Origin, Characteristics and Use
This material, which is robust but can still be processed with flints, was used for blades, composite bows, hammers, sewing needles, spearheads, fishhooks, bows and fittings on the one hand, and for jewellery, inlay works, cases and wind instruments on the other hand. As wood was rare in polar regions, antler and bone material was the most important material for many thousands of years to ensure the survival of the population under the extreme arctic conditions. Until today, Sami knife handles and sheaths are preferably made of reindeer antlers.
Bone material structure is very similar to the structure of ivory and is therefore often used as a substitute material for ivory as this is subject to the protection of species. Bone material is used for restoration, intarsia, and component parts of musical instruments such as keyboards.
Unlike horn, antlers consist of bone substance. In chemical terms, this is a matrix consisting of 60% mineral salts (mainly calcium phosphate), interspersed with collagen (fibroid protein). The calcium phosphate makes the antlers strong and hard, while the collagen makes them flexible.
Antlers are obtained from stags, roebucks, moose or reindeer (in zoological terms, the family of the Cervidae) which have fallen off in autumn (antlers grow again each year and fall off in late autumn) or as a by-product of shot animals. The only female deer with antlers are reindeer, however this material is hardly exploited as the antlers are much smaller and less hard.
The antler ends, palms and pedicle consist of a solid tissue, whereas the core material is a spongy tissue. As the antlers grow, the material becomes harder, therefore the best material is obtained from fully grown antlers in autumn. The brownish discolouration results from blood of the so-called velvet skin coming off towards the end of the antlers growth and from saps seeping into the bone substance when the antlers hit bushes and trees. If the antlers have been lying on the ground for a longer period, the antler and bone material may show changes in colour, brown shading and marbled patterns which are very popular with knifemakers. However, the longer the material is stored or lying on the ground, the more likely it becomes brittle and may therefore be stabilized chemically before further processing.
Wild animals that are not fed additionally and that live under quite rough conditions grow stronger and more fine-structured antlers. This is especially important, if the material is used for Scrimshaw engravings, carvings, or knife handles.
Bone material is mainly obtained from thigh bones of cows, horses, buffaloes, camels, and giraffes. The bone marrow is removed and the bone is sterilized through brief cooking. To degrease the bone, some washing powder (half a cup for 5 litres) can be added. Excessive cooking makes the bone and antler material brittle, because the collagen is dissolved.
A mild vinegar solution helps disinfect the material. You should be extremely cautious when using acids, as they may dissolve the calcium phosphate and thus soften the material, if the acid is left for too long.