Monday, February 29, 2016

How-To Care For Your Thule Harpoon Reproduction

This blog post is for the folks at The Manitoba Museum who will be receiving this Thule Harpoon reproduction in the mail in the coming days.  The harpoon has several moving parts and there will be some assembly required.  I'll walk through that assembly in the second half of this post.   I work several of the materials used to construct the harpoon while they are wet (sinew, sealskin, and whalebone) and I try to let them dry naturally on their own before I ship them.  I do use foam and bubblewrap to protect some of the objects in the package, but I also use a lot of paper and cardboard to let the material breath and allow any remaining moisture to seep out.  

Still, it would be a good idea to open up the package soon after it arrives to reduce the chance that any mould or mildew will grow where any remaining moisture might be trapped.  There is also a healthy coating of mineral oil over all of the surfaces to help keep the moisture and humidity sensitive components, like the wood and walrus ivory, from gaining or losing moisture too quickly as the harpoon travels from the coast to the interior of the continent.  If anything starts to dry out over the coming years, a periodic application of mineral oil will help prevent cracks from forming in the wood and ivory.  
The harpoon foreshaft is held in place with a braided sealskin cord.  This cord will also stay stronger and more pliable if it is kept damp with mineral oil.  I use unscented baby oil.  When the harpoon arrives you will need to rotate the foreshaft into it's socket so it looks like the image on the right.  It should be a fairly snug fit.  You can adjust the fit by tightening or loosening (shortening or lengthening) the leather cord.  The cord winds it's way through two holes in the whalebone foreshaft and four holes in the wood main shaft.  Sliding the cord through these holes will change the tension in the fit between the foreshaft and the whalebone socket.

Near the middle of the main shaft you will see an ivory finger rest which is there to prevent the hunter's hand from sliding along the harpoon when it is thrown with mitts on.  It is tied in place with twisted sinew thread.  Near this is a small whalebone hook that is inserted into the side of the harpoon shaft.  This hook is designed to fit on to a whalebone tension piece that is sewn on to the sealskin harpoon line with sinew.  

When you assemble the harpoon, the harpoon head will be held firmly in place on the end of the foreshaft when this tension place is slid over top of the hook as shown in the photo on the right. The tension piece has two holes because the sealskin line will change length depending on whether it is wet or dry.  The line shrinks when it is dry and you will need to use the far hole on the tension piece.  The hooded sealskin line that I used is very tough and you may need to rotate the foreshaft in the socket a few degrees to allow enough slack in the line to fit the harpoon head onto the foreshaft and lock the tension piece onto the plug.

If you rotate the socket a few degrees you can get enough slack in the line so that you can lock the harpoon head and tension piece in place.

When the foreshaft is straightened out again the harpoon head will be firmly secured to the harpoon and the only way that it will detach is if the foreshaft rotates in the socket again and allows slack in the line.  The force from the impact when the harpoon is thrown is designed to cause the foreshaft to buckle and rotate in the socket so that the harpoon head will detach and toggle in the wound.

 Every component and joint in the harpoon is custom made and individually fit together.  On this particular harpoon, you will notice that the harpoon head fits better one way than the other on the foreshaft.  The harpoon line is also very affected by moisture.  If you find it impossible to secure the line to the harpoon using the tension piece, then you can soak the line in warm water for a few minutes and it will soften and length to a point that you can easily slip it in place.  If it is completely soaked, you may notice that you need to use the second hole in the tension piece in order to secure the harpoon head in place.

The wood and whalebone components will be the most durable parts of the harpoon.  Whalebone was used for the foreshaft, foreshaft socket, the tension piece, and knob.  Ivory is hard, but sensitive to light and humidity.  Storing or displaying it in direct sunlight will cause it to crack.  The harpoon head, finger rest, and butt of the harpoon are made from walrus ivory.  The sinew is tough, but sensitive to moisture, if you soak the harpoon line in water, then the sinew lashings on the tension piece will expand and may come loose.  When they dry again they will tighten.  The sealskin line works best when it is slightly damp, either with water or mineral oil.  When it dries out it can crack if you try to bend or force it into a new shape, but when it is damp it is strong and flexible.  The slate is thin and sharp and is one of the more fragile materials on the harpoon. Be careful about lying it down on hard surfaces or knocking it on doorways.  The slate endblade is relatively quick and easy to replace if it becomes damaged, but use caution in handling it.

The fully assembled harpoon.

 Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. Nice description. Is the Dorset harpoon the same?

    1. The care of the raw materials would be the same. The way the harpoon is assembled and functions is different.


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