By Dave Coleman
Bear hunting is unique, nostalgic and conjures up black and white photos of the days of old. A picture of a stretched out hide with the hunter standing next to it wearing a wide brim hat and a wild and burly mustache. The frontier and a piece of Americana that does not exist so much nowadays. Bear hunting is exciting and at times even thrilling. It is those moments of excitement and adventure we wish we could share, savor, and pass down to our children for generations to come. We have all heard hunting stories and most likely shared a few of our own. How do we retain those memories and the epic story behind them waiting to be told? Maybe it is through traditional taxidermy of a mounted bear or a bear rug, maybe it is through pictures or video. It has been said we should use as much of the animal we harvest as possible. A rare and distinct method of recalling a great hunt may not have origins rooted in soil but on water. Battling the elements at sea on a wooden vessel hunting whales, using their blubber like a bear hunter who renders the fat of a black bear. In their spare time whalers would etch drawings into the byproducts of whales such as bone and teeth. This historic and largely obsolete style of art is known as scrimshaw. Some credit the origins of scrimshaw to the whaling days of New England over 200 years ago. Scrimshaw is scroll work, engravings, and carvings done in bone or ivory. Although, the historic days of whaling are over, modern scrimshaw still exists. An unusual and exceptional way to recall a special hunt is through scrimshaw. What could be more personal than creating an heirloom of a memory containing your own fingerprint and creativity?
In September 2020 in the midst of the pandemic, I was fortunate to harvest another black bear. During the process of taking care of the bear I kept both shoulder blades (scapula) of the bear. The goal was to create a belt buckle. But I could not stop with just a buckle, it needed something more. Having never seen an authentic bear buckle before, not to mention making one myself, it required some thought and research. With a scrimshaw kit ordered for less than $20, lacquer purchased from a hardware store, nail polish remover, and a few tools in my garage a new memory was being created.
After cleaning and drying the scapula’s, it was time to get to work.
First the bone needed to be made flat. The front of the scapula is flat with a natural wave in the bone. The backside has a raised triangular piece that connects to the joint. By removing the triangular piece with a saw and some sanding it became flat. This is important because when the buckle is applied it is flush with the bone and adheres properly.
Next was determining the size and shape of the buckle. Again, using a saw to remove a piece of the scapula to pare down the size of the buckle. Choosing the thickest side closest to the joint. This was followed by sanding down the cut portion and the outer edges of the scapula to make it more rounded. The shape and size are personal decisions and done at your discretion. Take your time as the bone you remove cannot be replaced.
Now that the size and shape has been determined it is time to think about scrimshaw. I am not an artist and my creative ability is limited. The image I had in mind was to have a bear walking with mountains and pine trees in the background. Recalling my hunt in the White Mountains of New Hampshire as the bear slowly walked past. I practiced drawing it out on a sheet of paper, knowing to keep it as simple as possible, not to overly complicate the drawing. Once comfortable I made the drawing on the bone using a pencil. A few mistakes were easily erased. You could also use tracing paper which will leave the outline of the design on the bone. Once happy with the drawing I sealed the bone in a coat of clear lacquer and let it dry for 24 hours. The lacquer will cover the drawing and seal the bone while helping protect it.
Although I purchased a scrimshaw kit that came with an etching tool, I found an exacto knife worked best for etching. By applying pressure, you make deeper grooves while etching. The deeper the groove the darker the line will be when the ink is added. I simply etched the drawing by following the outline. Any mistakes made while etching can be removed by gently rubbing it with steel wool or sandpaper.
With the etching now complete it is time to apply the india ink that came with the scrimshaw kit. Using a Q-tip dipped in ink, I rubbed the ink into the etched grooves. Allow the india ink to dry for a few minutes before removing the excess ink. Using a damp paper towel and some nail polish remover to wipe away the excess ink once dry. A Q-tip dipped in nail polish remover could be used to help remove ink in detailed areas. The lacquer that was applied is now playing a pivotal role. Without the lacquer the excess ink will leach into the pores of the bone making removal difficult if not impossible. If you need to darken the etching, repeat this step in the process. Once you are happy I would recommend applying another coat of lacquer to help seal and protect your work.
The buckle still needs to be attached to the back of the bone. You can purchase a buckle blank for approximately $10. Keep the width of the belt in mind when ordering your belt buckle blank. I prefer a wider belt and purchased a 1.5 inch buckle. The buckle on most belts are on the left side, good to know when you attach the buckle. Centering the buckle and ensuring it was level I marked its position with a pencil. I applied a two-part epoxy glue and clamped into place for 24 hours or until dry. The last step is to apply a coat of lacquer to the back of the bone surrounding the buckle.
You now have a bear buckle! Attach the belt to your one-of-a-kind bear buckle and enjoy a piece of your hunt and a great conversation piece. A simple and affordable way to recall your hunt in a very personable and meaningful way.