Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The Innsmouth Tooth

This is another iteration of the "Innsmouth Tooth" project I first did back in 2009.  I'm really happy with how it came out, but I wasted a huge amount of time thanks to my smug cleverness.

I wanted a more realistic depiction of an aged tooth, so I tried to think of natural materials that would lend themselves to the project and eventually settled on antler.  At the time I assumed I'd just have to reshape the point of an antler tip with a Dremel tool, slap some stain on it, and call it a day.  A quick and easy project that I could finish in an afternoon.

That was...overly optimistic.

First off, finding an antler tip that was actually tooth-shaped was surprisingly hard.  Out of the fifteen pieces of antler I went through only one was even close to having the proper smooth curve.  Most of the points were actually blade shaped in profile, not round.  The one that did have the right shape had a very blunt end that needed to be honed down to a proper point.  That's when I encountered the second problem- antler is hard.

There's a reason our ancestors used this stuff for tools.  If it's been sitting in the sun for a few months it can get soft and chalky, but antler that's protected from light and weather is amazingly tough stuff.  That quick little sanding job to give it a point ended up taking close to an hour with a Dremel equipped with a sanding drum.  A cutoff wheel made quick work of the broken root end.  Oh, one other thing.  Make sure you're wearing a respirator or at least a tight dust mask if you're working antler.  The process stinks to high heaven and the resulting powder is terrible for your lungs and breathing passages.

So after all that it was time to apply the stain and glory in the beautiful natural textures of my faux tooth.  That's when I discovered antler isn't absorbent and it will only take surface color, not penetrating stain.  It looked like a brown lump of wood with no notable surface texture at all.

This is when I realized that using antler was a stupid idea, because I now had to go back and do everything I would have done to a "tooth" made from Sculpey to get a decent result.  That meant sanding down the entire thing to give it some surface bite to take paint, and scraping down the root end with a wire brush to get those nice age cracks.

Did I mention that antler is hard?  What would have taken a few minutes with a baked Sculpey tooth ended up taking another hour.  But by this time I hated the thing so much that I was hell-bent on salvaging something out of the whole misbegotten effort.  Once the texturing was done I gave the whole thing a light wash of black acrylic paint followed by walnut brown and burnt umber along the base.  A light sanding brought out the white of the tip. 

After all that it still didn't have the sheen of tooth enamel, so I ended up burnishing the whole thing with a steel rod- exactly what I would have done with a Sculpey tooth.  Except a tooth made out of Sculpey would have been done in an hour or two, while this thing ended up taking an entire day. 

Ultimately, it came out looking really good, but the effort required to use real antler was all out of proportion to the results. 


CoastConFan said...

Yes indeed, early man found antler to be an excellent material for tools. Paleolithic man probably ground an antler on a rock of the right grittiness to shape, far slower than a dremel and used flint tools for forming, drilling, and engraving. Antler was also scrimshawed with images, carved into figures, drilled and made into jewelry.

Propnomicon makes a very important safety point. You absolutely must wear a filter mask of some kind because the dust from antler and ivory can damage your lungs and cause silicosis. Always be safe.

Antler is less porous than bone, so staining can be a problem. I have used large antler racks (generally elk) for stands and displays for knives, swords, and muskets. In the mountains of New Mexico elk sheds were copious and it made a pleasant afternoon looking for them. Generally though, they have turned white with exposure. To rejuvenate white antlers to their more natural live color I found using the darker shades Old English Scratch Cover would make a white antler closer to the color I wanted.

Be careful to wear gloves because the stain, which I presume to be walnut oil, will stain hands and ruin clothes. You can stain antler, but it takes some strong stuff and time. The Scratch Cover will also fill cracks with a darker color and make a pleasant looking antler than a dead dull one. The antler once fully dry can get an application of car wax and a good buff to restore it back when it was on the deer or elk. Like Propnomicon I have had a few experiences working with antler, and a renewed respect for Paleolithic workmanship.

For a good idea about staining of antler over the millennium, see and and

For those of you who want to do it the old fashioned way eschewing femo, you need some music to go with it. Try Mike Oldfield’s Piltdown Man, from Tubular Bells (1973) You prop makers and followers will remember Piltdown Man hoax and gaff, so it’s quite appropriate. Remember it’s never as easy as throwing up a bone into orbit and getting a space station (2001 Space Odyssey movie reference).

Nick Storm said...

Nothing beats 'organic' for heft and realism. Antler modification is genius ! I wonder if it could be married to a sculpty base. May I humbly suggest using a period coin for scale in the future. A Mercury dime or standing liberty half ?

Phil said...

Hey at least you learned something new, so it wasn't a complete waste.

Nick makes a good point, its always good to go with "real" items if its going to be handled at all. In general though I'm with you. If its just there to look good, take the easy method whenever possible.

The Last Northumbrian said...

As a reenactor, I work with antler quite a bit. It makes great weapon grips and small pieces can be carved and worked.
It is evil to work with, however. Using it for grips or handles is easier than most other uses- red deer antler can be soaked in warm water for an hour or two and the core softens. Then just push the tang of the blade through the soft centre and leave it dry- the antler grips the steel and forms a tight seal.
Other antler, like reindeer, isn't as workable.