Published May 13. 2015 - 8 years ago
Updated or edited Jul 13. 2018

Sharon Burger

Sharon Burger is a modern day scrimshaw artist from South Africa. She does fine scrimshaw work for knife handles, inlays and more.

Hunting scene -
Taking a nymph -
B/W fishing knife shells -
Fishing motifs -
B/W scrimshaw work
Sharon Burger

Mention Scrimshaw, and not too many people will immediately know, what it is. But if you explain the process, most people will realise, that they have seen an article that have some scrimshaw on it.
Scrimshaw is a very old art form, with the old Eskimos and whalers, the most well know people that have practiced this art and used it for passing time and decorating.
A modern day scrimshaw artist is Sharon Burger, from South Africa. With a client list that stretches all over the globe, she is one of the leading proponents of this art form.
I asked her a couple of questions, about herself, her art, the history of the art form.

What problems are there working on such small scale?

There are no problems really when working on a small scale other than having the correct equipment for magnification and stippling. I use a jewelers visor X4 magnification and an old eye surgeons' microscope for very fine detailed work. This magnifies up to X10.
For fine stippling work I use a sharpened needle which can be a drill bit or a dentists drill bit. The needle has to be kept extremely sharp at all times - to ensure an extra fine, sharp point, I sharpen it under my X10 microscope! The needle is placed in a light-weight pin-vice for easy, comfortable use.

How do you apply color?

When doing a colour scrimshaw I start with black. It is important to work from the darkest colour to the lightest so as not to obliterate and "muddy" the lighter colours. The entire image is scrimmed in black. This can be a finished piece as black scrimshaw only. So do all the dark shading and VERY black areas first. (Obviously when doing portraits for instance, don't do too much shading in black for the face if using "flesh" tones). From black, move on to browns, blues, reds, etc., until the lightest yellows. I often mix my own colours if needs be. I apply the oil paint using an ear bud, gently wiping off all excess paint with soft tissue.
For highlights it is important to always be aware of these areas from the start and to make use of the natural white of the ivory for the highlights.
So each colour therefore gets stippled - colour applied, then on to the next. Because shading and tone overlap and interweave, the stippling of one colour is often done over the previous colour. That is why it is important to work from dark to light.

Bloody Butcher -
Brown trout and rod -
Fly casting -
Demon -
A pair of trout knifes -
Trout scene -
Sharon Burger
Trout pair inlay -
Inlay work
Sharon Burger
Finished box -
Finished inlaid box
Sharon Burger

How durable is scrimshaw and the color?

I use Artist's range high quality oil paint. These paints are extreme pigment-concentrated oils that are fade-proof and water-proof. The durability of the scrimmed image itself is obviously dependent on the handling of the object. Don't leave a knife, for instance, lying in the hot sun or toss it on a rock as it will get scratched.

I notice that you work with a microscope, is all your work done with microscope
Not all, but very small images such as portraits that are no bigger than one's pinky nail for instance. Mostly I use the jewelers visor.

How "ethical" is your ivory

Most of my work is commission based. This means I receive the finished product - be it a knife or a piece for inlay. The ivory for the handle used by the knifemaker is very ethical and legally obtained. He/she would have purchased the ivory through the National Parks Board. The ivory has all the legal serial numbers and documentation. The proceeds from the sale of ivory goes back in to Elephant and Wildlife conservation and research. The ivory the Parks Board sells is obtained from culling, animals dying natural deaths and often sections of tusk that have broken off due to animals being in fights with one another.
Of course Mammoth Ivory is perfect as there are no restrictions. The lightest, whitest part of the mammoth tusk is really lovely to work on.

Alternatives and modern materials

There are various synthetic materials available. Micarta resin, linen micarta and paper micarta, amongst others. These materials are not ideal. I have worked on paper and linen micarta before and it is awful to work with! Detail is very difficult to achieve as the surface starts to "burr" and break down.
There is another, perfect alternative which I have only recently started working on. It is called Casein. Casein is the protein found in milk. The Casein the knifemakers use looks almost identical to ivory. It apparently even smells like ivory when being cut, shaped and sanded. To scrim on Casein, I find it very much like mammoth ivory. It holds the stipple and paint extremely well. I have done only black scrimshaw on Casein till now. Currently I am working on a piece that is to be in colour. The bonus of course, is that as a material there are no restrictions whatsoever!! I will be working on Casein with Mario for his rods and nets. For export purposes this will be ideal! And overseas client will no longer have to worry about getting and item in to his/her country!

Special treatment for scrimshaw and durability

There is no "sealant" or varnish to apply to scrimshaw to make it durable. The only care needed is as I mentioned with the paint.

Any modern techniques compared to the old style

The old style would have been with the Eskimo's and Ancient Whalers. They would have cut or scratched in to the surface using sail needles or similar. They would then have used "soot" or charcoal to rub in to the image. Their objects would have been whale teeth or jaw bones in the case of the whaler's and the Eskimos would have use antlers, walrus tooth etc. (for a more detailed History of scrimshaw you can refer to this section on my website).
The cutting technique is still used today (I sometimes have clients that want the original cutting technique used on whale tooth).
The stippling technique is still the best as a lot of detail can be obtained using this method. The less pressure applied when stippling, the smaller the dot and therefore the more "dots" per area will give you more detail (like pixels on screen).

The process

These images shows the process of a custom piece made based on a couple of photos.

Pictures and the sketch -
B/W outline -
The measure -
Coloring underway -
Finished knife -
Coloring done -
Custom work
Sharon Burger

Have you worked with any of teeth or tusks? And what problems do you have working with ivory?

Yes I have worked on warthog tusks, many times. On warthog ivory knife handles and on whole warthog tusks. The whole tusks would be as free-standing art pieces and one client commissioned two pairs of tusks that he had mounted as bookends.

Other ivory is Elephant, Mammoth, Hippo, Whale tooth and Buffalo horn. Buffalo horn would be reverse scrim - white on black. I do not enjoy working on buffalo horn at all. The horn, being made up of compressed hair, eventually starts to break down and disintegrate after stippling over and over the same area. The image itself to me looks kitsch and no real amount of detail can be gained!
The US has recently passed a total ban on ALL ivory trade. Up till now Elephant ivory was Sites 1 and Hippo Sites 2. Warthog was ok and of course Mammoth had no restrictions. I am not too sure where we stand with the Mammoth ivory now and what exactly the TOTAL BAN ON ALL Ivory entails? I have discussed the alternatives bellow in "f".

Have you done other art work, closer to your original training?

Besides scrimming on knives, I also do "free-standing" art pieces as mentioned above. Either mounted on a wooden base or as framed items. Jewellery, as in pendants, brooches, earrings, cufflinks, etc. I have had several antique cut-throat razors restored - the Bakelite handles replaced with mammoth ivory scales for scrimshaw. I have done numerous inlay pieces for custom wooden handmade boxes, themselves works or art.

Dog and shotgun -
Phesant hunting theme -
A pointer -
Hunting scenes
Sharon Burger

A number of years ago I was given an old ivory brush and comb set with a shoe horn and clothes brush. My intention is (when I have the time) to scrimshaw the whole set - with something really outstanding, reminiscent of an Old Masters painting. This to be presented more as a Fine Art piece, as opposed to just another scrimshaw piece. (I did my Honours in Fine Art and for many many years now have been threatening to combine that with my scrimshaw in producing fine art pieces). This project could be the start to something like that....

With so many of your work, displaying fishing themes, are any of it used on fly fishing related products?

As I mentioned to you before, I will be collaborating with Mario Geldenhuys - scrimming inlay pieces for his beautifully hand-crafted fly-rods and nets.

I am available to do work for people if they want commissioned pieces, for their fly rods, nets, knives or rifles. They can email me a photo with a basic description of what they require.

Is hunting and fishing part of your hobbies?

- No I do not fish or hunt. My hobbies are very far removed from scrimshaw. I enjoy mountain biking, gym, body boarding, music and woodworking/furniture restoration

Brown trout -
Rainbow trout -
Sharon Burger


Sharon Burger can be contacted here
+27 83 7891675
Parktown West
South Africa

Scene with rod -
B/W rod -
Fly rods
Sharon Burger

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