Bone is lovely stuff.  I fell in love with it at the first SCA demo my partner took me to.  There was this wonderful lady who had some remarkable bits of carved bone on display, and we got into a prolonged discussion about the merits of bone carving as an art form.  I came away from that demo with a desire to try it, at least once in my life.

The first thing I found out was that it’s not that easy to get information about it on the internet.  I guess I’m a lazy researcher, if I can’t find it on Google, I pretty much won’t look much further unless I have a really good reason to.  So, after a few hours looking at sites that were only marginally connected to what I was trying to find out, I figured the best way to learn was to reinvent the wheel.

I didn’t do it all alone.  I’d had some good discussions with some SCAdians about bone and horn before I started, so I knew there were health risks involved.  If you’re reading this as a future bone carver, please note: there are SERIOUS health risks involved.  Bone is wonderful stuff, but when you carve it, you get powdered bone.  Powdered bone is not good to breathe.  If it gets into your lungs, it stays there.  It’s too heavy to cough out.  Powdered bone can also scratch corneas.  ALWAYS use safety goggles and a decent face mask that will stop fine particulate matter.  Keep your carving area well ventilated.  And, where possible, run a vacuum cleaner close to your work to suck up excess bone powder.  No piece of carving is worth you contracting white lung, or going blind.  On top of that, hand protection is a must too.  If you’re working scrimshaw, you’re going to be using lots of sharp implements that can easily slip.  If you’re using a rotary tool, not only do you have slippage to worry about, you’ve got to watch that you take frequent breaks.  The vibration of the tool can cause a problem known as white finger.  Use carving gloves, and don’t run your rotary tool for hours on end. 

Preparation

When I first set out to learn, I decided to go the whole hog.  The cheapest way, I figured, was to buy pet bones and prepare them myself.  I had been advised that boiling the bones was a good way to get the nasties off, and that a little bit of detergent into the water would help to break down the connective tissue.  That sounded awesome to my scientifically inclined mind, and made a lot of sense.  So I picked up a couple of bags of offcuts marked for pets from the local butcher, shoved them into a huge pot of water with a bit of detergent in it, chucked it onto the stove and sat down to wait for the magic to happen.  And waited.  And waited.  And waited.

Some pieces of bone were ready almost immediately, and these were carefully removed with tongs as they became free of meat and marrow.  Others took much longer.  After twelve hours of topping up the water so it didn’t boil dry, I got rather sick of the smell and the heat, so I stopped.  There were still bone pieces with connective tissue adhered to them.  The theory behind the detergent is all well and good, but in practise, it’s not that great after all.

Translucency due to fat in the bone

Using offcuts wasn’t that great either.  I had a pile of different pieces of bone, but not all of them were usable, and they were all rather thin (<2mm).  I managed a lot of nice sized flat pieces early on, but they were fragile.  Boiling them for so long also managed to produce some strange colourations, as in some cases the marrow seeped into the pores of the bone, and in others the fat turned the bone yellowish or patchy and almost translucent .

  Later on I changed the source of my bone, having found a pet supply store nearby.  It’s marvellous what opportunities expanding your horizons can provide you with!  I began paying a bit more for my bones, but getting more bang for my buck, when I switched to using shin.

My mate, Jean the Hornmaster, told me I should only be boiling the bones long enough for the marrow to go nice and sloppy, so I did just that.  Forget the detergent, forget boiling for hours on end, I put the water to the boil, popped in my new bones, and roughly a half hour later I retrieved them.  I gave them a flush with cold water, poked out any marrow that was still stuck in the middle, and voila!  I had some lovely, white bone that was roughly 6 – 7mm thick throughout.

This carving clearly shows marrow that has seeped into the pores of the bone.

Carving

My first foray into bone carving was a small piece of scrim, using only a needle.

Mermaid, carved on beef bone, coloured with oils.

I chose a mermaid, as all my somewhat limited forays into internet research on scrimshaw had led me to the conclusion that “true authenticity” would be best upheld by a nautical theme. (N.B. I was rather precious at the time.  I have since relaxed somewhat).

It took me forever to carve this.  Well, maybe not forever, but a number of hours.  I think I can put this down to not yet realising something every scrimshander needs to know.

Bone is softer when it’s wet.

Dry bone is horribly hard and brittle, and doesn’t take a needle very well at all.  But soak that bone in water, and it’s hard not to mark it.

Also, don’t use a needle, or a pin, or any other sharp thing that’s really small.  Your hands will cramp up terribly.  Try a splinter probe, or a really sharp awl.  And don’t forget the carvers gloves, or some other sort of hand guard designed for carvers.  You will end up stabbing yourself, no matter how careful you are.

 For the record, using oil paint to colour my work was not an original idea.  I read somewhere (I forget where, but I’m pretty sure it was a tertiary source with no references) that oil paints was a common way of making scrim stand out on the bone.  I forget which particular period this referred to, but it was within a time period covered by SCA.  So I went ahead and painted my work with oil paints that may very well be synthetic tones (LOL) with the gusto that only the very freshest of SCAdians can muster, not documenting any of my research at all.  The older me winces.  It may very well be a period practice, but I haven’t seen anything about it since.  Please, if anyone has more information about the historic use of oils to colour scrimshaw, please leave a comment with sources, I’d be very interested to follow up on that one.

After this first attempt, I pretty much gave up on using the old fashioned methods and turned to a rotary tool (also known as a Dremel, for those who use well known brand names to signify the generic item).  It used to belong to my partner.  It now, through use and addition of added extras, belongs to me by default.

Originally my rotary tool had a flexible arm that I could attach bits to.  I don’t any more.  It seems they get hot very quickly (I melted the plastic on the outside of it within the first week of use), and they’re rather fragile (the second week, I don’t know how, but the inner drive shaft snapped).  Since then I’ve been working without the flexi-arm.  This offers some unfortunate limitations to angles I’m able to reach with my bits, but them’s the breaks.

A rotary tool allows you to do amazing things with bone very quickly.  I’ve found that using dry bone with a rotary tool is better than using wet bone, as wet bone tends to gum up the bits very quickly.  Also, if you’re using  a rotary tool on bone, use a low speed setting.  Bone burns very easily, and when it does, it turns a very unpleasant orange colour.  I actually learned this from attempting to buff an early piece of bone I was preparing for a local A&S competition.  Faster does not necessarily equate to quicker.  Unfortunately, the burn was in a place I couldn’t sand out, so I had to resort to hiding it, by inking the entire piece in black and rubbing off highlights.   My piece won, but I will always recall the shame of hiding the unsightly burn.

Polishing

Bone takes a polish very nicely with a polishing wheel.  I’m quite fortunate to have a large grinder in my workshop, with a rag disk attached, but you can get similar polishing implements that attach to drills, and tiny polishing bits for rotary tools are available from most hardware stores.

Polishing your bone will show you exactly where all your lumps and bumps are.  If you’re using a rotary tool for your carving, this is where your little stone bits come in.  Work carefully over your rough spots with your fine grinding bits until it comes up nicely.  I say carefully, because it’s very easy to remove pieces of detail.  Then polish.  You should be able to get a mirror shine when you’re done.

Polishing compounds will help you to get a nice finish, but the bone will generally pick up a tinge of the compound colour.  It doesn’t always buff completely out, especially in areas of high detail.  For this reason, I’ve stopped using a green cutting compound.  It simply looked wrong.  I generally use a brown, however I’ve been told that white compounds exist which would be a better choice.  If you do happen to get cutting compound into prominent, hard-to-buff places, there’s a simple solution.  Brush your carved piece rather briskly with hot water and a soft toothbrush.  The plastic is softer than the bone, so it leaves your pattern and polish intact, while removing the coloured cutting wax.

If you’re working scrim without anything electrical, progressively finer sandpapers will do the trick, until you’re eventually buffing with a soft cloth.  The level of polish you’re going to get depends on your level of patience.

Hopefully this little how-to has been of help to those seeking the knowledge I had to find out the hard way.  Happy carving, everyone!

My latest piece, completed this morning.

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