Preparing bone for working

It’s probably time I wrote about something other than leather. We had a huge bag of bones in the freezer and some spare time over the weekend, so I’ll talk about preparing bone.

There are as many different opinions on the best way to prepare bone as there are bone workers. A couple whose opinion I value strongly state that it is simply impossible to use bone from roasted meat because the resulting bone is too brittle. Others equally emphatically insist that raw bone is the only way to go. I beg to differ. I find that as long as you don’t use the exposed ends, bones from your Sunday roast work fine.

There’s lots of ways of cleaning bone. Medical specimens can be cleaned using beetles, or if you have lots of space and a strong stomach, using anaerobic bacteria in a sealed water bath.

I’m not going to make any claims to accuracy in this technique. I haven’t done enough research to know exactly what was done, I’m drawing this from what I was taught years ago by a metalworker who prepared bones for knife handles, and my experience since.

I’ll make the big assumption that historically, meat wasn’t filleted before use and the bones were cooked. A quick look at the cooking techniques of your chosen period would indicate whether boiling, roasting or other methods were more common. Try to stick to this method of cooking for bonus authenticity points.

If you are using whole bones, cut one end off to expose the marrow before boiling, otherwise it will go off during the subsequent steps and when you get around to cutting the bone to work on, the ensuing explosion isn’t very pleasant. Collect  a sufficient quantity of bones, throw them in a pot with copious quantities of water and boil until all the scraps of meat, fat, cartilage and tendon can easily be scraped away. A metal skewer can help loosen the marrow so all that you are left with is a pile of cleanish bones and a damn fine broth.

Once clean, I let sunlight, rain and ants do the final clean. If there’s a problem with dogs or native animals running off with your freshly cleaned bones, make a wire cage to hold them together. Exposure for 2-3 months seems to work for me.

Punch decorated Jack

I saw this one the other day and thought it made a great alternative for those who don’t want to muck about with paint. Obviously the punch work could have been done any time in the past 350 years but the letter forms and abbreviation are consistent with the restoration period through to the early 18th century. If the decoration were done earlier in the 17th century, the initials would have been I.C. The shape of the jack is also consistent with a date from the middle of the 17th century.

An English Leather Bombard, 17th Century of typical form, the front punch dotted with the owner’s initials Rev’d J.C.
8¼in. high.

Sold by Christies in 2001, Sale 6546.

6-9th century leather worker’s toolkit

I’m about half way through the photos from the National Museum of Scotland, it takes a while to sort 800-odd pictures. I couldn’t resist the temptation to share this one. It’s a leather worker’s toolkit, dated from between AD650 and 950 * from Evie, Orkney.

Leatherworker's tool kit, 550-850AD

Leatherworker's tool kit, 550-850AD

The box is made from a single piece of timber, hollowed out so there’s no joint in the base for the heavy tools to push out. Some of the tinder boxes from the Mary Rose (82A0070, 81A1718, 81A3874 and 81A 5922) are done the same way, although in the latter case to keep moisture out of the tinder.

Leatherworker's tool kit, 550-850AD

Carving on the back of the tool box.

Leatherworker's tool kit, 550-850AD

Tool handles. The metal blades have obviously corroded, but many can be inferred from the handle shapes.

Leatherworker's tool kit, 550-850AD
Bone leather punches.

Leatherworker's tool kit, 550-850AD

Pumice, antler and leather thong. I wonder if the antler is an edge slicker?

The original can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh.

* An earlier version of this post had incorrect dates of 550-850 for the finds.