Mk-a-Horn-Cup-art - 10/2/11
"Making a Horn Cup" by Bran Buchanan.
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.
Mark S. Harris...AKA:..Stefan li Rous
stefan at florilegium.org
Making a Horn Cup
Another “How To Make It” by Bran Buchanan
In this article I’ll discuss and show how to make a horn cup – that is, a drinking vessel of horn. It can be used as a cup, or depending on the size of the horn you can make a drinking vessel that’s good or well over a pint. Please note that I’m not making a drinking horn, in the Viking sense – rather were looking to make a commonly available, common mans “glass” or ale cup. They were also called beakers.
Horn was a commonly available material, a byproduct of the slaughter that seldom went to waste. When heated or boiled in a number of ways it becomes plastic and pliable, and was used for all sorts of implements – combs, spoons, bowls and various other items to include, naturally, drinking vessels. In this form you could find them in several guises – a mug, cup or beaker, a “snifter” or small shot glass, and the more usually considered drinking horn.
What we will be doing is making a horn cup. We will do it “cold” for a couple of reasons. In this article, it’s a work in progress as I make it step by step. I live in an apartment, and trust me when I say boiling horn makes an odor your roommates will not appreciate. While heating the horn has many virtues, working it cold isn’t difficult, and with care yields good results.
I won’t be addressing period methods or the history of the thing – there’s all sorts of great sources out there. And plenty of folks who can do fancier and better work than I!
Rather the goal here is to create a nicely presentable cup using common tools from around the house that you can use with any period impression (horn vessels were in common use in all cultures in some form or another as late as the late 1800’s) and can be used both high and low – the usual denominator being the degree of embellishment of the horn, from immensely ornate rich man’s cup to chieftain’s drinking horn, to the simple tavern beaker and poor man’s table vessel.
The end result of what we’ll be making will look something like this:
It’s a simple bit of horn, plugged with wood and nailed, sealed with beeswax.
Horn (or section thereof)
File or wood rasp
Small piece of 1/2 inch wood plank
Hammer (any will do, so long as it’s not too big for the task)
Beeswax or paraffin
Optional: small nails
A small knife suitable for whittling”
Sandpaper, 200 grit
Steel wool, 000 (very fine)
Time Required – two hours
Materials Cost – Varies
Skill Level - 3 (on a scale of 1-10, 1 being novice and ten being expert)
Step One – Get That Horn!
There all sorts of places to get horn, and while you can look online for all kinds the place I went was Tandy. The horns they carry may not be the best for carving – you want thick horns for that – but for our purposes here they work just fine. Plus, they’re already clean and somewhat polished. So that’s one more chore we can avoid. Also, they aren’t costly. The horn I used netted me two drinking vessels, plus a nubbin from the tip.
Tools used here are strictly mundane, and the horn aside, I got everything from the nails to the beeswax at Ace hardware.
To start with, look over that horn – you want to look for blemishes, dimples or dents. If it’s cracked or perforated it’s no good, so be sure to examine when you buy. Of course we’re cutting it down, so where the hole is, if any, can be worked with but why pay for a flawed horn?
Now that you have it, clean it up a bit. Not overly so – we’re about to mess it up – but if you wash it and remove grease or residue its certain to be easier to handle. Dawn dish soap works great.
Regard the horn – depending on size you’ll get either one big cup, or two smaller ones. Either way, the technique here will be the same.
Once you’ve decided what size you want, start by cutting off the tip. If you can, make it about six inches from the tip, and retain the nubbin – you’ll see why shortly.
Horn is as soft as wood at this stage, but much slicker – I scored the cutting point with a kitchen knife (or you can gently saw a light notch) all the way round where I wanted to cut it. This didn’t make the cutting faster, but it did make a groove I could follow, so it was much easier to handle.
You can mark it with pencil ( NOT sharpie or pen, as the ink will enter the porous horn and not come out for good) or tape as well, or do it by eye if you have a steady hand.
Now you’ve done that, you should have a section that looks like this:
Sand the edges a bit
This seems a nice size….
Step Two – Making the Plug
Take your wood bit. I used a piece of one half inch playwood, because its what I had to hand, but if you can get a piece of one half inch solid wood, that’s best. Oak is great, but hard to work. Pine will do if you take care not to splinter it.
Mark with pencil the outside diameter, and then reaching inside do the same. This will both tell you how thick the horn is - you’ll notice that its thinner in some spots – and allow you to make the plug a snug fit. Take note also that we are not working the horn, we’re working the wood.
Now knock off the excess wood – chisel it, saw it, whatever suits you, down to the outer line. This is the rough diameter. Now comes the tricky part – fine filing with a wood rasp or whittling ( I did it that way) down to the point you can gently fit it into the narrower end. You’ll want to just be able to fit it without forcing. Be sure to file it carefully, as what we want is as snug a fit as possible. Lightly tap it into place with your hammer – lightly! If you get too heavy handed, you may crack the horn, and while you can salvage it for other things, as a cup it’ll be ruined. If its too tight a fit, sand on the plug. Never sand the horn, remember – its all about fitting the plug. The horn is flexible, but only somehwat, so don’t overdo it.
This is what you should wind up with – a nicely fitted plug, flush all round and flat on the bottom. Once the plugs fitted and tight, we’re ready to go to the next step.
Step 3 – Sealing the Plug
Now, looking inside you can see some gapping – that’s to be expected, and is honestly kind of inevitable.
Take your wax, and heat it up to liquid – not boiling, as it will burn. I suggest a small saucepan, simply because its easier to handle than a large one. Then, drizzle a bit of wax into that gap, and swirl the horn around. You’ll let it cool, then do it again. It may take several times, but don’t rush, as you actually want to saturate the plug and fill that gap – get in a hurry and pour too much and the hot wax will melt what just cooled. Ideally, you should have the plug tight enough of a fit that none escapes. If some oozes out of the bottom, not to worry. That just means you’re filling the gap. Of course, if its TOO gappy, I’d suggest making a new plug and fitting it.
You then want to swirl wax all over the inside of the cup, completely coating the interior of the horn. This seals the horn as well, and keeps the organic horn from holding germs, tastes and other unwanted things. Take your time, and do three or four thin swirls rather than one – you’ll get a more even coat, and will be less likely to damage the horn with the heat of the wax.
When you’re done, what you should have will look like this :
You can see here where we’ve filled the gap, and sealed the wood of the plug with a layer of wax. That’s exactly what youre after.
Step Four – Nails and Other Things
Gently bore a series of holes around the perimeter of the bottom of the cup. Not the wood, as it will weaken it. We’ere doing this so we can be sure not to split the horn when we nail it – horns soft enough to work, but its also brittle, and this is a precaution against ruining our work so far. Once you’ve bored the holes – I used the point of a knife, a small drill works well too - nail the nails in gently tapping with the hammer.
You will want to use round headed nails, as flat ones will develop sharp edges and tend to nick hands. I recommend brass for a couple of reasons – they don’t rust, and when they tarnish they will take on a dark appearence resembling iron, with none of the rust or discoloration iron will create. I also dabbed the drilled holes with superglue before driving the nails – this encouraged the nails to not work loose.
Once you’ve done that, rub a bit of hot wax over the nails to be sure you’re still sealed – if in doubt, check the botton and inside, you can always reseal with a little hot wax.
Now the test! Take the now done horn, fill it with cold water and set it on a level surface on a paper towel and let it sit for half an hour. If its properly sealed, you will have no leaks, and you have just completed your very own horn cup!
Step 5 – Remember the Nub?
Here we see the nub end – which is really just recycling. Pictured is one I happened upon in an antique shop. It cost about six dollars, and once I saw it I realized what had been done, and found it easy to replicate.
Taking the tip, I trimmed the top opening, leaving enough to make the ear, which I filed to shape and drilled. Then, just as in this example, I carefully lopped off the point. At this point, cleaning out the inside was a piece of cake, and I used some leftover wax to seal the horn. Its just the right size for a thong, for wearing around the neck or off the belt.
As you can see here, done this way, theres no need to fabricate a plug, and voila! A handy little small cup that holds just about two shot glasses of your favorite mead or spirit. Its really a very frugal use of the horn! And the last little bit of tip makes a very handy pouch button, too.
Caring for you Horn Cup
Your new drinking vessel is durable and with a little care will last you years. Cleaning it is simplicity itself – pour in lukearm water ( never hot! As it will melt the wax) and placing a hand over the opening shake vigourously. If things are sticky, a bit of warm soapy water works well too. But be sure to rinse as if you’ve used beeswax the soap can break it down . Modern soaps are designed to break down organics, and beeswax qualifies, but this is less of an issue with parrafin.
Remember, however, this is a cup for cold drinks only! Hot drinks will ruin your seal – the horn will hold up fine, but fill it with hot coffee and you’re likely going to find it drizzling hot coffee as the seal melts out. If that happened, all is not lost – just empty it, and you can rinse it out to be clean and reseal just as we did before.
Copyright 2001 by bryan gibson, 236D Pringle Circle, Green Cove Springs FL 32043. <sabakakrazny at hotmail.com>. Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited. Addresses change, but a reasonable attempt should be made to ensure that the author is notified of the publication and if possible receives a copy.
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.