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Horn-Working-art - 5/21/08


"Method for period horn work" by Kirk Morrison.


NOTE: See also the files: horn-msg, Horn-Spoons-art, glues-msg, horn-utn-care-msg, p-tableware-msg, tools-msg, ivory-msg, beeswax-msg, polishing-msg.





This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set of files, called Stefan's Florilegium.


These files are available on the Internet at: http://www.florilegium.org


Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author or translator.


While the author will likely give permission for this work to be reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.


Thank you,

Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous

stefan at florilegium.org



Method for period horn work

by Kirk Morrison


Horn was the plastic of earlier times. Once cured and cleaned, it can be worked endlessly into almost anything. You can make horn cups, spoons, inkwells, combs, salt and spice horns and almost anything else including, of course, hunting and powder horns. It is more or less compressed hair, like toenails and hooves, it requires different treatment and methods than bone, some are close to woodworking others aren't but all the methods are easy to learn.



Tools: Few tools are needed to work on a horn, Files, rasp, scrapers such as the edge of a parring knife, or a good pocket knife, single edge razorblades, or a cabinet scraper with a good edge. Drill and bits, or steel wires for burning to make the needed holes, a saw of some sort, a bag of sand, and maybe a press and a clamp, and along with some good clear wood, needed for wooden plugs to make sizers (to round out the base (fat end) of the horn to the nearest 1/8 of an inch and a method for tapping in any small pegs to hold the large plugs. I use good scraps of maple 1X4s and bits of pine 2X4s for this and scraps of other Old World, or equivelent New World Species of more decorative wood when, I feel like getting a bit fancy. A cheap reamer is quite handy to fit the removable plugs in canteens, salt, spice and powder horns. The easiest way to make a mold for spoons, two matching spoons can be brazed to a pair of vice grips, more correctly a mold block shaped to your spoon design to be placed in the press. The mold block requires of course a negative and positive mold, but will make thousands of spoons if properly made.


Scraping: Take the edge and moving it at about 90 degrees against the horn almost like you are trying to give it a close shave. This will, as long as the edge is sharp, it will remove long curls almost like a handplane. When it becomes dull and needs resharpening it will have a tendency to chatter and skip leaving marks like this ]]]]]as it bounces in an out of the material.


General thoughts:


If you want to be 100% period-correct, most noncommercial period horns were generally slowly burned down through the small plug end. Do it outdoors. No one will speak to you for a year or two if you do the burning indoors! Those that did it as a trade used simple bow drills and such of the period, but burning with enough practice works well.


When burning always make the hole smaller than the final size as the char will spread. As a rule of thumb only go 2/3rds the finish size. If you drill instead of burning, drills bits should be around 7/8ths the finished size of the hole. They are easier to control than burning, but be careful not to drill through the side of the narrow end of the horn! The smallest I use is 1/8 of an inch and the largest is 3/8s of an inch I generally step up twice, and then if need be for tapered plugs use a reamer to prevent sticking.


Things to NOT do to horns:


Never work with a green horn. I prefer to set the horn aside for at least two months before I consider cleaning it, and 6 months is better, as insects will reduce the work I need to do.


Don't overheat horn, as it becomes brittle, especially if it burns or chars.


Don't soak it in kerosene to soften, though some books suggest it.  Long immersion in oil, kerosene or water can lead to delamination. Although delamination can be useful for some projects such as making horn lanterns, it is all too often a problem.  


NEVER sandpaper a horn, itÕs useless. The paper gums up and it gives a phony finish that stands out at a mile away. Polish it and scrape it with loose grit, steel wool and scraping. For a period finish, seal the outside with beeswax.



Working with horn:


The first step is to clean out the horn, I use warm water and a stand to rinse out and free as much of the core and blood out as possible. Then I place it in vinegar mixed 1 to 3 with water and leave it for a day. Next I repeat this with a 1:2 and then full strength white vinegar. I don't bother to rinse between steps, but if there might be a long wait between soaks. It is a good idea to remove as much as possible. I just keep the progression going from bath A to B to C. Then I rinse the horn several times and do a short boil - 20 minutes to an hour changing the water, whenever it gets very dirty or smelly, but the main thing is to keep doing it until it comes out clean for two or three boils. This is mostly for cleaning but I might round and size the horn at this time. This is adjusting the roundness of the base, if it needs it. Some projects will need this others wont, if it is to have a round plug in the end it needs to be sized.


Then scrape then horn down. You can use files on the inside, and card often, this means to clean the file or rasp with a stiff metal brush to remove the filings. This will help you to get the horn thin, which is period correct for containers. Horn containers are the historical Tupperware.


Methods of heating a horn:


The most often used is boiling. This is okay if only done for about 20 minutes or so - only long enough to clean the remains of the core out. This only softens the horn for mild shaping. It does not heat a horn well enough to make it really pliable.


The second method is to place the horn in a holder and pass it over a flame or straight into an oven, at 250 to 300 degrees F. I stay at the lower end of this range on those rare occasions that I use it. The latter can stink. I don't care for this method as it often leads to charring.


The third method is to take a couple of hours and slowly move the horn closer to a fire or heat source. This depends on the size, of the fire, whether it is in a fire place or not.  Move it every 10 minutes or so. This lets the horn heat through evenly without delamination, and lets it take major reshaping, such as in a press or similar tool.


At the first heating, boiling or other method of softening, such as leaving it in water for 3 or 4 days I don't recommend the last unless you can't heat it or you wish to delaminate the horn. If you want to take the risk, fit a round tapered plug in the  butt of the horn. I use a couple of sizers with a handle fitted to them help pull it. Just give it a very light tap to help seat it and round the base - do not overdo this! The base or butt is the big end and if you aren't careful, and drive the sizer in to far you might split the horn. The thinner the horn is and not going much more in expansion than an 1/8th of an inch at a time is generally safe.

Now you have a clean horn that has to be trimmed and squared off and maybe rounded before you drill or burn through the end. It sounds hard but it is fairly easy to do.


How to trim a horn to size:


The first rule of thumb, go slowly. You are dealing with an irregularly shaped object. Measure three times and cut once. Take a wire and bend it to feel up the inside radius and find the end of the horn on that side. Take the wire and lay it against the out side of the horn on the inside curve, and mark the tip. Now measure again a couple of times to be sure. I use a wire coat hanger, but any stiff wire or willow twig will work. Now you need to mark this point on the horn with a scriber. Then do the middle and the outer radius. [This will give you the inside end of the natural plug.] To make a small salt, spice, horn etc, measure one inch in front of the natural plug, then back up the desired distance and cut the horn. The front is the area towards the tip. The back of the tip is towards the natural end of the tip that you are isolating.  In historical times this would have been done with a bow saw and a padded wooden vise. Today the best way is pretty much the same, or you can use a band or jig saw. For small horns I recommend doing this near the end of the thinning and polishing process.


After studying pictures of your project, scrape and file the horn to the proper thickness. Trim both ends and make your small pilot hole in the tip. You need to be very careful not to burn or drill through the side of the tip, so go slow and watch that angle. Then follow the pilot hole with the next couple of sizes of drill bit, or file reamer, again going slow until you reach the size you are after. Tapering this never hurts and you can ream it slightly with the end of a file if desired. Of course if burning do the same with a bit of steel wire.


Now turn the horn over. Fit a plug to the horn and seal the wood plug with bee's wax. You are sealing the wood with wax or using wax to keep it from passing moisture to the contents. You can on the inside use brewers pitch also. Insert the plug and seat it. To keep it in place, make 4 to 8 evenly spaced holes in the horn and plug. You can do it period and fit slivers of wood, or cheat and use round toothpicks, which look the same unless one uses a magnifying glass. Give them a light tap or two to fully seat them and cut them off.


Scrape the horn a little more to remove tool marks, rub with rottenstone and leather or 00000 steel wool (same results), and then seal with the outside with beeswax.


This is the basic idea of forming a horn. Just going to this point will make many a fine project such as powder horns for late period - for cannon, early firearms and such.  It will make a nice salt horn for bulk or personal use, depending on the size of the horn.


The drinking horn and other projects require more work, as the horn is not yet usable at this stage, and will impart a really bad taste to the water or beverage of your choice. To be on the safe side, some more work should be done with a horn that will hold potable liquids or that could come in contact with water, milk, or other beverages. We will get to that later. First let's discuss some other horn projects.


You can cut thin panes out of a horn and delaminate or thin them further by any means of your choice, uneven heat, and splitting, soaking or any other method, until they are somewhat transparent or translucent. Then heat them with a dry heat source, such as a fire, a hairdryer followed by a heat gun, or whatever you find works best for you. Get the pane good and hot and then place it in a press. I use steel plates or smooth tiles in my press and quickly press them flat in an old arbor type press. If you donÕt have a press, how much weight do you have to put on whatever youÕve sandwiched the horn between? Enough to quickly flatten them, most likely 35 to 50lbs. Leave them at least an hour; more is better.  You can cut these plates to fit a candle lantern or you can cut slots in them and polish them to make combs, or work them to make other items of your choice.

The easiest method for slot IÕve found is to clamp a horn plate into a small vice and using a saw, cut the teeth of the comb to a thin scribed line. The vice I prefer for this is one similar to a leather stitching tree, as it wonÕt damage the horn and applies fairly even pressure. An alternative is a regular work vice with the jaws lined with cloth or leather to protect the horn. Cut the slots for whatever your need and then do the finial scraping and polishing.


A Horn canteen:


To make a horn canteen, use a nice large horn with at least 14 inches (35.6cm) of workable size.  Clean the inside. Measure out to the end of the inside and place a scribed mark on the outside. File and rasp the inside, and then the outside, down to a nice smooth surface(the inside of the horn is closer to the final color of the horn than the outside). Cut the horn off about 1 inch (2.54 cm) behind the stop point. Scrape the inside and outside smooth again.  Heat the horn and use two sizers to round out both ends. Use a tape measure to measure the circumference of the horn and divide by Pi. [Do this to get the sizes of the circles you will need to cut out of the wood] as the horn isnÕt perfectly round. Cut out the two end plugs and fit a stopper to the top of the horn. Next, heat the horn up good and hot, line it with melted beeswax or pitch, and then put the end plugs in and fit them to the horn with a light rap or two of a hammer. Drill several small holes around the horn evenly spaced and using round toothpicks as pegs put a small amount of beeswax on each one, and tap home. Next cut the pegs off flush and lightly scrape the horn so all is smooth.


The next step is to fit the strap. Place two [ shaped wires in the plug in a horizontal position and attach a strap that is a comfortable size for you to carry. Warm the horn slightly and rub beeswax over the outside and polish.


The stoppers can be hand made, store bought or what not. There are plenty of examples of horns with the original stoppers in place from nicely turned ones to crudely carved and fitted. The range is almost endless, to the point where, if you think of it, there is a good chance it has been done in the past.


Horn cups:


To make a horn cup, square off the wide bottom, and decide if you want to have a handle. If you do, mark or scribe the handle at least 3/4 of an inch wide along its length. I find smaller handles have an annoying tendency to break or crack.  Cut out the handle area however you wish to do it, along the top of the cup in sort of an ŌLĶ shape. Heat the horn and insert the sizer. I like to use dry heat, but you can boil it. Be sure to heat the whole horn evenly and all the way through. Now apply the sizer.  After it has cooled thoroughly, fit a wooden bottom. For this I prefer Linden (Basswood), Maple or Poplar, as they don't alter the flavor of the drink in the cup if scratched. Peg the bottom all around and reheat the horn carefully. Then, using pair of smooth tongs or oven mitts, or something similar, quickly bend the handle back and insert at least two pegs to hold it in place. You can also use metal staples. This needs to be done over dry heat to reduce cracking.  Once dry you can line it with Brewers Pitch or beeswax. To do this heat the cup and the horn till theyÕre very warm again, melt the wax or pitch, and using a daub, wipe the inside of the horn with the wax or pitch to cover the surface completely.




The cut-off tips of the horns can be used to make measuring items, buttons toggles and many other things including plates for the tips of bows, nocks for arrows and such by simply using these techniques and thinking through the project. Consider the fewest bends and the best way not to waste the material.


Scrimshaw and carving can be done as with similar fine grain materials. If you don't like it, you can always remove it if it isn't too deep.  I have seen period items where this was done, but they seemed to be early or late period, and not as much towards the middle. This could just be that these are the examples that have survived, as I have not made an exhaustive study.




  There are other methods or softening or heating horn, which I don't like but are period, steam is one, Ammonia, from Urine is another, they do have their uses, but I have found personally that I can get by on most of my projects without using them. I find steam too easy to burn myself and Ammonia works fine, but well, I don't have any place I can do it without problems.


The ammonia method is a long soak, often of several days. Check often to see when the horn is soft enough to be workable. It works well for lanterns and other items to be made from thin strips.


The steam method, is just what it sounds like. Place the horn on a shelf in a deep pot and put a lid on it and heat it until well softened. I have trouble in my shop handling this easily as I have some physical limitations that can cause me to get burned so I don't use it. I can handle the other methods with less risk, however it is period and does result in a nice soft horn.  


One other point; if you make a press, use two very flat ceramic or quarry tiles fastened to the press' jaws or your will impress the imperfections of the jaws into the horn so deeply they will be hard to remove. Steel plates are good also, just keep them oiled up and ready to go at all times a light coat to prevent rust if all that is needed, but I prefer the tiles.


Dairy horns are the best to work with, buffalo and African meat cattle horns the worst, as they grow with twists and other problems, and are often very brittle. Judge the final color by the inside of the horn, not the outside. I buy my horns from those who sell to buckskinners, as they generally carry good horns in various sizes for the making of powder, salt, and other horns.  




A big thank you! to all of those who made suggestions, additions, and proof read this article for me, with out their help this article would not be so helpful, complete or readable, as I am in no way a writer.


To the readers, thanks for reading this fair.


I hope this is of some help and I will get some photos to go with it as soon as I can.


Copyright 2006 by Kirk D. Morrison. <rbbtslyr at comporium.net>. This monograph is free to distribute non-commercially to any living history group, but remains the property of the author Kirk D. Morrison.


If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.


<the end>

Formatting copyright © Mark S. Harris (THLord Stefan li Rous).
All other copyrights are property of the original article and message authors.

Comments to the Editor: stefan at florilegium.org