Turning Horn

© Eric Armstrong, 2016

Horn has been employed to make useful objects since prehistoric times. It is a natural plastic that can be rounded, straightened or flattened.Horn can be turned on a lathe to make numerous items such as decorative boxes,cups and containers.
Preparing horn for turning involves a sim­ple process and results in a unique, natural material that can be used alone or in com­bination with turned wood or spun metal.

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Although there are several online sources for purchasing horn, personal inspection is, by far, the best method.

Obviously, all horns are different. Several East Coast Artisan shows feature piles of horns that allow turners to choose the best size, color, twist and thickness for
their application.

The 18th Century Artisan Show, held on the first weekend in February in Lewisburg, PA offers, not only selection from the huge pile of horns shown, but a great assortment of
traditional crafters exhibiting and showing their art. 18thcenturyartisanshow.com

Roland Cadle is a master horner and provides the horn pile that I visit every year. He also sells by mail order. His website lists all the regional shows he attends:
villagerestorations.com/everything_horn

A good mail order source is powderhornsandmore.com

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Horns are available in all sizes. Crafters who are making powder horns look for medium size horns that are fairly round, thin and have a nice curve or twist. They also prefer white horns that are the best choice for scrimshaw work. Horns most suitable for boxes, cups, etc. are the fairly straight, large and thick horns. Since they will be cut into segments, heated and formed, roundness is not as important.

The extra large horns — too big for powder horns — are perfect for cutting into several pieces and are large enough in diameter for small music boxes. Patterned or colored horns are also desirable for boxes, bracelets and cups. Thick horn can include turned beads or coves.

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Straightening and forming horn is a simple process that requires a few inexpensive tools. Horn should be heated in lard — available at grocery stores. A small "Fry Daddy" cooker is perfect for the application. Also needed is a candy thermometer, a pair of leather gloves, pliers, a small block of wood and a hammer. Some powder horn builders heat horn in boiling water, which doesn't work well with thick horn. Boiling water does not heat the horn sufficiently to erase it's "memory", i.e. it will quickly go out of round, which is not good, particularly if a lidded box or cup is to be made.. The lard should be heated to 325 - 350 degrees. The candy thermometer is used to keep track of the temperature. If the lard gets too hot the horn will burn before heating thru.

Start by cutting a horn segment that will be large enough for the project. Allow some extra height for trimming. Measure the major and minor diameters at both ends, which will give the approximate final, round dimensions. From these diameters and the horn length the dimensions and taper for the forming plug can be determined. Nothing needs to be precise, but the plug should be larger than the bottom diameter, smaller than the top diameter and longer than the horn length. The plug can be turned from any scrap wood and can be saved, resized if necessary, and used over for future projects.

 

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Begin by heating the lard to 325 - 350 degrees, checking the temperature with the candy thermometer. The "Fry Daddy" has
a magnetic plug that is easy to disconnect when the proper temperature is reached (and reconnect to restore the temperature).

Grasp the horn segment with pliers and lower it into the lard. Do not drop the horn in but hold it with the pliers in the oil for 10 - 15 seconds, then withdraw. You will see some light foam forming around the horn, which is the moisture cooking off. Leaving the horn in the oil too long will cook the horn and burn the exterior. The idea is to heat the horn uniformly. After heating for 10 - 15 seconds, withdraw the horn for 10 - 15 seconds and continue until the horn softens. Use a leather glove squeeze the horn, and if it gives it's ready for forming. Thin horn may only take two or three cycles, thicker horn will take more. The goal is uniform heat and no burning on the surface. When the horn is flexible drop it on the forming cone and tap it down all around until the top and bottom are in contact with the surface of the cone. Wipe off excess oil and place the cone on the lathe. The centers are already established. No need to wait for the horn to cool.

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Begin turning by squaring the top and bottom — cutting the piece to the desired final height. A parting tool works great for this step.

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Regular turning tools and speeds work well with horn. I use a roughing gouge to clean and even the outside diameter. I am most comfortable forming grooves and bands using a small triangular file.

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After forming, the horn can be sanded with coarse and fine grits to remove any turning marks. I finish with 600 grit paper then polish the horn on the lathe with automotive rubbing and polishing compound.

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The interior of the horn, if visible in the final product, can be finished in the same manner on the lathe with crapers, sandpaper and polish.

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Horn can be simply polished and waxed or it can be dyed to add color and bring out grain details. The traditional stain for horn was aquafortis, a solution of nitric acid and iron filings. Iron Nitrate provides a similar, light brown finish. However, a much easier and more versatile method for coloring horn is simple Rit dye. Using a stove or hot plate, heat a solution of dye in a container or can that is high enough to immerse the horn. The solution should be heated to approximately 180 degrees — boiling is not necessary. Place the horn in the heated solution and withdraw often to check the color. Note that it's better that the horn is not highly polished before dyeing. A final rub with a brown Scotchbrite pad leaves a smooth finish that absorbs the dye nicely. After the desired color is achieved remove the horn, buff lightly and finish with paste wax. If a two color effect is desired, like the powder horn shown above, dye the darker color first. Scrape off any color in areas not wanted and, then dye the lighter color.

Color can be blended into the horn color with a Scotchbrite pad.

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Dye can also enhance the "grain" of horn, where present.

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A traditional method of decorating horn is scrimshaw — a process of scratching designs into materials such as whale teeth, ivory and horn. The sailors used a pocket knife or a discarded sail maker's needle. Some horners today still use the heavy, triangular shaped needle but dental picks, diamond tipped scribes and the common Xacto knife are also used. I prefer the Xacto #11 knife blade with the tip clipped to leave about a 1/8" edge, which is sharpened. The tool pictured above was found at a store that sells fabrics and craft supplies. The scrim work would be done before final dyeing and finishing of the horn.

 

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Project Ideas

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