Hamptons Artisan Peter Spacek Keeps an Age-Old Sailor's Craft Alive

Donning a magnifying-glass headset and gripping an X-Acto knife, Peter Spacek scratches, etches, and scribes thousands of small lines into the sullied, yellowed surface of a vintage surfboard. The faint marks on his nautical-inspired scrimshaw are then brought to life with a coat of black ink. “You’re working blindly for a while,” says Spacek, who studied illustration and design at the ArtCenter College of Design in his native California. “It’s not until the ink seeps in that you can really see what you’ve done—that’s the exciting part.”

For centuries, sailors scrimshawed ivory whale teeth to pass the time on long voyages. Spacek’s modern-day practice is much the same, although the nature lover plies his craft exclusively on surfaces, such as knife handles and empty clamshells, that “don’t involve endangering wildlife.” An avid kayaker, fisherman, surfer, and paddleboarder, he often comes up with design ideas when he’s on the water. “There’s a lot of time to think out there,” he says. “To capture the truth in your subject, you need to have a familiarity and intimacy with it.”

Scrimshawing a surfboard, which can take nearly 100 hours, begins with a sketch that the artist enlarges on a projector to the appropriate scale. Spacek then traces the image onto a piece of rice paper that’s taped to a wall in his Springs garage-cum-studio. “This is my opportunity to finesse the design,” he says, “because I can’t fix a mistake once it has been scratched into the surface.” Next, Spacek lays a piece of carbon transfer paper onto the surfboard, followed by the rice paper sketch, and retraces the design with a ballpoint pen to make an outline on the board. He then begins scrimshawing, using handheld tools of various thicknesses to scratch in the design permanently.

Upon completing a small portion of the pattern, he coats the markings in black ink with a Q-tip or paintbrush. After the piece sits for 10 minutes, he wipes off any residual ink and continues the alternating process of scrimshawing and applying ink. Once the work is finished, he buffs the entire surface with wax. “There’s a richness to scrimshaw,” says Spacek, “because the tiny scratches tell their own story. It’s intriguing from afar and surprising up close.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 15 2019 issue of HC&G (Hamptons Cottages & Gardens) with the headline: Sharp Focus.