Scrimshaw is a unique and historical art form, but what exactly is scrimshaw? While most who see a scrimshaw piece realize how complex and breathtaking they are, few truly wonder about the history of the art form itself.
Here at Whaler’s Locker, we love maritime history as much as anyone, so we treasure our scrimshaw collection (from scrimshaw knives to scrimshaw Zippos) that are handcrafted by local Maui artisans and other distinguished scrimshaw artisans from around the U.S. To show you how unique and special these pieces truly are, we’re going to take a look back at what scrimshaw truly is, from its origins to how scrimshaw has evolved through the years.
Scrimshaw Origins: 1815
When we think about the origins of this maritime art form, we have to first think of the industry that made it possible in the first place: commercial whaling. Standard scrimshaw pieces were first carved on whale teeth, and when that wasn't available, walrus tusks. Best guesses for the origination of scrimshanders (the name for scrimshaw artisans) was around the year 1815, following a journal publication of a U.S. Navy Captain, David Porter, that reportedly exposed the source and the market for whale teeth, making them widely available. At that point, ordinary sailors aboard whaling vessels were able to hone their craft and use these teeth as the medium for their art, depicting life at sea. But what is scrimshaw really, and how did these first sailors create it?
What is Scrimshaw?
Scrimshaw can be defined a few ways, depending on the specific artisan and their style. Scrimshaw designs can be any of the following:
As we noted earlier, almost all ancient scrimshaw art was done on bone or ivory, mostly from the byproducts of whales and sometimes walrus tusks, as well. These elaborate engravings, carvings, and scrollwork were created through a detailed and often time-consuming process to produce the scenery each artisan had in mind.
Scrimshaw: From Start to Finish
Now that we know a little more about the origins of scrimshaw let's take a look at a typical process for creating scrimshaw artwork.
Steps to Create Scrimshaw
The first and most crucial step is to sketch the design before beginning to etch.
Next, scrimshanders would use sharp instruments or tools to begin etching the design into the bone or tooth. If mistakes happen during etching, a skilled scrimshander can sand them off and start over.
Once the finer details are etched, the scrimshander then takes some sort of ink, paint, oil, or tar and rubs it into the etchings to further differentiate it from the light color of the tooth or ivory used as the medium.
After the oil or paint is absorbed, it is wiped off to complete the piece.
Often sailors on whaling vessels would make scrimshaw designs out of useful objects that they could then sell once back at port to supplement their income. Some of the items ancient scrimshanders would make and sell ranged from the following:
Common Items for Scrimshaw in the Past
- Busks (used in women’s corsets)
- Swifts (used to wind yarn into a skein)
- Pie crimpers or jagging wheels
However, because of the ban on commercial whaling, scrimshaw became more unique and sought after each year because artisans had to become creative in finding ethical means for producing such beautiful art.
Present-day scrimshaw artisans have become more and more resourceful when it comes to picking the right material on which they carve their scrimshaw etchings. From scrimshaw knives made out of ethically sourced bones and antlers of different animals to scrimshaw Zippo lighters featuring unique designs made from ivory, this diverse American folk art still lives on today!
Scrimshaw Knives For One and All
Scrimshaw knives are one of the many uniquely Hawaiian gifts we love to show off in our store because of the one-of-a-kind designs etched onto each by local artists. Each scrimshaw knife comes with a smooth bone handle etched with a different Hawaiian design that you have to see to believe, from turtles to eagle rays to hammerhead sharks. If you want to take home a unique piece of both American folk art and Hawaiian history, look no further than a handcrafted scrimshaw knife!
Some of our favorite local scrimshaw artists who supply us with these beautiful scrimshaw knives are Doug and Derek Fine, a father and son scrimshaw duo. Their breathtaking works of art beautifully capture what we love about Hawaii and provide you with the perfect keepsake to remember the islands you love so much.
Did you know that Lahaina was once a whaling outpost? That’s another reason why scrimshaw art like scrimshaw knives hold such a special place in Hawaiian history! On average, there are at least two dozen scrimshanders throughout Hawaii working each day to supply uniquely Hawaiian scrimshaw gifts like scrimshaw knives, scrimshaw Zippos, scrimshaw cufflinks, and more to visitors and Hawaiian residents alike. Each scrimshaw knife is as unique as the medium chosen to engrave upon and would make an excellent piece for any collector!
Our Favorite Scrimshaw Zippos
One of our favorite things about the scrimshaw pieces we offer at Whaler’s Locker is the versatility of each piece. Not only can you get your hands on a piece of folk-art history, but each piece, like our scrimshaw Zippos, is something you'll likely use daily, remembering the vast history the scrimshander was trying to portray. We hope that when you show others these scrimshaw Zippos, you can explain a little bit about why they are so unique and special, both to you and the history of the art form itself. Let’s take a look at a few of our favorite scrimshaw Zippos we currently carry online and in our shop in Lahaina.
Scrimshander Linda Layden handcrafts these scrimshaw Zippos etched with 12 uniquely Hawaiian designs featuring:
Linda Layden Scrimshaw Zippos Designs
- The hang loose symbol
- Ship with a whale tail
- Hula girl
- Hawaiian Islands
- A surfer
- A ship
- A ship with a lighthouse
- Humpback whales
- A ship with palm trees
- Hibiscus flower
Layden herself has been a scrimshander for more than 40 years, practicing her art on anything from scrimshaw knives, necklaces, earrings, and scrimshaw Zippos to bring a piece of history directly to your home.
Taking a Piece of Hawaiian History Home
Scrimshaw is an American art form that has a rich and storied history. For any history buff or art collector, pieces etched with scrimshaw designs are the perfect addition to any collection. Whether you’re purchasing a scrimshaw Zippo or scrimshaw money clip as a gift for someone on your list or for yourself, we don't think you can go wrong. Check out our website today—not only will you find even more scrimshaw gifts, but you'll also find plenty of other unique Hawaiian gifts, each one perfect for someone in your life!