Lifestyle feature: Traditional carving in antler and bone

A range of bone and antler craftworks made with only primitive tools
A range of bone and antler craftworks made with only primitive tools

This month John Rhyder from the Woodcraft School explains how to use traditional methods to carve antler and bone.

Most of us interested in the craft aspect of bushcraft will have probably started by working with wood.

It is readily available and can be worked with modern tools costing a few pounds.

It does, however, have limitations and for the modern primitive wishing to explore and emulate the skills of the past this becomes apparent fairly quickly.

Arrowheads, for example, don’t really cut the mustard if made in wood.

Despite these few drawbacks, wood is an amazing material, but for certain primitive craft projects we must turn to either stone, bone or antler.

I would like to specifically introduce you to antler and bone.

It is a great primitive material to get to grips with and will produce some suitably ancient-looking bits of craftwork.

I don’t propose to describe step-by-step instructions, but merely to pass on a few tips on working with the material and then you can let your creativity run wild.

Sourcing bone

Bone is easy to source from butchers, however, many of the bits and pieces will have come from the legs of cows and pigs which are not particularly fine-boned and can be a little too heavy and awkward to work with effectively.

You may be able to obtain finer deer and sheep bones quite readily from certain game butchers and dealers and these can make some very nice objects relatively easily.

Don’t neglect fish and bird bones as these can make fishing kit and needles.

Unless you are in the know and moving in certain circles, tracking down antler can be quite tricky.

You could wander around the woods after the deer have shed their antlers and hope to come across them.

However, this is the most hit-and-miss method and, as deer and many other animals eat the shed antlers to absorb the calcium and nutrients, it is also the least deer-friendly option.

Small pieces can be got from crafts suppliers, stick-makers and the like.

For full-sized antler it is best to talk to a deer stalker or park warden and find out when the culls are planned.

Preparation

With either bone or antler, it will be easiest to craft when green or fresh and this is particularly important when working bone which is softer, waxier and easiest to carve in this state.

As these materials age, they become harder and more brittle and take a good deal more effort to shape.

No real preparation is strictly needed, although I have found it useful to boil fresh bones gently to make removing of flesh and cartilage easier.

This is a fine balancing act because if you cook the bones too much, you will make them brittle and hard.

Antler benefits from soaking overnight, but I have had definite notable results simply by leaving in hot water for an hour or so.

Breaking

Like woodworking, it is a good idea to visualise your intended craft item and then produce a blank closely resembling it.

This takes a deal of care and attention to detail, together with some reasonable tool skills and, with these harder materials, patience.

Alternatively, especially with bone, you can smash it with a really big hammer and see what you are left with.

Antler doesn’t respond well to this treatment and hitting it with hammers tends not to have much effect at all.

Breaking a heavy bone this way is very effective in terms of reducing the size, however, you will end up with lots of wastage and it is also difficult to obtain blanks of decent length.

Bone and antler have a soft marrow which needs to be considered when going for certain shapes and features.

It is also means once you get through the hard outer, the material should break easily.

Antler can be truncated by heating around the entire circumference and tapping it sharply over an anvil.

This will normally leave a fairly ragged step and rarely breaks evenly.

Cutting bone and antler with a knife is a very quick way to a blunt a sharp metal tool and for fine shaving, you are perhaps better off using flint flakes.

The beauty of using flint is you don’t have to be an expert flint knapper to produce a workable tool.

You could quite easily get the big hammer out again, hit the flint and see what you are left with.

If using this technique, use eye protection and only do outside as flint releases dangerous gasses when broken open.

For finer finishing and material removal, try abrading with sandstone.

Skills

Making craft items with pre-metal technology is both rewarding and humbling in equal measures and is something everyone should do at least once.

But it takes a fair amount of time and personally I see nothing wrong with speeding up the process using modern equipment.

I often use files, hacksaws and sometimes a dremmel.

Holes can be made using anything from a cordless drill, to repeated pecking with a flint flake or the ultimately ancient and effective flint drill and bow.

Actual cutting of the material, however, is still most effectively done with flint which is easy to obtain and to a large extent sharpens itself during the work.

I hope this encourages you to have a try at a few projects and although I have used the word ‘primitive’,

I think you will agree when experimenting for yourself that there is nothing primitive about these skills.