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Trying to identify a material

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  • Trying to identify a material

    Hello! I recently found a small carved elephant in a charity shop in England. I've been trying to figure out what the tusks are made of. So far I've ruled out ivory, and to me it currently looks like wood but I can't figure out what type of wood it would be. The other alternative I could think of would be bone, but I've been told that's not likely.

    It appears white-ish (with a hint of purple) under UV light, brighter than the rest of the elephant but not as bright as paper, for example. Light is visible through it when it is back-lit.

    If anyone has any ideas or guidance on where I could look to figure this out I'd very much appreciate it.

    Thank you!



  • #2
    It's really tough. Among the clues: age - is this a newly made item? origin - where was the item made? process - are there tool marks? Are the surface colors a result of finishing processes? Is the whiteness a result of bleaching? Plastic?


    • #3
      Thank you for your response!

      I don't think it is a newly made item, although I couldn't give an accurate estimate of how old it might be. I have no idea where it was made, but it appears to be hand carved, probably by knife.

      On the main body it looks like paint, but on the tusks there doesn't seem to be any additional coating, although I wouldn't really know what to look for in terms of bleaching or similar.

      I'm fairly confident it isn't plastic (looking especially at the top right image in the microscope images).
      Last edited by Xorgon; 02-09-2020, 03:35 PM.


      • #4
        Might want to check out whalebone?
        Living among knives and fire.


        • #5
          Resin casting from a carved original?

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          • #6
            Thank you both!

            Originally posted by woodburner807 View Post
            Might want to check out whalebone?
            That's an interesting idea, do you know where I could look for some reference images of whalebone to compare to? Especially on the scale of the microscope images.

            Originally posted by Claude View Post
            Resin casting from a carved original?

            The main reason I don't think it's plastic or resin casting is because of this kind of flaky stuff on some of the faces (see below). Is it possible to get that with resin casting? The main body also feels wooden in texture and weight which makes me think that it's most likely entirely hand carved, although I could be wrong about that as I don't know much about how these kinds of things would be made.



            • #7
              Google 'scrimshaw.' A lot of whale bones and teeth were used for that, Whale bone is a common commodity
              used by Canada's Inuit people in the treeless far north.

              If it was wood, I'd expect to be able to see the wood-cell grain structure appearance.
              I don't see any of that in your pictures. Looks awful 'boney' to me.
              Brian T


              • #8
                That's a good lead, thanks!

                I had a Google and came up with a couple interesting images.

                This one seems to have a pretty similar colour but is much smoother (I guess just a much better finish):

                This one is interesting to contrast because it looks like it is much more porous around the edges than the tusks:

                This one seems to be relatively similar in pattern and colour:

                Here are some more images of one of the tusks.

                This has some more of the flaky looking bits, I've seen similar stuff when looking at rough wooden objects (like a clothes peg), but I'm not sure if it's exclusive to wood or if bone would show something similar.


                This one has more flaky bits and also what looks possibly a bit more like a grain or wooden texture maybe?

                There's definitely some direction to it as shown in this image (quite a bit closer zoomed in), but I think that would be the case for bone too.

                Here's one I just tried with back-lighting to try to take advantage of the light partially going through. Not sure if it really helps but I found it interesting.


                • #9
                  My gg-grandfather was a captain on a whaling ship back in the 1800's and I have some large knitting needles made from whalebone and I know he carved it on then whaling runs which took 2 years or so. He went from Sag Harbor, NY to the pacific somewhere. Long voyages and he did do scrimshaw and I also know he did some whalebone carving.

                  I studied him and the ship and went to many places on Long Island. I eventually went to the New Bedford, Massachusetts whaling museum and they had a nice research library that was extensive and many whaling experts. You might want to look them up and email them. Quite a place.

                  Library, Research Inquiries

                  Librarian, Mark Procknik [email protected], (508) 997-0046 x134

                  Assistant Librarian, Cecelia Tavares [email protected], (508) 997-0046 x130

                  Research Questions [email protected]

                  Please post if you finally find out the material...quite interesting. Good Luck.
                  Last edited by woodburner807; 02-09-2020, 07:41 PM. Reason: add links
                  Living among knives and fire.


                  • #10
                    That's pretty awesome, I'll be sure to look them up, thank you!


                    • #11
                      Could it be Tagua nut?



                      • #12
                        I just finished carving a new nut for a mandolin. Material was cow bone. Your photos look very similar. Cow bone is cheap, easy to obtain, and widely used as a sorta-kinda lookalike substitute for ivory, which is of course what your sample is being used for.
                        HonketyHank toot toot


                        • #13
                          Thank you both for your comments!

                          Originally posted by Mike WNC View Post
                          Could it be Tagua nut?

                          That's something I hadn't considered before, although most of the reference images seem to be a fairly constant colour, without the various discolourations on the elephant tusks.

                          Originally posted by honketyhank View Post
                          I just finished carving a new nut for a mandolin. Material was cow bone. Your photos look very similar. Cow bone is cheap, easy to obtain, and widely used as a sorta-kinda lookalike substitute for ivory, which is of course what your sample is being used for.
                          This does sound pretty plausible, reference images (a couple below) that I have found for cow bone do look very similar in the patterns they have. Is there any particular source of cow bone you'd recommend so I might be able to try to get a sample to compare to?



                          • #14
                            i was thinking tagua nut also. your local butcher shop / meat market , should have plenty of scrap bones available. any store with a meat cutting dept. sometimes they save em for soup bones, dog bones....
                            i am not positive but i wonder if a hot needle would melt into the tagua nut. I havent tried that.

                            photos at........


                            • #15
                              Could it be bone or antler?