Working Horn


Because horn and bone are different, much of the details of preparation and working it are different, although the overall techniques are sometimes quite similar. This difference is particularly true regarding the possibilities of softening and molding the horn, techniques that have been used for centuries. While I do not know of any irrefutable evidence to support when these techniques were first used, the evidence that remains tells us that some, if not all, of these techniques must, by the nature of the material being worked, resemble those used by Medieval Horners. Horn is, by its nature, a very good material for making things. It is soft enough to be worked easily, while being hard and tough enough to be durable under most circumstances.

Selecting a horn:

In many ways this is a very personal matter, unique to the person working the horn, and the availability of the materials. Some people prefer the raw or unboiled horn (for which preparation instructions follow), while other people prefer horns that have been boiled and sterilized at the packing plants. Many leather supply outlets also supply horns that have been cleaned and sanded to remove the unsightly exterior.

Preparing Horn:

To begin working with horn, you must first prepare it by removing the soft core (referred to by more than one person as "the spongy yuckky brown stuff"). There are a number of ways to do this
  1. The first method is to immerse the horn in boiling water, and, after the outer portion has softened a little, removing the core. This method is the quickest and most sterile. It also smells bad, and can create a bloody mess.
  2. The second method is to dry out the core in warm, even conditions for a few days, which, as the core dries and shrinks, will separate the two. This method is not particularly clean, however, if you have the time, it is quite easy. Any warm, dry spot will suffice, such as near a furnace, the back shelf of your closet, on top of your roof, or whatever.
  3. The third method is to soak the horn in water for a few months. This is probably the best method for mass preparation of a large number of horns, and was the method of choice used by some Honers in history. It will, however, create a lingering odor, and a potentially unhygienic situation, (unless you choose to regularly change out the water, until all the blood has soaked away from the core).
  4. You can scoop out as much of the core as possible, to help the drying process, using a split piece of wood, bamboo, or something similar item. This is really a disgusting process, and if the horn has aged a bit aged this may be really nasty. Note, that using anything significantly harder than wood, such as an ice pick, greatly increases the chances of perforating the horn.
  5. You can always go to your local pet store and get some live meal worms (used as fish food) tip these, still in their sawdust, into the horn. Cover the end of the horn with some nylon netting, and leave out of doors for a week or so.

There is a division in the sources regarding the best condition for a horn to be in for working. Some people feel that it must be completely dry (as in seasoned and not green) before you begin to work with it, since that can lead to warping as it DOES dry and cure; while others are more inclined to leave it soaking for weeks at a time before working with it. This Dichotomy isn't as odd as it might seem, though. The former is entirely reasonable for carving and sculpting the horn, and shaping it into reasonably simple forms. The latter is for working with horns in presses, for splitting it into leaves, and so forth.

Cleaning out your horn

You must be sure to clean away the membrane as quickly as possible, because it can soon begin to rot, and this can screw up the horn. Rig a stand for your horn in the sink or outside (my wife uses the garbage disposal/drain). Scrape and scrub out anything that remains inside the horn as far down as you can reach. Use Scouring pads, bottle brush, etc. It is also possible to do scour out the inside of the horn using varying sized gravel to slowly clean it out. This is not a fast process, but the original author was pretty sure it's period. Basically you start with large (sharp if possible) gravel pieces, cover the end with something (to protect your hand) and shake it a lot. Then you move to smaller and smaller stones until you are using sand to polish the inside. (I have a theory that it is because that it is such a pain in the rear to lean all the way down to the point, which makes "Drinking Horns" a "rich man's item", and not something that everyone would own).

You may want to trim off the upper lip at this point as well. This gives a thicker edge less prone to splitting.

Working Horn

  1. Working Horn "Cold"
    1. Sawing/Cutting
      Horn can be sawn into sections fairly easily (relatively speaking), although it's a good idea to use some sort of marking or tape to keep track of where you want to cut.
    2. Carving
      Horn carves easily, if you exercise patience. It is much more likely than wood for your carving to follow the grain more than you might like, but if you practice, this seems to clear up.
      Using files and rasps on Horn is like shaping the most friendly bit of wood you can imagine. I sat and filed a bottle stopper from the end of a bit of horn one night during a populace meeting and part of a revel.
      *I've never done this, but am informed that horn (especially the more solid bits) turns amazingly well on a lathe.
      (N.B., I would hesitate to use "power tools" on horn that's been shaped, as the vibrations they create can break any weaknesses in the horn, breaking it. I have done this.)
    Working horn "Hot" There are several ways of doing this, and I have been practicing with both. Essentially, however, is that as horn gets hotter, it gradually reaches a point where it becomes plastic enough to mold and shape. Judging from some of the examples I've seen, if done properly you can do some seriously amazing things with it. Unfortunately, I'm still trying to track down the proper way to handle it.
    As with making Cuir Bouilli, the point at which it melts is in a range that varies somewhat with each bit of material, and the instant you pass over that, you can wind up with an unusable product. The melting range appears to be 350 +/- 25 degrees Fahrenheit (180 +/- 14 C). If you are lucky, you can get it to change shape with out altering the color. However, more often than not you will wind up changing it to a lovely golden brown color.
    If you overheat it, it will burn, giving you bubbles and badly delaminating stuff that will *stink*.
    The thinner the piece of horn you are wanting to shape, the easier it is to work with. I have not yet worked out the most efficient method for delaminating the layers from each other, but am working on it.
    The best way I have have found to press horn, and to make sheets, is to cut the tip off the horn and then cut the horn lengthwise, either to unwrap it or cut it into two separate bits. Then using sheets of either steel or wood (I'm currently using oak), I've been pressing them with some "C" clamps.
    All the old recipes call for coating the plates in tallow, and I haven't tried that yet (although I'm currently rendering a batch). I *have* used some spray stuff to keep the horn from sticking to my iron plates (when I used them), but it *is* possible that the tallow may have more of a purpose than just keeping it from sticking.
    1. Boiling
      Some people claim that this is all that is needed, and I certainly can't dispute that they can turn out some really nice material. Boil the horn in water for an hour and a half (or longer), enough to soften it. At this point, you can either try shaping it by hand or with pliers, and then letting it cool.
      It should be remembered that when you boil it, it remains "soft" for a very short period of time.
      You can also boil the ends of horn cups or containers to stretch in order to set a base in it.
    2. Dry Baking.
      I started with this and while it does seem to work, particularly if you work very gradually. However, you are much more likely to split and crack the pieces you are working with.
    3. One source suggests that all that is required is a source of flame, such as a propane torch, a bunsen burner, etc. The horn is to be brushed down with "water glass" (or fire-proofing sodium silicate dissolved in water), which is intended to keep the horn from burning.
    4. At least one source has suggested that horn might be boiled in a solution of wood ash. ne of the most commonly described means to soften horn is to soak or boil it in water that's full of wood ashes. Running water through wood ashes produces lye, and lye does seem to help a bit with softening horn. If you wish to experiment, you might try starting with simple bleach (which is a dilute form of lye). Lye can be gotten from chemical supply houses, as well as some forms of drain cleaner. Be very careful when working with lye, as it can badly burn you. I have soaked horn in a solution of strong lye, which did help to soften it, but not sufficiently to make me advocate it unequivocally.
    5. Wet Baking.
      Boil the horn in water for an hour and a half (or longer), enough to soften it. At this point, you can either try shaping it by hand or with pliers, and then letting it cool, or else you can then place it in the plates and bake it, still wet, for about 10-15 minutes (longer is fine if you watch it to keep it from burning). You may have to gradually flatten it, tightening the clamps as it softens
      CAUTION: It may sound like a stupid warning, but 350 Degrees is REALLY HOT, and the metal on the "C" Clamps will burn you if you so much as brush against it. You may want to wear a heavy long sleeve shirt with your gloves for this. Trust me, I've got the burn marks on my arms from this]
      Finally remove the item from the heat and let it cool naturally before trying to remove it from the plates.

"Pressing" the horn into shapes, or plates

Once the horn is softened, then it is ready for "breaking" or opening. According to some accounts, which I have experimented with myself, the best way of there are two principle cutting designs, after removing the solid tip of the horn. Which method is used depends on the ultimately desired shape of the plate. The first is to cut the horn in a corkscrew-like fashion to produce an elongated rectangle, while the other is to cut a seam along the inside of the curve, the weakest part of the horn. A somewhat less wasteful; if less traditional, fashion is to slice the horn in half along its length.

Once the horn has been opened, it is ready to shape or press. I personally find it easier to press the horn into flat plates, and prepare that plate for further shaping later (for example, cutting. A horn press can be as complex as a full press, or as simple two oak boards held together by "C-Clamps".

In the Middle ages, this was done with a "press" cut into the dirt. The Block Presser was developed in the 1740s, a box-like device containing heated iron plates. When the horn was interleaved between the iron plates, the large screw mechanism was turned to press the plates together. The large handle sometimes took two men to turn it in a process now replaced by the hydraulic press.

This is a good point to begin with some simple trimming and scraping to remove blemishes with a scraping knife. After this, the plates of horn can be returned to the boiling water to be softened again, and then pressed between heated iron plates, coated in tallow, both to help soften the horn, and to keep the pieces of horn from sticking to the plates.

Finally remove the item from the heat and let it cool naturally before trying to remove it from the plates.

It should be noted that the thinner the piece of horn you are wanting to shape, the easier it is to work with. I have not yet worked out the most efficient method for delaminating the layers from each other, but am working on it.

Final smoothing and trimming was then all that was necessary before the plates were ready for manufacture into items such as combs, boxes, etc.

Update (23 April 2004)

I am informed by Chris from Ketchikan, Alaska, that:

"The native people of SE Alaska made a number of fantastic items out of horn including spoons and bowls. I assumed they boiled them to reshape, etc as was the standard course in early America and , I assume, Europe. What I found is some soaked them in a strong base solution (the guys I know who do it soak the horn, usually mountain goat or  Dall sheep, in ammonia) After about two weeks, the horn becomes quite soft and can be carved just like wood and clamped in a mold/form to reshape it. As it dries , the ammonia evaporates and it returns to its "normal state". "


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Using and working with Horn - Working Horn. Copyright 1996, 2001, 2004  I. Marc Carlson
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