Saturday, March 6, 2010

Brian Burns, an Alaskan Scrimshander

In my last post, I mentioned Brian Burns, who works for Maynard at Dancing Man Knives and Ulus. One of Brian's contributions is his ability to scrimshaw. The art of scrimshaw takes the form of elaborate carvings or more commonly etchings of pictures and lettering on the surface of the bone or ivory, with the engravings highlighted using a pigment or ink. Originally, candle black, soot or tobacco juice would have been used to bring the etched design into view. The making of scrimshaw began on whaling ships between 1817 to 1824 on the Pacific Ocean, and survived until the ban on commercial whaling. It was practiced by sailors to create common tools, where the byproducts of whales were readily available. The term originally referred to the making of these tools, only later referring to works of art created by whalers in their spare time. Scrimshawed works on sperm whale teeth and elephant tusks were sought and traded, primarily by the Chinese, until protection of the endangered species was enacted.

Besides the work Brian does for Maynard, he has started producing scrimshaw work on his own. We first connected with Brian at the Alaska Wholesale Gift Show and have since been working with Brian to produce work for our store. We supply local mammoth ivory and bones from Chicken, which are remnants of the Pleistocene Era that have been preserved in permafrost for the past 25,000 years or more.

Brian then stabilizes the pieces by filling cracks and sealing the material with super glue. This allows the dry, cracked material to be polished in steps using finer grits which then provides a smooth surface on which to etch drawings.

Until we introduced Brian to the Wooly Mammoth, he had not attempted to scrimshaw a mammoth scene, but he was up for the challenge and in our opinion, mastered the art instantly. So once the surface is prepared, Brian scribes his scene onto the ivory or bone with a fine foredom scribe.

After the scene is finished, it is inked and allowed to dry. Different color inks can be used in steps to bring depth to the scene. Brian prefers working with one color which more resembles a fine pen and ink drawing.

Once thoroughly dry, the excess ink surrounding the etched scene is buffed away leaving a highly defined image.

The finished piece, depending on what it is, might then be added to a stand of ironwood, another bone, more ivory, etc. The lower foreleg bone of the Steppe Bison makes a good stand as seen below.

Some of the pieces that Brian had previously done, incorporated malachite or azurite found in Alaska, inlaid into the ironwood stands. We discussed the possibility of using the malachite to fill cracks in a Steppe Bison horn and skull; Brian made it happen and added a scrimshaw bison profile to the skull with rewarding results.

There are only a few reputable scrimshanders practicing their art on mammoth ivory. We think Brian has a great talent in this very special niche. You can find his work in our store this summer.


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