Quite recently I made two bolt-action rifle pens for some cousins of mine, by marriage, who live in Missouri.  While I am not a hunter and in fact have never fired a weapon, my cousins grew up hunting deer, among other things I would imagine, so while the pen design and material didn’t appeal to me personally, the idea of a gift is that it suit the recipient, not nessarily the maker or the giver.

The pens finished very nicely I think and I am pleased with the results, and surprising to me, I am quite willing to work with antler again in the future.

Antler Basics

Antlers are extensions of the skull grown by members of the deer family. They are true bone structures that usually grow in symmetrical pairs.  In most species, only the male grows antlers and their primary function is to increase his likelihood of sexual selection by attracting females or helping him fight other males.  In many temperate zone species, antlers are shed and regrown each year.

How Antlers Grow

Each antler grows from an attachment point on the skull called a pedicle.  While an antler is growing, it is covered with highly vascular skin called velvet, which supplies oxygen and nutrients to the growing bone.  Antlers grow faster than any other mammal bone.  Growth occurs at the tip, and is initially cartilage, which is later replaced by bone tissue.  Once the antler has achieved its full size, the velvet is lost and the antler’s bone dies.  This dead bone structure is the mature antler.  In most cases the antlers fall off at some point.  As a result of their fast growth rate, antlers are considered a handicap since there is an immense nutritional demand on deer to re-grow antlers annually.  Antler size can, therefore, be a very accurate indicator of disease and nutritional status, i.e. larger antlers often indicate a healthier animal.

Antlers as Hunting Trophies

Antlered heads are prized as trophies—the bigger, the better.  The first organization to keep records of sizes was Rowland Ward Ltd., a London taxidermy firm, in the early 20th century.  In the middle of the century, the Boone and Crockett Club and the Safari Club International developed complex scoring systems based on various dimensions and the number of tines or points, and they keep extensive records of high-scoring antlers.

Antler Collecting

Gathering shed antlers or “sheds” attracts dedicated practitioners who refer to it colloquially as shed hunting, or bone picking.  In the United States, the middle of December to the middle of February is considered shed hunting season, when deer, elk, and moose begin to shed.  The North American Shed Hunting Club, founded in 1991, is an organization for those who take part in this activity.

In the United States sheds fetch around US$10 per pound, with larger specimens in good condition attracting higher prices. However, the above is a wholesale price; antler retails for up to $36 a pound through wood-turning suppliers which sell the antlers to pen makers.

The most desirable antlers have been found soon after being shed.  The value is reduced if they have been damaged by weathering or being gnawed by small animals.  A matched pair from the same animal is a very desirable find but often antlers are shed separately and may be separated by several miles. Some enthusiasts for shed hunting use trained dogs to assist them.  Most hunters will follow ‘game trails’ (trails where deer frequently run) to find these sheds or they will build a shed trap to collect the loose antlers in the late winter/early spring.

In most US States, the possession of or trade in parts of game animals is subject to some degree of regulation. But the trade in antlers is widely permitted.  In the national parks of Canada, the removal of shed antlers is an offense punishable by a maximum fine of $25,000 CAD.  A reason for making this an offense is that removing shed antlers can deprive small animals of a valuable nutrient source.

Bolt-Action Rifle Pens - Antler

Bolt-Action Rifle Pens – Antler

Human Uses for Antler

Antler has been used since prehistoric times as a material to make tools, weapons, ornaments, and toys.  In the Viking Age and medieval period, it formed an important raw material in the craft of comb-making. In later periods, antler – used as a substitute for ivory – was a material especially associated with equipment for hunting, such as saddles and horse harness, guns, daggers, and powder flasks. The decorative display of wall-mounted pairs of antlers has been popular at least since medieval times.  Today, antler is one of the most popular alternative materials (i.e. not wood) used in craft work, including for lathe turning, where antler can be used to make pens, pencils, and other desk tools such as letter openers.

Antler headdresses were worn by shamans and other spiritual figures in various cultures, and for dances.  Antlers are still worn in some traditional dances.

In the velvet antler stage, antlers of elk and deer have been used in Asia as a dietary supplement or alternative medicinal substance for more than 2,000 years.  Recently, deer antler extract has become popular among Western athletes and body builders because the extract, with its trace amounts of IGF-1, is believed to help build and repair muscle tissue.

Antler Use in the Wild

Discarded antlers represent a source of calcium, phosphorus and other minerals and are often gnawed upon by small animals, including squirrels, porcupines, rabbits and mice.  This is more common among animals inhabiting regions where the soil is deficient in these minerals.  Antlers shed in oak forest inhabited by squirrels are rapidly chewed to pieces by them.

My Experience Using Antler

I’d never worked with antler before this experiment so I was a bit nervous about how it would work out.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that antler turns far easier that many other widely available “alternative” turning blank materials, such as the various forms of acrylic.

That said, cutting and drilling the antler was not without its difficulties.  While trimming one piece, the antler caught in the bandsaw blade and was pushed down with enough force as to seriously deform the aluminum plate in the center of the saw table.  The catch, which I have never had happen with hundreds of wood blanks, caused me no harm fortunately.

The difficulty in drilling is due to the antler pieces never being perfectly straight so it is challenging to determine the best entry point to ensure that the drill doesn’t exit the side of the antler piece.  For this particular pen, the bore was a relatively large 3/8” so the margins for error were that much smaller.  Also, antler, being bone, is quite dense and hard, although less so in the spongy interior, so the drill, which I have operating at admittedly low speed as the primary use of the drill press in my shop is for milling the ends of pen blanks, an operation in which speed is not helpful, would occasionally jam, ceasing to turn at all, until I backed out to clear the bone chips from the flutes of the drill.  But, that can happen with oily woods too, so it isn’t strictly an antler issue.

I experienced zero chipping or cracking in the turning process and I can almost never say that about acrylics, bamboo, or even some especially dense or brittle woods.  The antler cut with an amazingly smooth finish such that finish sanding was almost not required although I did it anyway, down through the micro-mesh grade of 12,000 grit to ensure the best possible finish.

Prior to sanding however, I had to contend with the spongy interior of the antler, which was the area, when the bone was alive, through which blood was still flowing, much like the spongy interior of live human bone.  Some of this spongy material was exposed on both pieces and no amount of sanding would ever be able to smooth it out because it would extend through to the center of the antler itself.  To counter this, I first soaked the entire piece in cyanoacrylate to fill any small gaps and then I used my finger to smear gel formula cyanoacrylate over and into the larger pores.  Once that was dry, I could turn down any excess, leaving a perfectly smooth feeling surface, important in a writing instrument, despite allowing the appearance of the spongy natural bone to show.  The cyanoacrylate also provides an incredibly durable and water-proof finish.  I then used a special polish compound to provide a shine followed with a thin layer of a special blend of waxes designed for use on pens to minimize fingerprints.

I have been quite pleased with the experience of working with antler as an alternative turning material, and as I have additional antler remaining from the small rack that I purchased, I am certain to enjoy the unique opportunities and challenges of working with it again in the future.