A teenager’s hobby of drawing horses has evolved into a passion for an ancient technique used to engrave and decorate knives.
It was a family friend who introduced 14-year-old Kate Opre of Columbia Falls to the art of scrimshawing. When she first laid eyes on the intricately handmade knives her parents’ friend, Thomas Rucker, had crafted, she said she became mesmerized.
Rucker offered Opre her favorite knife from his collection in exchange for some of her artwork, encouraging her to take up scrimshawing as a student of his wife, Debbie, who’d been practicing the trade on his handmade knives for a few years.
That was in the fall of 2017, and today, Opre has her dreams set on becoming a professional knife maker and scrimshaw artist like her mentors.
Scrimshaw entails using a stippling pen — a sharp, pointed tool that resembles a quill pen — to etch a design into materials such as bone or antler before layering paint over the surface.
The different colored inks soak into the holes made in the material, creating an intricate picture.
Considered by some to be the only art form to originate in America, beginning around 200 years ago, the technique may have originated in Inuit cultures using whale and walrus ivory and tusk as early as 100 or 200 A.D., according to hopscrimshaw.com.
Opre said when she first started learning the technique, one knife took her about two months to complete.
A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Opre said she can’t simply erase imperfections or mistakes she makes in the knife, but has to sand the section completely to restart the process.
The first few knives she worked on portray pictures of her specialty — horses.
Her first knife, she said, depicts an Arabian mare nuzzling her foal, a cute picture, she thought, in the beginning.
“I look at it now, and it’s kind of ugly,” Opre said, laughing. “Then I kept working at it.”
Now, after a few more sessions learning under the tutelage of the Ruckers, she’s gotten her technique mastered to the point of adding shading, laying and reducing ink and challenging herself to take on designs beyond horses.
Her skills have allowed her to craft some unique and personal gifts for her family, including two knives she made for her stepmother, Olivia Opre, and father, Tom Opre, for Christmas.
On the curved handle of her father’s knife was the likeness of their family’s dog, a German wire-haired pointer named Gage. Her stepmother’s knife boasted bolder colors of green and blue to create a peacock feather.
By last summer, a year into her craft, her confidence in her work grew to push her to set up a booth and sell her knives at The Event at Rebecca Farm.
She recalled working tirelessly, spending a full week at the Ruckers’ making and scrimshawing knives to fill a display.
Now, after two years of practice, Opre said if she works from dawn to dusk, she can finish scrimshawing a knife in about two days.
Though the size, materials and time put into each knife varies the price, Opre said she’s sold some of her more custom knives for around $500.
“I just think it’s really cool,” Opre said. “Instead of working in some cubicle somewhere, I can do this, I can work from home. It can pay for college. It can pay for a car.”
Her ultimate goal, she said, is to be able to call herself a knife maker capable of crafting her own knives from start to finish without help.
Though she has yet to meet other scrimshaw artists in the valley, Opre said her work draws attentions from several admirers at the gun shows and other events she attends, sometimes bringing fans to donate materials for her to scrimshaw.
Right now, she said, she’s figuring out what to do with two boar tusks she was gifted.
Her friends also double as fans, planning months ahead to help her at this year’s Event at Rebecca Farm.
“They all want to hang out with me because they think it’s super cool,” she said. “They’re super supportive.”
Opre continues to work on her other artistic interests, including sketching mostly animals and painting wine bottles.
At 14 years old, however, Opre said she feels she’s found a lifelong interest in scrimshawing, one she can and often does spend hours working at, even if it means accidentally working through dinner.
Reporter Mary Cloud Taylor can be reached at 758-4459 or firstname.lastname@example.org.