The Not-So-Ancient Craft of Scrimshaw

Pete Driscoll is Columbia’s scrimshander

Most of Pete Driscoll’s scrimshaw work is done on antique ivory piano keys, bought from reputable sources.

Photography by Bob Lancaster

A scrimshander is one who practices the art of scrimshaw, or engraving on bone or ivory. While no one is quite sure of the etymology of the word, Pete Driscoll suggests a popular theory that it derives from a Scandanavian word meaning “idle.” The first scrimshanders were whalers in the early 19th century who, during long waits between adventurous voyages and dangerous whale chases, would etch images on whale teeth. In fact, the art is mentioned in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
Like those first whaling scrimshanders before him, Pete has lived an adventurous life, which led him to Columbia, where he lives with Jo, his wife, and their two Springer Spaniels. Between them they have five children, 10 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Pete has enjoyed creating art for as long as he can remember. Beginning with using his paper-route money to remodel his boyhood rec room, he has spent his life sculpting, crafting furniture, doing photography, art collecting, drawing and painting – including a commissioned ornament for the 2010 White House Christmas tree. His attention and vast skill have now turned to the art of scrimshaw.

Pete was born in Milwaukee, Wis., and after high school graduation he entered the world of commercial printing, which was still a hands-on trade in the 1970s. Passionate about Milwaukee’s downtown resurgence, Pete bought a building in the defunct warehouse district and opened Driscoll Graphics, Inc., which converted customer artwork into the film used to make printing plates for commercial printing. Driscoll Graphics served clients regionally and nationally, working on a variety of jobs, “from bottle caps to billboards,” he says.

“When the film combined to form an image for printing, they had to be as perfect as possible or the pictures and text would be blurry,” Pete says. Consistent with his passions for learning and enjoying art, Pete began to wonder how the printing process first came about.

“It fed my creative juices to learn about the craft, which began with Guttenberg, obviously, but I discovered that in the very late 1800s in Paris, print exploded with color printing. As I discovered more, I discovered the roots of my trade.”

Next, Pete moved to New Bern, N.C., a coastal town that caught his eye because of his love of sailing and historical places. “This was a town that time forgot. I bought an old, sagging 1885 downtown building to try to help another city with its downtown reemergence. I put a loft apartment on the second floor and a nautical gift store on the street level named Captain Ratty’s after a character in my favorite book, The Wind in the Willows.”

A New Endeavor
One day, retired engineer Harold Simons walked into Captain Ratty’s with some carved piano keys. He explained that he did scrimshaw and asked if Pete would be interested in selling his art. Already familiar with the artform through his interest in all things nautical, Pete enthusiastically agreed. It wasn’t long before Pete asked Harold to show him how he created his pieces.

In this age of technology, scrimshaw can be created using lasers, but some scrimshanders such as Pete are true to the original methods. “I use sewing needles, which is what the sailors used, and I do a lot of polishing by hand,” he says.
Sailors used candle soot or tobacco juice for ink, or any ink they brought on board with them. Pete opts for India ink and uses fine sandpaper; sailors, however, used shark skin which has different degrees of coarseness depending on the part of the body. Like his mentor, Pete acquires ivory piano keys for his art.

“Many piano keys are scratched through use over the years. The first thing I do is sand them to take the scratches away. Then I polish them until the oils within release a wonderful patina. Even after decades, centuries, even thousands of years, the oils are still in there.” Pete next draws the image he will be recreating on sketch paper, then he scales it down to size.

“I pick out the corners and then complete the drawing on the ivory. I spray it to prevent smearing, and then I begin to engrave. When the engraving is complete, I wipe ink over the whole surface and let it dry. I re-polish the surface of the ivory, and the ink sticks in every single scratch I’ve made. The challenge is to achieve incredible detail more so than any other art form. You never know just what it will look like. I call this the magic moment.”

If Pete feels the piece needs a little more refinement, he can go back in and add to it. “I have to be careful not to change too much, though, because every time you re-engrave and re-polish you take some of the early work away.” Depending on the elaborateness of the piece, he can spend four or five hours, or several weeks before completion. Pete will then display the art in a small frame with a background that makes the piece unique, fascinating and eye catching.

While in New Bern, Pete met Jo, who was a university professor and speech/language pathologist. They married in 1997, and in 1998, Pete sold his holdings in New Bern and the couple moved to Winston-Salem, N.C.

“I was looking for something to get involved with financially and creatively. Harold had been doing some Gilmore Classic Craft shows, so I started to sign up for some.” To date, Pete has worked more than 50 shows along the east coast, often setting up on Thursday and driving back home after Friday, Saturday and Sunday shows, usually the only scrimshander in attendance. “I got to meet many wonderful people from many different cities and promote the art of scrimshaw,” he says.

Pete threw his love of art and people into an active year as the Davie County, N.C. Artist-in-Residence for the 2009-2010 school year. He spoke to 6,000 students in 79 classes. “Most of the kids hadn’t heard of the Original American Art of Scrimshaw, and now they have,” he says. “I am proud to say I taught in a dozen schools explaining my art to these wonderful students.”

Maybe one or two will carry on the tradition. Pete especially loved the second graders’ questions. “Are you famous?” “Not yet,” he answered. “Did they hurt girl whales?” “Yes,” he explained to them. “Boy and girl whales got hurt, almost to extinction. Now there are national and international laws, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act and Endangered Species Act, which seek to protect animals that are hunted for their ivory, such as whales, elephants and walruses.”

It is illegal to buy ivory harvested from sperm whales and walrus if it is not pre-1973, and African ivory must be within the country prior to 1989. Interestingly, ancient ivory, even of extinct animals such as mastodon and woolly mammoth, is legal. Early scrimshaw pieces can go for $200,000 at auction, but very few are on the market now.

“I support the protection of endangered species and all of the good work that people around the world are doing to try to prevent poaching,” says Pete. “I get discouraged though because it seems it’s getting worse by the year; the money is so big, and the black market keeps growing.”

Pete had hoped that fossil ivory prices would drop instead of rising. “With the tundra in Russia melting, hundreds and hundreds of mammoths and mastodons are coming up out of the earth. But people are hoarding the stuff, accelerating the market and increasing the prices.”

This is why most of Pete’s work is done on antique ivory piano keys, bought from reputable sources. Pete says, “In this country, pre-ban ivory is available. If it was in this country before 1985 it can be bought and sold, because it would have been brought in before the ban went into effect. Most of my work is done on piano keys, an idea I took from my mentor, Harold. He may have passed away, but his memory will live on.”

An Artist’s Response to 9/11
Besides the many beautiful examples of scrimshaw on piano keys that are tastefully displayed through the Driscoll home, Pete has a mounted piece done on a woolly mammoth tusk. “The coloration of this tusk partially comes from the earth in Alaska, where it was buried for thousands of years.” This piece will never be sold, but handed down to his family. Entitled “Fair Thee Well to the Other Side,” it is his response to 9/11.

“The way I told the story was to originally carve the whole World Trade Centers. When I re-polished it I sanded away the tops, so they disappeared into the sky. I had the vision of two ships leaving New York, one from each building, with the perished souls on board, heading for another shore.”

From Crafting to a Third Career
Pete embraces the modern technology of today while honoring the technology of yesteryear. “Art is transcendent,” he says. “It always has been and always will be. Yet it seems to me the appreciation of people who create with their hands is increasing throughout the world. Forms in wood, clay, glass, painting and sculpture can express to the digital age the opportunities to advance. I can’t help but feel that there is still an appreciation for the tasks that can only be done with a hands-on, hand-eye relationship.”

Artizan Gallery at 1217 Bull Street and The Village Artists at Sandhills feature work by Pete for sale. At The Village on Fridays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., visitors have the opportunity to catch him scrimshawing. For more information about Pete and how to commission or purchase his art, visit