Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bonding with Baleen

Baleen hangs from the roof of a whale's mouth and acts like a massive filter that holds food in and squirts water out when the whale gulps in a mouthful of fish and seawater and presses up with its tongue. Baleen is made from hard keratin, like horn, hair or fingernails. Its made up of long fibrous strands that are fused together into sheets with a surface that looks like a vinyl record. Historically, it was important in fashion to make the ribs of corsets, fans, and parasols. At other times in the past it was used to make everything from bows and bowls to traps and string. I'm using it as a lashing material on this project.

The baleen I'm using came from a beached humpback whale. It was a younger animal with relatively short plates - about 2 feet long. A Bowhead Whale can have baleen plates up to 13 feet long!

You can cut the baleen into strips running the length of the plate. When its thin enough you can cut it with a sharp knife, but as it gets thicker towards the middle I find it tough to control the knife and make even strips. So on the short humpback plates I use a scroll saw to cut the strips and then sand the edges to even them out.

To make the baleen flexible you need to boil it. That's when you know whales are mammals. In addition to the usual fishy smell of whale bone, boiling baleen gives off a greasy, hairy, musk smell that could only come from a hairy animal. The thin strips can be bent and twisted into shape and as they dry they return to their hard plastic-like rigidity, but hold their new form. The thicker strips can be split apart like spruce roots, to create two flexible halves. I didn't know that was possible until this weekend - I guess I've never had thick enough baleen to try it. You start the split at the base and carefully pry the two halves apart. The split runs neatly along the inner fibres of the baleen. You can tell split baleen because it will have one flat shiny side and one ridged stringy side. Un-split baleen will have a flat shiny surface on both the front and back.

Baleen starts to harden almost immediately when it hits the air. But it softens again just as quickly when its put back into the boiling water. The baleen spring in the above video was wrapped around a handle for about half an hour before I decided to retry the wrap. Watch it hit the water! It reminded me of a particularly gruesome wolf killer that was used in parts of the Arctic. A piece of baleen is sharpened to a point on both ends and fan folded into a small parcel. When its cooled it will hold its shape. You wrap it in fish skin or meat and place it somewhere that a wolf will eat it. In the warm wet wolf's stomach the baleen straightens out and punctures the wolf's organs. Pretty unpleasant way to go. If you want to go hug your dog now, I'd understand.

After the baleen set, I sanded it down and used hide glue to fill in the gaps between the bands. The sanding neatens the look of the baleen up, but it also smoothes down the sharp edges. I haven't used them yet, but I suspect that the baleen will be much less affected by moisture than sinew. I think they should be more useful for working wet materials.

The five tools I made are all based on Saqqaq tools from Greenland, although the endscraper handle is a more generic style. The Saqqaq scraper handle from Qeqertasussuk was bow shaped and mounted with a scraper on each end. The three knives are faithful reproductions of the originals, as is the side scraper.

Left to Right:
Saqqaq Palaeoeskimo Side Scraper (Spruce, Chert, Baleen, Hide Glue): $152.50 Cdn (tax inc.)
3 Saqqaq Palaeoeskimo Knives (Spruce, Chert, Baleen, Hide Glue): $197.75 Cdn (tax inc.) each
Palaeoeskimo Scraper (Spruce, Chert, Baleen, Hide Glue): $152.50 Cdn (tax inc.)

Photo Credits:
Photos 1-5, 7-9, video: Tim Rast
Photo 6: From Handbook of North American Indians, Vol 5. Arctic, 1984

Photo Captions:
First: Finished Palaeoeskimo reproductions using baleen as a hafting material
Second: A humpback whale baleen plate with lashing strips cut from it
Third: Splitting a baleen strip
Fourth: Outside of the baleen strip (left), inside of the baleen strip (right)
Fifth: Baleen lashings set out to dry
Video: A baleen lashing unravels in the boiling pot
Sixth: Baleen Wolf Killer
Seventh: Finished side knife with baleen lashing
Eighth: Saqqaq style knife with baleen lashing
Ninth: Finished Palaeoeskimo tools


  1. Do you ever have problems with customs when you sell items with animal parts outside Canada? I've been thinking about incorporating bone and antler into some of my books, but I haven't since I don't know what sort of problems that would create. (I do know that migratory bird parts are illegal to own in both Canada and the US.)

  2. In Newfoundland and Labrador, moose and caribou bone and antler requires provincial permits and can be sold to people outside of Canada. You can sell and transport legally harvested moose and caribou bone within Canada without any problems. For people bringing it into the US, the customer may need to provide paperwork which the craft producer (or the retailer on their behalf) will supply.

    The marine mammal parts are legal within Canada, but are not allowed into the US. There's no Canadian law that says I can't sell to someone in the US, but there are US laws that say that the customer can't bring any marine mammal parts into the country. Ditto for most European countries. That would include everything from whalebone and baleen to sealskin and walrus ivory.

    Ironically there is a legal Native walrus hunt in Alaska, but Alaskan ivory isn't allowed into Canada and Canadian ivory isn't allowed into the US. Which makes it awkward for folks who try to drive through Canada to the lower 48 with legal Alaskan ivory in the vehicle.

  3. Thanks, Tim. It looks like I've got a bit of research to do. We get hundreds of roadkilled porcupines, raccoons and skunks around here, and it would be interesting to see if I could get a permit to use their bones and claws and quills and things. I remember reading about an artist in BC who had a permit to use roadkill--she made really interesting things with deerskin and bones.

  4. I don't even think people in Alaska are allowed to have ivory unless they're native. I believe that if it's not fossilized, then the ivory in the person's possession must have been modified by a Native Alaskan. Sometimes that's just as much as an "X" or the person's initials.

    1. The state and Federal laws in Alaska are complicated. Raw walrus tusks may be kept by non-natives if it has been recovered or salvaged from a dead beached walrus. You are required to go to the Ak Fish and Game and have a holed drilled thru each tusk and a metal seal run thru each tusk. The tusk cannot be sold and while it can be carved into objects but they cannot be sold. A coastal Alaskan Native may legally purchase the tusks but the but it is a question, is the seller breaking the law. "Tricky" Coastal Alaska Natives can hunt walrus with little restriction but the meat and skin must be recovered and used for human food. Alaska Natives may carve and sell their sea mammal to non-AK Natives, but not raw ivory. Merely to place your initial on a tusk or piece of Baleen will not cut it. Mammoth ivory tusks and bone is very common in most parts of Alaska. It is not fossilized, merely preserved by the cold. anyone may purchase, buy or carve mammoth ivory or bone, However my advice is to know its origin. Mammoth tusks, teeth and ivory may not be removed from Federal Lands or private property without permission of the owner. The Mammoth ivory I use come from Village corporation lands or from allotment lands owned by my children and family. I buy it usually but sometimes my kids bring it home. Just be sure of its origin.

  5. P.S., We should worry less about "permits" and such, the more we bow to these people in "power" in Gov't, the more rules they will saddle us with. If you want to do it, do it! If you want to own it, own it, answer to God, not the Gov't filth!

  6. I want to be doing this for a long time, so I don't mind following the rules. I do wish there was less paperwork sometimes, but in the end, most of the wildlife laws are there to protect the animals, so I don't really mind complying. Maybe I'm just fortunate here, but I find that the people who issue the permits are some of the most helpful when it comes to tracking down difficult to source animal parts.

  7. Dear Tim,

    I can across your website looking for more information on baleen.
    I'm a violinmaker from the Netherlands and I'm researcher the violinmakers from Amsterdam in the 17th century. They have use baleen for the inlay around the edge. I was wondering where you managed to find a piece of whalebone and know more about the consistency.

    Best wishes,

    Hubert de Launay


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