Monday, March 14, 2011

Brass and Steel Harpoon Head

Brass and steel harpoon head, toggled
This brass and steel harpoon head with a sealskin line is artifact reproduction number 13 of 17 in the Central Arctic set.  I've been working on this project for a couple of months and I can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel.  As with the other pieces in this contract, I'm working from reference photos on the Canadian Museum of Civilization's website.  You can see the harpoon head and line that this reproduction is based on here:

Brass and steel harpoon head with steel rivet and sealskin line

Similar form, different materials and sizes
I'm not 100% certain that this specific artifact is brass - it's tough to tell from the photos - it's possible that its antler, but either way it serves as a good model for an all metal harpoon head.  All three harpoon heads in this set are similar in design, with a single spur and a riveted harpoon oriented in the same way.  However, they vary in size and raw material; with copper or steel endblades, copper or steel rivets, and antler or brass harpoon heads.

Ulu and Endblade share a parent
For the endblade, I used one of the corners from the cleaver that I cut off when I was making the ulu.  I ground it down to match the beveled edge on the endblade in the reference photo and gave it the slight flare at the very tip.  I'm not exactly sure if that flare is a functional design element or purely a decoration, but it shows up on all the endblades in this set.  If it's functional, perhaps its there to strengthen the tip.  That purpose doesn't really seem necessary on the steel harpoon heads, but the copper is a relatively soft metal, so perhaps its there to keep the tip from bending or even blunting on impact.  I'm not sure, that's just a guess.  I gave the endblade a few spots of rust with muriatic acid and riveted it in place using a section of wire coat hanger for the rivet.

Tuna harpoons make good seal harpoons
This was my first all metal harpoon head and I wasn't really sure how to approach it until I found brass tuna harpoon heads on the internet.  I bought a couple from Capt. Harry's Fishing Supply in Florida.  Based on the measurements and the photos in their catalog it seemed like I could use the tuna harpoon as a blank and carve the Central Arctic style seal harpoon head out of it.  The only thing I wasn't certain about was how hard the brass would be.  It turned out to be pretty soft.  I cut the barbs off and trimmed the spurs with my angle grinder, but in a pinch I could have used a hacksaw.  I did most of the shaping with the angle grinder and my rotary tool, but I finished it with hand files and the wet grinder.

brass harpoon head from Igloolik, 2010
The metal was soft enough that I could have done all the shaping with the hand tools, I just used the power tools to speed things up.  However, I wanted to finish it with a few file marks on the surface.  My experience with brass harpoon heads is that they aren't ground or polished to a completely smooth finish and that the file marks should be visible, as with the modern harpoon head from Igloolik on the right.  To antique my harpoon head I used the miracle gro and vinegar solution to darken the surface and gave it a few quick passes with the blow torch.

The bottom line has been softened
The line is hooded sealskin.  Ideally it should be bearded seal, but the hooded seal thong that I have on hand is a serviceable substitute.  The thin outer layer of the skin is dark brown or black, but its a lighter grey-buff colour inside.  I'm still fussing with it - scraping it and sanding it to try and lighten the colour up to match the worn look of the line in the artifact.  Its a slow process.  I haven't found a quick way to soften and age sealskin.

Copper and Antler harpoon head above the completed Brass and Steel harpoon head.

Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. It looks as if there is still some grease and membrane on the seal skin. Which makes it hard to absorb moisture. But i have a couple of tips to soften the seal skin. First of all if the seal skin is dried all of its fibers have pulled together and dried hard. What you want to do is to pull these fibres apart so that the skin will be softened and relaxed. The way that i would do it and maybe it is not the easiest way is soak the seal skin, making it soft and pliable. Then use some kind of oil or fat, even regular lard from the grocery store works fine. Work the grease into the skin and let it dry slowly. For the skin line that you are using it should not take very long. Gradually as it dries pull on it to stretch the fibres. This also allows the oil to get in between the fibres and make the skin soft. just keep working it often until it is fully dried. I have a pair of seal skin kamiks which are made in the traditional way. I have to work oil into them every so often and stretch them to make them soft and pliable. If i didn't the seal skin will go hard and brittle. The key is to keep working it and pull those fibres apart in the drying process. If you want to make the skin even more soft....just chew on it lol. Thats what my grandmother would do. But when your sewing kamik, you don't have much choice. I hope that helps.

  2. Thanks Desmond. That's pretty much what I've been doing - but you explained it very well. I've been soaking the lines and rubbing mineral oil in while they dry. I haven't used my teeth yet, but I'll grab the line and bend it with pliers in the really stiff spots. Its works fine, it just takes time.

  3. Your captions stating 'brass and steel' seem to be more like bone and steel. I don't see any brass.


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