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Project Information

Project: Powder Horns

Materials: Wood, Cow Horn, Fine Silver, Brass, Steel, Ink, Wax

The four horns shown in the first 6 profile photos are ones I built, three before the class, and a fourth during the class as a demonstration piece.

These three powder horns are for sale, you can find them in my store

More INFO?:
I have blogged and posted about powder horns and scrimshaw for several years, so if you'd like to read more start by clicking here and it'll take you to some other places about this subject that I've written and work that I've done in the past.

Here is another Blog on Powder Horn Building


Project Story:
This past July, I was in North Carolina, teaching a class at the John C. Campbell Folk School. My class that I taught last year was casket making. This year I picked something smaller, so that I could ship the materials and fly by plane out of Kansas to the class. So, I picked Powder Horns and Scrimshaw, since it's uncommon to find a class on the subject.

Why Powder Horns?
It's pretty much a niche specialty, meaning not a lot of people do it, nor many that sell it, nor many that teach on it, nor many customers who buy horns when they are finished… I guess that's why it's called a "Niche".

In fact, I'm not sure of any other place to go where you can sit with a teacher for a week and learn Powder Horn making. There are a couple of books on the subject, an old video tape, and quite a few guys around the country that have tried to build one. But, if you want to sit for awhile with a specialized teacher who actually makes a living at what they teach, and learn such a niche craft, there aren't many opportunities these days.

From time to time, there are weekend seminars on Powder Horns, and you can find table displays and short lectures at a mountain man get-together (Rendezvous) from time to time. But, in my mind, there is nothing that can substitute for having someone show you the steps in person, and watch over your shoulder as you do it with your own hands, being someone that can inspect your work and tell you to go back and scrape, or file those tiny scratches again, or tell you, "Don't worry, we can fix that…..". I've found that having someone with an experienced eye that can watch my hands work, can often more easily teach me something I wasn't doing correctly, or had a better perspective on, than trying to learn it all on my own.

So, I guess that's my goal with teaching, showing how, watching why it isn't working for them, showing them something they aren't seeing, and holding them to a standard that doesn't make it easy for them to say "it's good enough."

I would never tell someone else that is crafting something that, "... it's good enough…", that's their decision to make, but I will point out where they should go back and do some more work. With hand filing and scraping horns, there are a lot places that a crafter can go back and file again, or scrape again. And, I've discovered that teaching that aspect of the craft is easier for some students to grasp than others. Some of us are more "God-made" to sit on a stool and calmly file away scratches on a cow horn, than other people. But for all of us, practice in anything makes us better, and hand filing cow horns is no different.

I had set the class size at a maximum of about ten people, and Four took me up on the course. So, I had four students, and I think we had a great time getting to know each other. The students varied in age, experience, physical abilities, and crafting ability quite a bit.

I enjoyed thinking each night after the class, how to help each individual go beyond what they thought they could do. The school had Contra Dancing each evening that my wife wanted to do, and since my feet hurt all the time at the end of the day from standing on them, dancing wasn't on my evening agenda. So, I could sit and watch my wife dance with the old guys, and I could think about the next day's powder horn class.

Teaching, OMGosh?:
But the worrying….....I work full time in my shop making things, so taking time to teach isn't something I am used to doing. My dad, a master craftsman in wood, metal, antique cars, and all sorts of interesting things, was a wood shop teacher while I was growing up. One of my grandfathers was a college professor, and my mom retired as an elementary Ed Learning Disabled teacher. So, teaching was in my house and in my blood, but I've not done much of it.

Basically, I'm not into "motivating students", so I've not really ever figured that I'd ever make a good teacher. If the students aren't dying to learn what I'm teaching, I just don't have much interest in it. So, that leaves out elementary, high school, college, and quite a few vo-tech gigs. BUT, folk school teaching is a different thing entirely.

The concept with the John Campbell folk school is to travel to a beautiful camp, eat great food that you don't have to fix, sleep in great housing, all while taking daily classes in something you've been dying to learn. For those with good feet, even Contra Dancing at night for entertainment can be fun.

My postings on lumberjocks over the years were found by the Folk School people, and they invited me to come and teach. Being asked to teach, and being a teacher though, are two different things. So, I worried about it quite a bit.

Ok, so having highly motivated students, paying quite a bit for a class, paying travel expenses, taking time to come, all to listen to whatever I have to say and show them. Daunting, huh?

So, I spent about a year worrying about how to teach powder horn making, and Scrimshaw artwork. The main thing I hated about any type of craft teacher, was one that talked all the time, especially introduction lectures. All I could think the whole time they are droning on was "for the love of Pete, let us at the tools!" (I don't know who Pete is).

So, I decided to just get the students active with the material and tools quickly, and take the steps a little at a time just ahead of where they are in each of their projects. I planned to make a horn from scratch, so they could hear my thoughts on picking out a horn, and how to do each step just before they did it themselves. So, that was my loosely-knit plan of action…...

I have made quite a few powder horns over the years, and done quite a bit of scrimshaw artwork, but since the economy went down, not many people are asking for such things these days. So, I was concerned that I'd be a little "rusty" in the niche skills associated with such a project.

I wrote an instruction manual, collected books with photos of old horns to show the students, read other people's books…...and decided to practice some. So, I spent quite a few hours preparing three horns of different styles for the class during the months of May and June.

I wanted to teach a particular style of horn, which dates around 1750-1780 America (Golden Age), and I decided to demonstrate Flat Horn making as well. Regular Powder Horns are rare, but flat horn makers are even more rare, so I decided to show the guys how to do flat horns as well.

I also made the decision to teach a style and handcraft that was better looking, and more complicated than the cheapo imported powder horns you can find on eBay and Amazon. If you want a cheap powder horn, buy one on the internet, as they are at least half of the price of what I pay for just the raw horns. But, my horns are "white", shaped with a nice twist, perfect for scrimshaw artwork, and the decorative two-color carving of the tip.

You want all of that, you gotta pay for it. You wanna know how to do it well, you've gotta practice. It's one thing to read about others doing something, or looking at photos, or a video, but just like trying to learn golf from a textbook (doesn't keep people from writing them and others buying their books), some things you just need practice and someone to guide you to get great results.

Ok, so just before I went to NC, I spent some time practicing, and making horns, and making display stands so that I could demonstrate how I display my horns. Got it all packed up, shipped all of the supplies and specialty tools ahead of me.

Then, I took a very calm and leisurely flight from Wichita to Atlanta, rented a car, and made the beautiful drive to Brasstown, NC. I did find out that you can't carry-on a plane a cordless drill, even without the batteries. I was given the option of checking my Makita drill, or losing it…, I paid another $35 to check the bag, (don't try to take away my Makita drill.)

My wife went along with me…...the kids stayed with Grand parents, and so we made it our 20th Wedding Anniversary trip as well. That's a big deal by itself, just think about it…..she's lived with ME for 20 years, wow.

She's Too Stressed Out:
Part of the big "payoff" of teaching a class at the John Campbell School is that I get to take a class that is sort of close to tuition-free. So, they allowed my wife to use my sort of free class from last year's casket making class. She chose a cooking class, which was wonderful. Because of that class, she's been re-energized with cooking since, and has spent the rest of the summer filling us up on all sorts of new and original things, meats, breads, cakes, etc., reading cookbooks, and watching the Food Network again. You see, she loves to cook, but running a restaurant has terrible hours, and huge investments, with high potential for failure. We decided not to do a restaurant for her, so she started taking substitute teaching gigs once in awhile at the kid's elementary school cafeteria, to cover for a lady taking cancer treatments. Then the the next year the school asked her to be a full time cook. That was a hard decision, but she liked cooking and being at the school with the kids all day.

Then, the next year the school asked her to take over the management of both school's kitchens and cooks, and the food program, menu planning, mass ordering of supplies, mounds of paperwork, etc. And then the Obama's modified the mounds of paperwork involved into two or three mounds, requiring them to change the menus and recipes, and increased the reporting forms. Then, the school board decided to combine her management job into also being the head cook at the High School. She stressed about it all summer, got unstressed at the John Campbell camp, and then came home and read in the local paper that her job had been combined with the head cook job. She called and confirmed that they meant for that change to be for the same money…..and so she quit. So, she's back at home cooking for fun, and managing my days. We were married in 1992, and then she quit her job to be a full time housewife in 1995. Then, I quit my job to be a full time crafts-person in 1997. After all of those "stress-free" years of living as a self employed "team", she realized at the John Campbell camp week that she was too stressed out, and decided to make a change. Then, coming home and reading about the change that had been forced on her in the local newspaper only made the decision more firm. Thanks John Campbell!

I had been watching the checking account for the past year, seeing her checks come in, and the bills go out, and realized again what we had already learned back in 1995, that nearly all of her income was being eaten up by her being "at" work. The nights of being too tired so bringing home pizza, the endless car repairs to give her transportation, the many many days of missing "my" work in the shop to take kids to the dentist, and doctor, watching them when they were home sick, running errands for her, picking up prescriptions, going to parent/teacher meetings, watching the kids all summer, etc. Then, add the time I did laundry and washing dishes and stuff I had to do around the house since she couldn't do it all. You sum it all up and you have a stressed out family that doesn't get one bit better for all of the stress, and not one dollar better for all of the extra income and extra bills because of it, driving the same old cars that get twice as much mileage a year then, you realize that you are again caught up in a rat race the rats are winning.

Between my missing work so much, and her paying so much to be "at" work, the payday just didn't really do much. Add the stress to it, and it was a pretty easy decision for her. Part of our decision making back in 1995-1997 when she and I both quit our jobs to do something that paid much less (crafting), we got out of debt completely, including the house. If we had any debts, we couldn't do what we do, and we've learned to rather enjoy the hurdles, hoops of fire, and pits of crocodile filled water we get to jump through once in awhile when we need to be creative to make ends meet, and live off what I make in the shop. I know it seems counter-intelligent to the culture we were raised in, to enjoy the simpler life with less income, but the less stress and lower bills is really something something special once you get used to it.

How's that for a rabbit trail right in the midst of powder horns?

Student Horns:
So, when I went to NC, I was pretty sure that I could build a powder horn…..but I wasn't sure I could teach it. By the end of the week, I was so proud of what my students accomplished. Here is a photo showing three of the horns they built. The fourth student's horn is shown in the next photo.


Student Presentation: The last night of the class, all of the different classes show off their work. One of our four students in the Powder Horn/Scrimshaw class couldn't make the presentation. I'm on the far right as you view the photo.



Here's one of the students using my MAKITA drill, the one the airport tried to steal from me


Here's a photo of one of the students making the twisted wrought staple for the strap hold on the end of the horn.


Here's a photo of a student doing Scrimshaw. I don't teach with the rotary equipment….I don't call that Scrimshaw. We used knives and scribes only.


Here is a detail of one of my flat horns, showing the twisted staple in the back end. Even though the photo says that it is cold wrought, we did the cold wrought work to make it a square nail, and then used heat to do the twist work.


Here is a close up of the horn I built with Fine Silver Hardware. I did not teach the silver work, there is a lot to learn to be able to manipulate silver and solder it, just too much for a one week class. I did teach how to do steel staples though.



This photo of another Horn I built for the class, shows the decorative engrailing, the hand-filed octagonal tip, and the type of twist to the horn that I like to find.



Over the past 15 years, it's been rare for me to have one powder horn ready to sell at a time, but this time I actually have FOUR (4). And, to make this teaching trip actually cover the cost of going, I need to sell all four of these horns I have. So, if you are in the market for a powder horn, please let me know and we'll try and work out a deal. These horns do not currently have Scrimshaw Artwork on them, but I can change that, if I just know what you want on them.
Ok, enough of the commercial…..


Note: All photos, text, and project design, are protected by Copyright 2012, by the Author, all rights reserved, no unauthorized use is allowed, without expressed written consent by the Author, Mark DeCou.)



· Registered
681 Posts
Beautiful looking powder horn. I made my own powder horn back in 1976. It's worked fine ever since, so I haven't made another one. I use it with a .32 cal small game rifle. It's built very plain, and so is the powder horn.

· Registered
13 Posts
If you ever teach this class in the Boston/New England Area,please let me know. There is a very good chance that I'll be the first of many to register.


· Registered
19 Posts
Beautiful job on the powder horn. Remarkable deed to have taught your expertise. Cheers to you!

· Registered
9,138 Posts
Mark: Great job. Looks like a great class.

· Premium Member
20,131 Posts
Beautiful work. Sounds like a very good class too.

· Registered
281 Posts
Wow. What artistry. I am so glad you are not only keeping this art yourself, but you are teaching others. And yes, motivated students are exciting to teach - I do hope you are able to continue to pass this one. These are beautiful and if my grandpa were still alive, I would definitely be in the market. There must be some folks who are in the re-enactor organizations who want high quality work.

· Registered
4,010 Posts
mark , these are very beautiful, i can see your students are very happy with there horns, im sure you did an excellent job of teaching, and i envy there time with you, im a mountain man at heart and a fine powder horn such as these would be some mighty fine trap..;) ill say watch your top knot…and keep your powder dry.

· Registered
215 Posts
Hi Mark, the powder horns look great, there are so many fine details to discover every time i look at one of the pictures. I'm sure the folks in the class enjoyed their week and came away with a new treasure.

· Registered
1,106 Posts
It's wonderful to see that an old art and craftsmanship is still being taught (and learned) even if an object is somewhat obsolete, there is so much beauty and history to be absorbed. BRAVO!

· Registered
967 Posts
Hi Mark.

Kudos for teaching a class. Any chance you'll make this a regular event?

I know the rewards of teaching as I have taught leather carving for more than four decades on and off and have started over 1,000 crafts people on the road to leather crafting.
most of the classes I teach are free for the students, the teaching fee being absorbed by Tandy Leather Factory stores to promote the craft and thereby increase sales.

My greatest joy is having a student go on to master the craft and become a successful full time crafter.

I think we owe it to the craft and to those who taught or inspired us to pass our knowledge and enthusiasm to the next generation.

Seeing your shaped flat horns reminded me of the origine of the term "greenhorn". Shaped horn cases were popular in Victorian times, and to form horn (as you know) it must be heated. The trouble is, it's easy to over heat it, and if you do it will turn a greenish hue. Thus, someone so new to the craft as to overheat the horn and turn it green was a greenhorn and the term became synonymous with an inexperienced person.

Thanks for sharing your beautiful work.


· Registered
703 Posts
thanks for the encouragement folks.

At this point, I have not been invited back to teach at the John Campbell. I think my student counts are just not high enough to make ends meet for them, but I'm not sure exactly. I heard someone say something about "having a following" that fills up classes, and I didn't have that either time I taught.

So, I have no future plans at the time to teach the powder horn class again. If you are interested in a class, gather up enough people to spread out the cost so that I can travel and pay bills while I'm gone, and we will try to work out something. We only need some basic tools, a bench vise for each person, and some place comfortable to work in, and we can make it happen again.


· Premium Member
20,131 Posts
I'm sure you know about the NMLRA, but I thought I'd mention putting an ad in Muzzle Blasts.