This post is the first in a series covering the basics of boneworking, from assembling a toolkit through to finishing your first item. The aim is to help anyone looking to start working with bone, antler and horn, not just people interested in Saxon and Viking based stuff. However, because that is the period I primarily portray, there are additional notes covering the period, though these are supplemental to the main posts and anyone not interested in them can skip to the next section.
Until it is dealt with later, I will assume that the absolutely first stage (i.e. acquiring material) has been accomplished (via pets shops, internet or whatever) and so won’t cover processing bones ready to use just yet.
Regardless of your aim (modern working in a shed, or period working at a demo) I would consider the bare minimum for a bone worker to be roughly the same; a saw, a drill, a couple of files/rasps (one coarse and one finer), a good knife and a selection of chisels. If you are making period artefacts from the Iron Age onwards, then a ring-&-dot tool (or 3) would also be very handy as it is one of the most common forms of decoration.
As mentioned in a previous post, always remember that if you are going to be using power tools that generate dust, make sure you take precautions!
Personally I have a wide collection of saws that I use for various activities, but at the minimum I would suggest a 12″ hacksaw and a coping saw. The primary advantage of both of these is that the blades are replaceable and relatively cheap. The hacksaw can be used for most roughing out work and the coping saw will deal with most delicate work e.g. pendants, and can even be used for cutting fine comb teeth.
Regarding Early Medieval saws, I have already covered them in some detail in an earlier post, but as for suitable types for boneworking, I would recommend the longsaw and hacksaw styles from the Mastermyr tool chest.
While drills are obviously useful for creating holes, another function (especially when making period artefacts) is the fact that they speed up the decoration process when making ring-&-dot decoration. In a modern workshop a standard variable speed cordless drill will suffice for most tasks, and for a period toolkit, either a reciprocating drill or a bow drill will be useful. I have a bow drill (construction covered in a previous post) that I find particularly good, though it takes a bit of practise.
Files and Rasps
Once your workpiece has been roughed out, it will usually need some shaping and smoothing. A good rasp can dramatically reduce the time this takes (and the amount of bone you have!) so it is worth getting a good one. Personally I have an old farriers rasp that I use and it is excellent – it will remove large quantities of bone, antler or horn very rapidly, and has a finer grade file on the backside. Surform rasps are also rather good, but I would say to avoid “standard” solid woodworking rasps, as I find they clog very easily. A wire is always handy for any rasp to clean out the teeth.
As with saws, if you are a Viking or Saxon boneworker looking for rasps for your toolkit, then look no further than the Mastermyr chest! Files 32 and 37 are both quite good for bone work. The main point to look for is that the teeth are wide enough apart that they don’t get clogged and can be easily cleaned.
A strong, sharp knife is invaluable for boneworking. It can perform many roles; making holes, shaping, carving, smoothing etc. One of the best I have found is the Mora 106, which can usually be bought for £12-15 (or the blade alone for £8-10). Depending on how strict your authenticity team is, a suitably hafted Mora blade will be just as good for demonstration purposes. However, if you can’t use it, any strong blade of about the same dimensions made of decent quality steel do the job.
The best tools for delicate bone carving are small handheld chisels. Chip carvers, micro carvers, block cutters etc are all good examples. The hard nature of the material means that for best results (and least wear on the tools) good quality tools are essential and pre-softening of the material is recommended. A basic set should have flat and skew chisels, and “V” and “U” gouges. These four chisels will allow for most carving and decoration, and further additions should be variations of these basic shapes e.g. different widths.
Ring & Dot tool
This is a very specific tool that produces a particular pattern, and while it is not very common now, in the past it was a very widespread decoration and is found on items from the Iron Age onwards, and as such no Early Medieval boneworker should be without at least one.
A final note….
One last thing regarding all these tools is to make sure that they are reasonable sized for what you are doing. If you are making relatively delicate items or don’t have access to a vice or clamp, then small rough rifflers, needle files and so on are far better for working than a huge surform that will take your finger off if you slip. However, to make life a lot easier, I do recommend that at least for roughing out you do have at least a small bench mounted vice as it will save a lot of hassle in the long run.
So there you have it, the bare essentials of a toolkit to get you started in boneworking, either in a modern shed or as part of a period demonstration.
Next time: working methods and techniques