Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Shaving the Sealskin with Stone

Shaving the sealskin with a chert flake
On Sunday morning, we started shaving the hooded sealskin thong with stone tools.  Its an incredibly slow and labourious process.  I frequently switched to a metal knife, but Lori and Eliza were much more hardcore, sticking to obsidian and chert for the full two hours that we worked.   In the end, between the three of us, we shaved about 35 feet.  We averaged just under 6 feet per hour per person.  That seems crazy to me.  I know it was slow, but would it really take one person 55 hours of labour to shave the entire 335 foot long thong?

335 feet of sealskin is ridiculously long

It looked like a pile of giant spider legs
The thong had easy patches and hard patches to shave.  They probably correspond to areas of the seal's body.  When we cut the hide into a spiral we noticed that the skin around the neck was especially thick, while it was much thinner towards the sides and belly.  Lori felt that the difficult sections to shave were probably the neck sections of the skin.

Obsidian flakes worked well
We tried Ramah Chert, Bloody Bay Cove Rhyolite, chert from Newfoundland, and obsidian.  When shaving with flakes, we found the obsidian worked the best.  Which makes sense - it creates the sharpest edge.  Unfortunately, its not a local stone, so it wouldn't have been available for any precontact culture in the Province to use.  Of the local stone, microblades of Newfoundland chert hafted in a handle were a close second to the obsidian flakes.  The mechanical advantage of the handle seemed to compensate for the slight difference in sharpness.

Here's a clip of Lori demonstrating shaving the hair with an obsidian flake:

Hafted microblades did the job
After this brief experiment, I really think that even the simplest, expedient flake tools would have been mounted in simple hafts.  Microblades certainly would have been - the difference between using a microblade pinched between your fingers and one firmly hafted in a handle is night and day.  Larger flakes could be held and used with some force and precision, but the small utilized flakes and flake scrapers that we find in sites here would be much more efficient tools with a handle.

Here's a clip of Eliza shaving the sealskin with a hafted microblade:

Scraping with a microblade
Amazingly, the same microblade that we used to cut the thong several weeks ago was still sharp enough to scrape the hair off.  Its the tool that I used most often on Sunday, along with an obsidian blade that was long enough to hold relatively comfortably.  When I'd get stuck, or hit one of those difficult patches, I'd switch to a steel knife blade in my leatherman.  Whatever tool we used, it seemed like holding the blade at close to a 90 degree angle to the skin worked the best.  The usewear builds up on the edge of the stone tools much more quickly while shaving than it did while cutting the skin.  The finer grained the stone, the more quickly the working edge became dotted with tiny chips.  The obsidian started to show signs of wear almost immediately.

Concentration required
Even though it was a slow, tedious process, it still required a good degree of concentration.  When you started shaving a new patch of skin, the middle of the thong was the easiest to shave, which left long hairs on either edge.  When you'd go back to work on the edge, I found it very easy to snag any irregularity along the edge and create small nicks in the edge of the thong.  None of us accidentally cut all the way through, but I know that I created a few weak spots in the section that I was working on.  It made me glad that we initially cut the thong a little wider than I needed it in the first place.  I wanted it wider to allow for shrinkage and to give me the chance to trim down irregularities in the cut, but it will also work to remove some of those nicks and pitting.  I think that if those cuts are left in place they will spread and tear, and I'll need to go back and trim them out.

The shaved sealskin
Despite the labour involved, I'm very happy with the results.  The black, scaled look of the shaved thong is exactly the type of finished leather that I'm looking for.  Its an authentic air-dried sealskin that I haven't been able to get from commercially tanned hides, so its going to look great on the reproductions.

Photo Credits:
1,4: Lori White
2,3,5-7: Tim Rast

Videos: Tim Rast


  1. The Virtue of patience is that it begets Reward, especially for a task at hand.

  2. Could (or should) the hair have been shaved before being thonged? It seems like that may have been less labor intensive. I've never done it, so maybe you have some insight.

  3. Although I'm trying to use Palaeoeskimo tools, I'm relying on ethnographic descriptions of Inuit hide-working like this one of Netsilik thong-making from Asen Balicki:

    "To make thongs, the skin of this large mammal was cut first into a number of rings roughly ten inches wide. These rings were removed from the body, the blubber scraped, and the hair washed. Each ring was cut spirally into long thongs, which were then stretched under great tension between two rocks. When they were dry, the hair was removed with a sharp knife,... "

    I don't think I have enough experience to really offer much insight, but I think the drying and the stretching was the priority and couldn't be put off so it was done first. There are techniques for depiliating that don't involve shaving, but for whatever reason they were not used in thong making and boot sole making. In order to make the hair fall out on its own the hide was rotted to some degree, so maybe that rotting weakened the hide and isn't appropriate for making strong lines. I'm not sure. Despite the labour involved in shaving the hide now, I do think its probably a little easier now that the hide has dried and stiffened a little. When it was wet and flexible this would have probably taken even longer, although shaving something that has more middle than it does edge might have compensated for that.


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