Horn, antler and bone working
The working of animal horn, antler and bone to make vessels, spoons, combs, pipes and decorative items.
This craft uses products derived from animals – please read our ethical sourcing statement.
|Historic area of significance|
|Area currently practised||Holme, Kingussie, Pitlochry, Northumberland|
|Origin in the UK||Paleolithic|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||Hornworkers: 11-20 (estimate)
Horn working would have been practised widely in the British Romani and Scottish Traveller communities. It is unknown how many practitioners remain within this community.
Bone and antler: There will be quite a significant number of makers using antler and bone as a part of their craft e.g. for knife handles and walking stick handles.
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
Artefacts dating back to the fifth century BC have been found depicting the use of horns in everyday life, however due to its biodegradable nature few actual horn artefacts remain. Horn artefacts dating back to the sixth and seventh centuries have been found at both Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, and the Coppergate Dig in York.
In the Middle Ages small horn workshops would have sprung up around all the major cattle markets throughout the UK. As an inexpensive and plentiful material these workshops would have produced everyday household articles for the poorest people such as spoons and beakers.
From the mid-sixteenth century to the late nineteenth century ‘horn books’ were manufactured as a teaching aid for children. These consisted of a sheet containing the letters of the alphabet and often the Lord’s Prayer, mounted on wood and protected by a thin sheet of transparent horn. The wooden frame often had a handle, and was usually hung at the child’s girdle.
The word ‘lanthorn’ can be traced back to first use in 1587 although it has experienced great semantic change through centuries, to become the modern word ‘lantern’. Originally consisting of ‘lant’ and ‘horn’, the name refers to the thin translucent sheets of horn used as screens for candles.
Later in history lanthorn ‘leaf’ was used to refer to ‘panes’ for lanterns and occasionally, only for the very wealthy, as window glass. The medieval town house of Barley Hall in the city of York displays a fully restored window of lanthorn leaf panes. Whilst the town house was originally built in 1360 by the monks from Nostell Priory, it is unknown at what date the original horn window would have been added.
Dating back to at least the seventeenth century, powder horns would have been produced as containers for gunpowder. Typically a powder horn had a stopper at each end, with the wide mouth of the horn being used for refilling the vessel with powder and the narrow end used for dispensing the powder. These would have been carried by a long strap slung over the shoulder. Ornate examples still exist from this era, often lovingly covered in scrimshaw work, possibly done by their owners.
Combs, for grooming hair, have been found in Cumbrian archaeological sites going back to Roman times. Later, combs were made in South Westmorland from the horns from the district’s long horn cattle. In 1673 Sarah Fell from Swarthmore paid sixpence for ‘a little dandrifa combe’ possibly from a horn comb maker who was recorded as working on Fellside, Kendal. Industrial production was introduced in the 1870s when John Dobson moved his Bradford firm, which had been founded in the eighteenth century, firstly to Ann Street in Kendal and then in 1886 to Bela Mills at Milnthorpe.
Dating back to the Crimean War in 1853 soldiers mugs were styled with both the tankard and the handle made from one piece of horn – it is reported that even Florence Nightingale had one!
In the twentieth century as the horn industry declined dramatically, due to trade disputes and the availability of cheaper materials, enterprising clerks of the Horner’s Guild had the foresight to adopt its modern day equivalent – the plastic industry. Today, with the raw material being neither inexpensive nor plentiful, the products have come full circle to become more of a luxury item.
Horn working is the craft of manipulating cow horn by means of heat and pressure. By cutting, sanding and polishing the material can be used to create a wide range of articles.
After selecting the piece of horn to be used, the horn is shaped in a variety of ways. It may be shaped by applying heat (a soft gas flame or by dipping in hot oil) or pressure (using a press). Shapes are cut using metal cutters or by hand with a band saw, and further shaping and thinning can be achieved by grinding with abrasive discs. The horn is sanded several times with different levels of emery cloth or abrasive discs, and then polished to bring out the natural beauty and colour of the horn.
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Shortages of raw material (horn): Due to modern farming techniques cattle are de-budded in the UK which means that horn workers have to import this raw material. Political unrest and legislative changes on imports has the potential to severely disrupt supply.
Shortages of raw material (ram’s horn): Recent selective breeding techniques are beginning to threaten the source of UK ram’s horn. The availability of suitable breeds of sheep from outside the UK is dubious which would rule out importing this material.
Recruitment issues/skills: Horn workers do not come off the shelf and there are very few transferable skills that can be utilised from other industries. As a result staff have to be trained on the job which can take many years.
Craftspeople currently known
- Andy Bates, leatherworker
Bill Steele of Kingussie passed away in 2019.
Businesses employing two or more makers:
The Worshipful Company of Horners have begun a scheme to a jewellery and decorative items award for students working with horn.
Carlson, Marc, (2001) Using and Working With Horn
Schaverien, Adele, Horn: Its history and its uses, ISBN 0646464302
Hardwick, Paula, Discovering horn, ISBN 0718825209
Ritchie, Carson I A, Bone and horn carving, ISBN 0498014045
- Horn working and the Scottish Traveller Community https://www.highlifehighland.com/highlandfolkmuseum/blog-post-14-steele-horn/
- Dawson, Robert, The Traditional crafts hawked by Romanies and other Traditional Travellers, Blackwell 2022