homepage logo

Local artisan perfects scrimshawing with his custom made powder horns

By Staff | Jul 3, 2012

John DeWald, Jr. from Pennsdale, has mastered the craft of scrimshawing, the art of engraving detailed drawings, historical maps, figures and events on bone. Its history dates back to the 1600's when sailors passed the time by using whale bones to inscribe life's experiences. He is shown with some of his work at Port Penn Peddler at a fair held outside in May. His work has won him awards from juried shows.

MUNCY – Imagine, before any of us were ever born, there were people on this earth who had the same thoughts and expressions as we did. This sentiment on “the poetry of history” is expressed in a quote by G.M. Trevelyan. It has exceptional meaning for John DeWald, Jr., who grew up in Muncy and has perfected the fine art of scrimshawing. Carving intricate detailed patterns, DeWald likes to use cow horns for his fine historical patterns and engravings.

He relates the craft’s history which can be dated back to the 1600’s to Early England and France. These older established countries have documented flasks and horns with decorative carvings, and often used whale bones. It passed the time for many a sailor. Early scrimshaw was done with crude sailing needles and knives, and depending on the skill of the artist, produced varying degrees of detail and workmanship.

Today the art of scrimshawing is preserved in DeWald’s work by using cow or bull horns to make historical reproductions and custom powder horns. They were carried by many of the soldiers during the French and Indian War, through the American Revolution and the War of 1812. Engravings were personal and became a documentation of history and this is what intrigued DeWald the most. He said that he has always loved history and this has been a constant inspiration to him. It was after the French and Indian War ended that the craft of scrimshawing powder horns became more popular.

DeWald’s childhood years helped him develop his talent as a true artist. He grew up in a household who helped cultivate his curiosity for the past. “My dad and I were always hunting and fishing. We both developed a keen interest for the outdoors,” said DeWald, Jr. Even as a little boy, he loved all aspects of history. “Everything about it intrigued me.”

His father, John L. DeWald Sr., is a wood worker and a machinist and owns Northeast Trade Company in Muncy where black powder, muzzle loading and trapping supplies are sold. When he was 7, he said that his father took him to a live demonstration while camping where he saw how black powder was used. “I was 12 years old when I did my first piece,” said DeWald, Jr. from his studio workshop in his historic Pennsdale home.

Growing up with his father’s store which also sold 1840’s style furniture, DeWald started to go to ‘Rendezvous’ shows with his father. He saw how powder horns were made and how compasses were used and “neat little things from the past, such as a knife with a porcupine quill, all handcrafted, ” he said. “Just incredibly beautiful things – just beautiful to look at and all from history, but I just couldn’t afford them, So I decided to learn how to make them.”

He was always doodling, but he says he devotes much of his talent to Nella Storm who was his art teacher at Muncy Junior Senior High School. He won a contest in high school when he did a piece of scrimshaw during art class that Nella entered in a contest for him. In fact one of his prized works is a custom horn he made for Nella that she gave to her husband, Bruce Storm as an anniversary present. To this day, John enters the horn with its detailed and meaningful engravings in juried shows. It has won him a ribbon for first place and a ribbon for Best of Show. He added, “I would rather draw as a kid, than watch TV so I guess it came naturally.” After graduating from Muncy High School in 1986, John went into the Army Infantry where he served for 8 years.

Today John DeWald Jr. and his family, wife, Chandra (Spring) a Pennsdale native, and daughter, NiKaya, enjoy doing live re-enactments. They like to portray history during the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War and dress the part. John will attend a few shows each year where he can showcase his craft and talent. Using a fine steel tip tool and various other implements, each piece takes him about 40 to 70 hours to complete. His custom orders have style and meaning often incorporating the family history into each piece. Much research and planning is devoted to the project before its final design. “I like all the little details,” he explained. Some research takes months going through hundreds of documents.

DeWald started to track his work in 2007 gaining much wisdom and patience along the way which, he stated, “helped me to grow into what I do today. But a day I can’t learn something I will put down my tools.” He works with cow horn for most of his projects but animal bone and antler is also incorporated in his work. “I am considered a contemporary artist, but like to do historical pieces. I carve them in the same fashion and use the same style of art of that time period,” he said pointing to a piece related to a time between 1755 to 1770. It was also in 2007 when he finally made a powder horn for himself. He drew a 1755 map of the Susquehanna Valley after doing research at the Smithsonian Institute. Using ink to fill and steel wool to polish off his etchings, he now carries his horn to all of his re-enactments and shows. In between shows it is displayed proudly above the family mantle.

He also stated that there are differences in the styles of scrimshaw that vary from region to region and state to state and from maker to maker. This can be seen in family crests and ciphers today known as logos or emblems and in the numerous figures and designs used to make a piece. “Using historical figures, places and names makes it a commemorative historical horn,” said DeWald.

He is also a member of the Honourable Company of Horners, a guild dedicated to the Research, Preservation and Education of hornwork. According to John, there are 400 plus members both on the east and west coast. The organization allows one to work up from a “Freeman” status to ” Journeyman” and finally to a “Master” Horner by showing proficiency in the manufacturing, turning, pressing, incorporating metal, and engraving of the horns. John DeWald, Jr. said he is almost at the three year mark where he will be able to submit for ” Journeyman” in the Guild. He must submit several items showing a proficiency in his work to be judged by the guild.

There are hundreds of original gun powder horns with examples of scrimshawing that still exist today, and according to DeWald, there are people here in Muncy that own these pieces of history. They can be valued at thousands of dollars.

In 2008 a long time friend, Kim Sampsell, asked him to craft a powder horn to hang with her father’s guns. Her father, William Kennedy, was a gunsmith here in Muncy. DeWald perfected it with the family’s Welsh Crest and engraved it with a memorial tree, a pet squirrel and the pistol that made Kennedy famous. He also used an old style text for the lettering and the entire horn took about 50 hours.

DeWald attends a market fair each year around April at Fort Frederick, MD. Other juried shows include Dixon’s Gun Fair in Kempton, PA where he entered a scrimshawed horn cup and won judge’s choice. He will be attending this show again July 26 and 27, then on to Lexington, Kentucky in November.

It is a combination of talent, family and a love of history that are tied into the making of every piece. He explained that the horn should be light as it gets heavier when loading the gun powder. The horns are embellished with fruit woods such as cherry, apple, walnut and maple using hand tools and a lathe.

All pieces are signed and numbered by DeWald with the month and year. He also crafts horn boxes for keepsakes, spices, teas or tobacco. He likes to make tumblers, wing-bone turkey calls, compasses, candle boxes and powder measures. Most of his work comes from custom orders he gets from the shows. “Not only am I trying to preserve history, but I am working at creating a legacy for my daughter,” he stated, for it is important to him to keep a dying art alive through his caring hands. “Maybe, just maybe, someday, someone will pick up a piece and say, ‘Hey. This is a DeWald horn.’ “