Saturday, January 15, 2011

Tutorial: Make faux scrimshaw pendants

"Scrimshaw" was the name given to amateur artforms practiced by sailors on long ocean voyages, usually on whaling hunts. It most commonly refers to carved bone, usually the teeth or other bones harvested from slain whales.

Today there are many restrictions on the use of ivory, even in the most prestigious of arts; this is understandable, since the material requires the death of living animals that share this earth with us. Many of these are endangered species because of centuries of hunting for their bones, teeth, and tusks. We do not want to encourage the killing of these animals or the trading of their parts, so instead we will use polymer clay and some other materials to recreate the look of aged scrimshaw.

Part I - Making Your Scrimshaw


- Polymer clay (I used FIMO here, but any kind would work), in white, ivory, pearl, or any variation of off-white color. (I used white here.)

- Some kind of sharp tool. I used an awl, but a mechanical pencil, toothpick, pin, or needle would also work.

- Rolling pin or noodle-style press.

- Parchment paper, two sheets.

- Cookie cutters. (It is advised that your tools for polymer clay are not to be used for food preparation.)

How-To Process

 Roll the clay around in your hands until it is warm and pliable. Form it into a rough ball and place it on one piece of parchment paper. Flatten it slightly and place the other piece of parchment paper on top of the flattened clay. Use your rolling pin to thin and further flatten the clay.

If you are using a noodle-style roller press for your clay, roll it until it is approximately a millimeter or two thin.

You do not want your clay to be too thin, because otherwise it may break easily. Flip the clay by simply taking the corners of the parchment paper and turning it over with the clay inside so you can roll the other side. You can peel the paper apart to check on your progress and determine your clay's thickness. This looks pretty good. Just drop the paper back down if it needs to be rolled more.

When the clay is at the desired thickness, use your cutters to make shapes in it. Be sure to press down and twist to make sure the cut piece is released from the rest on all sides. You may be able to get more than one shape from your bit of clay. Just collect the left overs and reroll it and recut it until you have as many pieces as you want or as many as you can make at one time with what you have.

Twirl and brush your sharp implement along the edges of the pieces to give them a beveled, carved look. This will make the piece look more finished. Also used this tool in small swirls to make a hole near (but not too near!) to one of the pendant's edges. This is how you will be able to string the piece.

This pendant is an antique heirloom that really was carved from ivory. However, from the size and shape of the piece, I would venture a guess that it is probably made from a repurposed slice of ivory from an old piano key.

It displays one of the most popular subjects of scrimshaw carvings: a ship. Other popular subjects were historical events (such as important voyages), portraits, commemorative emblems, coats of arms, and sea creatures (such as whales and narwhals) and mythical creatures (such as mermaids).

To get inspiration, just go on Google Images and do a search for "scrimshaw".

For our two experimental pieces, I chose to do a ship and a mermaid.

 The first method we'll cover is using soft clay before it is fired.

Use your sharp tool to lightly draw the outlines of the "carving" you want to make in your pendant. Feel free to add embellishments and simple cross-hatch style shading and details. You don't have to go too deep at all; just enough to make a crevace where the paint will catch later.

Take your pen or pointy tool and roll it gently over the top of the drawing the entire length of the piece to slightly rub out your "carving". Now, this might not make much sense at this time but trust me, it will add much to the finished piece. It will make it look worn with age and polishing.

Just before you are ready to bake the piece, check to see if there are areas that could use some reinforcement. This piece was a little too thin on top above the hole; I strengthened it by adding a little piece of clay to the back and rubbing lightly with my sharpened tool to get a good bond. Don't be too terribly worried about the back, since it is not what people will see and can be covered by paint later. The entire piece will be glazed at the end for added strength and durability.

Add any last touches you want. I had a space at the bottom of my piece, so I added "1794"---the year the United States Navy was officially formed. :)

When you are happy with the design, bake the pieces following the instructions on the polymer clay packaging and allow them to cool completely before going on to the next step.

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art2cee2 said...

Very beautiful piece of faux Scrimshaw. I have made Faux ivory and faux gems of other kinds using Sculpey. Wonderful tutorial! :-)

Beadwright said...

This is a fantastic tutorial. Thanks

Higgins Design Studio said...

For those who may be drawing-impaired they could use rubber stamps (as long as the company has an Angel policy) and just press them lightly into the surface of the clay.
The tutorial is fabulous... can't wait to see part 2!


My Life Under the Bus said...

Sweet! I love playing with clay it's so relaxing - but much more challenging then you would think to get right - looks great!

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