanut oil, became more popular because they were cheaper and safer to produce, the whaling industry was in deep trouble. And a good thing too. By this time the Right whales and other whales had been almost wiped out. Commercial whaling died down by the 1860s in the United States but still continued in other countries. After all, baleen was still needed for lady's corsets so whaling continued.

There were other whales in the sea. The largest whale on earth is also one of the fastest: the blue whale. It was too fast for the sailors to catch in a rowboat and it was too strong for the harpoons that they used. Also the blue whale sank when it died. In 1868, a seal hunter from Norway named Svend Foyn, developed a cannon that shot a special harpoon with steel barbs from a steam powered boat. When shot at the blue whale the barbs opened and triggered an explosion inside the whale's body. After it died the rope was attached to a steam powered motor that pulled it up to the side of the boat. Later in the 1880's air was pumped into the whale's body from the harpoon line so the whale floated to the surface. Now the blue whale could be hunted with ease. The best place to hunt them was in the icy seas of the Antarctic. The waters there swarm with a pink shrimp called krill each summer and this is what the blue whale loved to feed on. The Antarctic was home to 250,000 blue whales at this time. By 1994 the estimated count was only 460 blue whales left.

By the 1930s the leading whaling nations formed a group empowered to set quotas for killing whales, called the International Whaling Commission (IWC). The biggest problem was getting every nation to agree on low enough quotas so the whales would not be killed off. After years of fighting, the IWC voted to have a temporary ban on all commercial whaling until the numbers of whales increased. The good news is that here has been no large-scale whaling since 1986 because of the ban going into effect.

Now instead of killing the whales, large numbers of former whalers have turned to the tourist business and are taking whale-watchers out to see the whales in their natural feeding grounds. Finally, live whales are worth more than dead ones.


Scrimshaw and Scrimshanders, Whales and Whalemen, by E. Norman Flayderman, N. Flayderman & Co., Inc., New Milford, Connecticut, 1972

Scrimshaw, A traditional folk art, A contemporary craft, by Leslie Linsley, Hawthorn Books, Inc., New York, NY, 1976

The Whalers, by Peter Chrisp, Thomson Learning, New York, NY, 1995

Whaling Days, by Carol Carrick, Clarion Books, New York, NY, 1993

Whalers Puzzle

Whaling Ship

Whale skeleton.
Whale skeleton. | Source

The Wreck of the Essex

I'll tell ya true, me lads, the Essex was a fine whaling ship, to be sure. I was first mate and proud of me ship and me cap'in. I'm Owen Chase and I have a terrible tale to tell. This ain't no yarn, mates. This'n is a true as a port in a storm.

The whalin' business is a dangerous one, to be sure. Sometimes a man can loose a digit, a limb or even his life.

It was November as I recall it, in 1820. We'd been at sea some time already. We'd just come upon a pod: a group of whales in the South Pacific. As pretty a sight as you ever seen, rollin' in and out of the water like babies rolling in the sheets. Each time they'd come up they'd send up a mist of spray through their blowhole. They fair sparkled in the sunlight. It'd take your breath away.

Three boats were launched and the hunt began. Each of us in the small boats had a crew of 6 or so and chasin' a whale could send us some ways from the ship. Bein' first mate, I took the till and steered the boat while me mates rowed. We came up beside a big-un, a bull whale and I called for the harpooner to hit him. But he was a fighter and he whipped the water into a foam and thrashed at us with his tail cracking a hole in our boat. That's nothin'. I'd seen worse. I stuffed some of the men's jackets into the hole and we rowed back to the ship.

As we climbed on board, we seen him comin' for us again. He ramed us with his head, he did, and so hard and astonishing the jar was that he nearly knocked us all onto our faces. That's the first time I ever seen that with me own eyes. I heard tell of such things from other whalers but I didna believe it. You know how sailors can weave a yarn.

We checked the damage and found we had been holed. I gave orders to start pumping out the water and maybe we could save the ship and the cargo. But me blood run cold when I heard a crewman yell, "Here he is-he's making for us again!"

Shore enough, I seen him coming down on us again with all the speed he could muster. He must have been swimming twice his ordinary speed and sent a wake of white foam behind him. He was a fearsome sight to see with all his anger and vengeance aimed at us. His head only half out of the water, he struck us again. And this time we were badly damaged. We abandoned ship in the last boat. All hands grabbing what little provisions we could before she went down.

The two other boats came back from their hunt to find the Essex going under. It was a sad sight to see her drink in the salt brine and disappear forever in the cold and hungry sea. But worse yet, we knew we had little hope of seeing land again without her. We were 1,200 miles from the nearest land in the middle of the South Pacific. Three small boats and very few supplies. It was a death sentence, to be sure.

One by one, I watched me crew mates die of hunger and thirst. One by one, we had to heave them over into the deep and still try to row for land. One by one, all me hopes of seein' me home and loved ones died with me crew. In the end we were driven to the unthinkable. There were twenty saved from the sinking of the Essex but only eight saw land and that at a terrible price. We survived by eating our dead shipmates.


Carved Comments

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    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      3 years ago from Fresno CA

      The history of carving in unusual materials is vast.

    • PAINTDRIPS profile imageAUTHOR

      Denise McGill 

      4 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


      4 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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