Saturday, November 5, 2016

Arctic Artifact Reproductions for Film

Reproduction knifes made from slate, whalebone,
caribou bone, wood, antler, metal, rawhide, sinew,
artificial sinew, red ochre, hide glue, and epoxy.
This is the complete set of Inuit artifact reproductions that I made for a period TV production that will begin filming next week.  The general time period is the end of the 18th Century/early 19th Century, when the Hudson Bay Company was active in Northern Canada. Often film work is quite rushed, but this one came with a month's notice, which gave me enough time to plan out the project with the Props Master, discuss options that would contribute to and work within the story, and finish the tools with some thought about how they would appear on camera.

Bow drill with mouthpiece socket and iron and
nephrite blades
We discussed the various scenes and the sort of objects that the actors would need.  Sometimes they would require specific objects to advance the story, like a knife, or a harpoon, or a needle and sometimes the ideas were more general, like "the character is working on a tool" and I could help flesh out the sorts of actions and items that would be true to the culture and time period.  Hopefully we see a bow drill being used to make a slate knife and when a character needs a needle, they can find it in a caribou bone needle case.

Steel knife with antler handle
The time that I had to work with the reproductions also helped me antique them in an appropriate way. A newly made tool looks the way that it would have appeared to the person who made it, when it was first finished.  Often that is the goal when I make a reproduction.  At the other end of the spectrum, there are reproductions that are meant to show a tool as it appears archaeologically.  It may be broken and discarded, with deep soil stains, root etching or lichen growing on it.  That level of antiquing is too much for this type of project.

"Dirt under the
fingernails" on
a slate adze
In this case we want the tools to look worn and used, but still functional.  They should look a few months or a few years old, but not hundreds of years old.  I wanted them stained from use, but not from centuries of neglect. One of the places that use shows up on tools is where the blade meets the handle. Stains build up on the handle and people may wipe the blade clean, but grime and hair and debris from past jobs collect in any gaps or cracks where the blade meets the guard.  To achieve this look quickly, I smooshed wet, punky wood from the burn barrel into the blade sockets.   The usual assortment of nicks, cuts, oxidation, and stains helped age the tools, but I found that cramming some "dirt under the fingernails" really helped make the tools look like they were just laid down in the middle of a job. If it works, it shouldn't be noticeable at all on film.  One of the things that I find really distracting is when I see tools in a period show that look way too new to have ever been used. 

Three complete harpoons.  These harpoons are fully functional with some modifications to materials and construction details that will not show up on film. The biggest changes that I made were substituting wood and antler in place of some of the whalebone and ivory components.  The main shafts are also made from a single piece of wood with the ends painted to look like ivory/whalebone sockets and ice picks.  The same is true of the foreshafts, which are made from wood.  
Antler harpoon heads.  The one in the foreground has a steel endblade and the one in the back is ground slate.  The colour is comparable, but the big difference with ivory is that you can get a lustre or shine to the tools.  I don't think that will be apparent on film and if they appear a little more dull than normal, then perhaps that will read as usewear on film.

I used whalebone for the line toggles and finger rests.  This was one instance where it was just easier to make them in the correct materials than try to fake them with a substitute.

All of the pieces move and detach properly.  Usually the socket on the mainshaft would be a composite piece made from ivory or whalebone.  In this case the main shaft is all one piece, with the socket painted on. 

This was a fun one to make.  The props department provided me with a forged iron blade and I modified and drilled the tang.  The handle is whalebone and the blade is secured in place with copper rivets.  What you see is what you get with this one.  It's one of the more authentic and durable pieces in the set.  

A slate knife with whalebone handle.  It is based on artifacts from northern Labrador.  This one is lashed together with artificial sinew and is designed so that it can be disassembled.  The construction or repair of this tool may be shown on camera. 

A curved whalebone knife and a metapodial dagger.  These pieces are for a bundle of miscellaneous knives.  The metapodial dagger is made from a ground and polished split caribou lower leg bone and has a caribou rawhide lashing that was stained with red ochre and leftover from a previous job.  The whalebone knife could be a flensing knife or a small snow knife.
This one is still one of my favourite pieces in the set.  I started out making a single edged slate blade with a tang, like a steak knife, but the tang broke off and I modified it on the fly.  That change of design built a randomness into the finished piece that I think gives the knife a very authentic feel.  I finished it with a wooden handle and braided sinew lashing.  I used epoxy for the glue to make it a little more durable and waterproof.

All of the knives in the set.

Slate and whalebone blanks.  Perhaps we'll see one of the characters making the knife shown above.

Slate Adze, with whalebone socket, wood handle, and rawhide lashing.  A functional adze, although apparently any of the tools that will actually be used on film are going to be cast and copied in rubber. 
A soapstone man and narwhal.  Soapstone carvings like this were challenging to find archaeological analogs for from the desired time period, but they are important to the script, so I found other models to base them on.  I used ivory and wooden figures as the inspiration for the man and Thule seal carvings, contemporary Inuit art, and photos of narwhals as models for the whale.
Caribou bone needle case with awl, needles and thimble.

The open case with more bird bone needles. 

Selfbladed harpoon head toggling.  I don't think there will be any specific shots of the harpoon heads in use, but they are all functional if the need arises.  This specific style of harpoon head is a few generations earlier than the period shown on film, but it has a nice silhouette.  Maybe the guy using it didn't like change. 

The full set.
Photo Credits: Tim Rast


  1. Many thanks for the close-ups and explanations, Tim; brilliant work.

    1. No problem. A lot of what I do is trial and error and the photos and notes that I store in this blog help me avoid the same mistakes in future projects. I'm glad to hear that someone else checks them out from time to time, too.

  2. This is great work Tim. Really love the steel knife with antler handle. Are you going to get a cameo in the show? Maybe a HBC trader?

    1. Thanks Brent! I got lucky on the steel knife. It's made from a table knife and an old rodent gnawed piece of antler that I found in the woods somewhere. It didn't take much work to get a good finish to it.

      No cameo for me, although they are always looking for extras. You should come back.

  3. Great job on these replicas Tim, like I said before, you truly inspire me. I will have some free time hopefully this winter and I am going to try to make some similar items, and I will be sure to show you the pictures. I live in the US and whalebone, green ivory and sealskin are unfortunately not available here. I will have to substitute fossil ivory, fossil seacow bone mostly, and Antler. We'll see how it goes! Thanks for the truly beautiful work Tim, I never get tired of your website.


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