Horn-Spoons-art - 1/5/99
"Making Horn Spoons" by Mistress Gunnora Hallakarva. Directions for making spoons out of cow horn. How to process the horn.
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Mark S. Harris AKA: THLord Stefan li Rous
Stefan at florilegium.org
Date: Sat, 29 Aug 1998 00:21:16 -0500
From: Gunnora Hallakarva <gunnora at bga.com>
To: sca-arts at raven.cc.ukans.edu
Subject: Horn Working
I was asked a question about making horn spoons, so I thought I'd pass it
along to the list as well.
You asked about working cowhorn for spoon moulding.
OK. Let me quote the real documentation first, then I'll tell you about my
personal experience with horn working.
Arthur MacGregor. Bone, Antler, Ivory & Horn: the Technology of Skeletal
Materials Since the Roman Period. Totowa: Barnes & Noble. 1985. ISBN
0-389-20531-1 (out of print)
This is the bible of bone, horn and antler crafts. I have a photocopy of
the whole book. If you get just totally into doing this type of work, let
me know and I'll be glad to make you a copy if you'll reimburse the 250
pages worth of copying.
As already stressed, the composition of horn is quite distinct from that
of antler and hence the methods employed in working it can be very
different. This is particularly true in the case of softening and
moulding, which have for centuries been essential processes in the horner's
Rendering horn soft and malleable is achieved simply by the application of
heat, though delicate control is needed to avoid damaging the material.
(No chemical change is therefore involved here, though Zurowski (1974)
mentions an alternative method of softening in which horn may be boiled in
a solution of wood ash.) Following some weeks of soaking in a tub or pit,
the keratinous horn sheaths were separated from the bony cores and set to
boil in a cauldron. After one to one-and-a-half hours' boiling, the horn
was taken out and held over a fire with a pair of tongs or with a special
toothed warming tool (Andres 1925) to evaporate the excess water and
further soften it by gentle and even application of heat; it was then ready
for "breaking" or opening. According to the account of a York horner
working in the first quarter of the present century (recorded in Wenham
1964), one of two methods of cutting would normally be used, depending on
the desired shape of the resulting horn plate: after the solid tip had been
removed, the cut could be made either in corkscrew fashion, to produce an
elongated rectangle when opened out with the aid of a pair of tongs, or
else a straight cut could be made from the tip to the base, giving a
squarish plate (Figure 41 - see
http://www.realtime.com/~gunnora/horn_cut.gif). Andres stresses that the
cut is normally made along the inside of the curve. The whole of the above
process had to be carried out quickly and efficiently, while maintaining
the appropriate temperature: too much heat would scortch the horn and not
enough would result in it readopting its former curvature.
After some preliminary trimming and removal of blemishes with the aid of a
scraping knife or spokeshave, the plates of horn could be returned to the
cauldron for resoftening, after which they were further pressed
between heated iron plates, the smooth surface of which had been smeared
with grease. Final smoothing and trimming was then all that was necessary
before the plates were ready for manufacture into items such as combs,
P. 67 goes on to describe selecting light colored horns, soaking them extra
long, then delaminating them into very thin sheets for window panes and
lantern "glass". Another technique discussed is "welding" two pieces of
horn together applying higher heat and pressure until the horn began to
plasticize and almost "run" and thus stick two pieces together (I have
never got this to work).
p. 67 "Andres gives a recipe for enhancing the 'elasticity' (touchness) of
horn, involving a solution of three parts nitric acid, fifteen parts white
wine, two parts vinegar and two parts rain or river water. After treatment
in this way, it is said that horn combs could withstand being trodden on
I have usually soaked my horn, then cut strips out of it rather than trying
to flatten a whole pane. The flattening method results in more efficient
use of material, but I don't often go to the trouble.
If I flatten a pane, I get out my gas griddle and attach it to the propane
tank. I use PAM nonstick spray - the griddle is too hot if the grease is
burning and smoking. I then take an iron (the kind with the Teflon bottom)
set it on the "wool" setting+steam and use it to apply pressure from the
top. I hope to eventually find an old cast iron iron at a flea market and
use that -- I'd heat it directly on the griddle, or maybe on another
griddle at higher heat.
I usually "toast" the horn (the dry heat part of the process) over a
propane torch which has been set in a clamp so it cannot be knocked over.
You have to watch - it scorches easy. Your first clue is the awful smell
of burning hair.
As soon as I get it soft enough to flex, I take two metal spoons and I
clamp the horn between the two spoons with a series of small C-clamps as
toght as I can get the clamps. Then I let it cool overnight. The next day
I can trim and polish.
You can do a spoon without the dry heat step. I boil for 3 hours, then
If you do not flatten the horn before you start, cut a strip out of the
horn using a coping saw or Dremel cutting wheel. I try and make the bowl
fall in the thinnest part of the horn (i.e., near the mouth) and the handle
in the thick part (towards the tip). It is important that the junction
between the bowl and the handle be very sturdy as that is where it will
break. It is easy to sand down the bowl to an appropriate thickness, so
you can make the whole spoon out of fairly thick horn. I cut it, rough
shape it (leaving 1/4" or more all around where I think the spoon will
actually be), and thin the bowl, then boil, and clamp.
As a note, when boiling I usually set a Pyrex measuring cup or other
heat-resistant item on top of the horn to keep it under water. I put a
veggie steamer into the pan whenb I do this to keep the horn off the bottom
of the pan as well, or if I have them pyrex glass pellets (sold at lab
To polish, sand using progressively finer grits, then 000 steel wool,
finish with jeweller's rouge. I sometimes use tripoli on a buffing wheel
rather than sand by hand, and finish with rouge. If needed, I apply a
final buffing with some beeswax.
If desired, you can coat the spon with salad bowl varnish - available at
wood craft shops or your local hardwood supplier may be able to tell you
where to order.