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It has been proven that since the Early Stone Age, our ancestors have manufactured tools, arms and other equipment from antlers and animal bones.

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.

Antler

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

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.

 

Processing

    • Mechanical Treatment

      Antler and bone material is hard and brittle and is therefore difficult to cut. However, it is quite easy to process it by means of grinding and polishing. Please note that this kind of treatment may cause fine dust, and heating the material may cause harmful vapours. You should use a dust filtering mask and vacuum during work!

      Fresh antler and bone material can be cut using a Japanese saw with robust toothing (e.g. No. 712610). For finer cuts of hard, seasoned material we recommend using metal saws (e.g. No. 712715). Be careful when working with band or circular saws, as the material may overheat or get stuck as a result of softening! Saw at low speed and cool with water. Larger pieces of cut wood should be dried slowly and under cool conditions to prevent fissures.

      • How to form Antler

        To form the material, fine metal or diamond files and grinding material should be used. The surface is finished using emery cloths and finally Mesh polishing pads (No. 705420), by adding water for high-gloss finishing. You can also use traditional polishing agents such as pumice powder and adhesive slate, which is bound with water and spread on a cotton cloth or using a buffing wheel. Oil should only be used as a lubricant or polishing agent after checking the material, as it might cause the material to go yellow. Avoid using coloured polishing agents and other dyeing agents (e. g. metal dust), because this is difficult to remove from the surface.

      • Antler for Scrimshaw and engraving techniques

        For Scrimshaw and engraving techniques traditional tools that are also used for treating metals are applied, e. g. etching needle.

      • Antler for turning

        The material can also be turned on the lathe at low speed with a scraping tool having the shape of an etcher's needle.

    • Plastic Deformation (Bending)

      Bone and horn material can be made flexible by soaking or cooking it in a strongly diluted hydrochloric or vinegar solution. Please note that this process cannot be reversed! The material remains flexible rubber-like even after drying

    • Gluing

      As with all adhesive bonds, it is recommended to roughen the surface of each part to be glued for example by using sandpaper with 60 grit. The surfaces must be degreased thoroughly before gluing. To do so, you can use a solvent such as acetone, however we recommend to clean the surface using cleanser and water (unlike solvents this binds the oil).

      The traditional glue for natural material is glutine glue, which is obtained from skin or bone material. This kind of glue is available both as hotglue granules (No. 450140) and liquid instant glue (No. 450368). It hardens transparently and is extremely stable with all organic adhesive bonds (horn, bones, wood, tendons), but it is not waterproof.

      • Glue for bone/antler and metal

        For gluing combinations of bone/antler material and metal (e. g. for knife handles) Epoxy glue (No. 450382) should be used. It is transparent and gap-filling, and is therefore also ideal for gluing spongy surfaces. Slowly hardening epoxy blended with fine grinding dust (with minimum 220 grit) is also good for filling pores and for correcting small defects or fissures on the surface.

      • Glue for bone/antler and wood

        Very reliable bonds, even when using woods which contain oil, can be obtained using resorcinol glue. The only disadvantage of this type of glue is that it does not harden transparently.

      • Glue for bone/antler and bone

        If you want to glue together smaller bone parts, you can also use Cyanoacrylate Adhesive (instant glue). This type of glue is also ideal for correcting small defects on the surface.

    • Bleaching, Dyeing, Surfaces

      If desired, bone and antler material may be bleached. Bleaching is particularly recommended for sheets used to imitate ivory or dyed afterwards.

      The dry bones are treated with hydrogen peroxide (painted or sprinkled with cotton wool). Make sure that the hydrogen does not get in touch with the antler or horn.

      When finished, rinse the object in lukewarm water and let it dry slowly.

      Bone material can be dyed by soaking it in corrosive soluble in ethyl alcohol or natural colouring agents such as Alkanna root or black tee.

      To prevent drying out and growing dull (as a result of drying out) of polished bone material, you can either repolish the surface on a regular basis using non-resinated oil (e. g. camellia oil) or wax. You can also apply a thin shellac sealing (DVD No. 713736) onto the surface. On the one hand, this sealing preserves and even increases the gloss, and it makes the material resistant to hand perspiration and prevents the material from getting brittle. On the other hand, shellac is sensitive to solvent and cleansing substances.

      Take care of your hands!

      Also be aware that the human skin is very sensitive to hydrogen! Therefore, keep hydrogen peroxide always closed, well-marked and in a safe place. Cover the container, check the substance from time to time and use rubber gloves!

      Warning! Risk of burning!
      Use only in well ventilated rooms, no responsibility or liability!

    • Stabilizing

      Bone and antler material which has been exposed to erosion for many years, often develops a beautiful patina or a distinctively structured surface, which is very popular with knifemakers. The disadvantage of this fossil material is that it is usually brittle and fragile. To remedy this problem, the material can be stabilized using synthetic resin. To do so, either watery acrylic resin or epoxy resin is used as it hardens in an anaerobic way. In particular epoxy resin develops an extremely strong and wear-resistant compound that is resistant to water and also largely to acids.

      To fully penetrate the material, a vacuum is required. The container must be put in a vacuum chamber together with the object which is soaked with resin. Keep the container in the chamber until there are no more bubbles. You can build a makeshift vacuum chamber using a water jet pump and a pressure-proof glass cover. Professionals usually use a so-called "desiccator".

      Note: The so-called PEG procedure (polyethylene glycol), which is common for wood, cannot be applied for fossil and dried out bone material as it is based on replacing deposited water by PEG.

Care Instructions

Bone and antler products are not only durable, they also develop a patina when used, provided that you follow some care instructions:

  • Do not expose the material to dry heat for a long time (floodlight, sun).
  • Do not store the material too dry.
  • Do not put the material into the dishwasher, do not put it in water or cooking foods for too long.
  • Do not clean the material with household cleaners containing solvents or with cleanser. Rinse with warm water and slight soapsuds.
  • Do not expose the material to strong bending.
  • Occasionally rub the material with camellia oil or Ballistol and repolish it.

Note: The information above applies largely also to tooth material such as warthog teeth, mammoth, ivory etc.

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