Scrimshaw Collection

Until recently, much of the scrimshaw collection was showing its age. Repairs and restoration of nearly 100 pieces of scrimshaw is now complete.

Conservation Spotlight: Scrimshaw Collection

Detail of Scrimshaw inlay box
Repairs and restoration of nearly 100 pieces of scrimshaw is now complete.

Until recently, much of our scrimshaw collection was showing its age. Dozens of scrimshaw boxes, busks, swifts, canes, and other objects had broken or missing pieces.

Mixed-media objects are particularly susceptible to damage because of stresses imposed by fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity. For instance, a scrimshaw box may be composed of wood with inlay of a variety of materials including ivory, shell, and metal. Wood expands and contracts relatively severely compared to the inlay materials, so many of our pieces had loose or missing inlay that had popped out when the wood underwent dimensional change.

Before and after photograph of scrimshaw inlaid box

Before and after photograph of scrimshaw inlaid box

Behind the scenes, talented craftsman and scrimshaw enthusiast Jim Vaccarino has been repairing these objects that have long been unable to be displayed. He has repaired or restored nearly 100 pieces of scrimshaw in our collection to date. It is easy enough to re-attach loose pieces, but where they are missing, Mr. Vaccarino has really demonstrated talent. Using a supply of “boneyard” materials from the museum and taken from his personal stash, Mr. Vaccarino skillfully fashions new parts out of ivory, baleen, wood, and mother-of-pearl. He is careful to choose examples of materials that closely match the color and texture of the piece, so the modern repairs do not visually stand out too much.

When it comes to the Swift Collection of scrimshaw yarn winders that are relatively fragile with many moving parts, Mr. Vaccarino is making them operable again, one at a time. This is painstaking and time-consuming work, but in the end we will be left with a collection that is beautiful and displayable for years to come.