For a buffalo, cow or ox horn to become a drinking horn, it first needs its inner core removed. This is done by boiling or soaking the whole horn and then scraping out the softened marrow.
Once the core has been removed from the horn, it’s then softened again using heat, and pressed to form its desired shape. In the case of the Game of Thrones Tankard, a tail or tongue shape is left when the cup is cut from the horn so it can be heated again and bent down into a handle.
In the case of the Viking Drinking Horn, the animal horn is left in its natural shape and doesn’t need to be heat-treated.
After the horn is formed, it’s coated in a specially formulated food-safe water-based coating and polished to a might sheen. Finally, it’s fitted with metal details or carved with etchings, depending on the design. The last (optional) step is to personalize the drinking horn with an engraving.
Preparing a Horn
Horns have two sections – the core and the outer horn. The thickness of the horn section that’s left when the core is removed varies from animal to animal, and is one of variables that makes each horn unique. To remove the core, most horn-makers boil the horn until it is soft. The inside is made of marrow, and its removal is often messy and difficult. Another method is to leave it in a warm, dry spot until the core separates from the horn naturally. Either way the core must be removed before being processed further.
The process of splitting a raw horn and pressing it to fit a design can be done with either a “hot” or “cold” method.
- Cold Method – If the horner plans to use the natural shape of the horn without molding it, the horn doesn’t need to be heat-treated. A practiced hand can saw a horn and finish it off with beautiful designs using files, rasps, lathes, or any other woodworking tool.
- Hot Method – In the hot method, the horn is heated until it becomes pliable. This is where a true artisan is required. Each horn has a different melting point. If the horn exceeds that point, it will likely become unusable. A skilled craftsman uses careful judgment throughout the process to determine the best temperature for working each particular horn. There are several methods of heating horn ranging from boiling to dry baking.
Once the horn has been heat softened, it is then pressed into its designated shape. In the middle ages, a press would have been cut into the dirt. In the 1700s, a block presser used heated iron plates to fuse and shape the horn parts.
For our Game of Thrones Style Tankards, the horns are formed and then heated again, at which point the lower part of the horn (closest to the tip) is partially removed to form a “tail”. This part is then folded down, and when cooled, will create the handle.
Once horns are formed, reheated, and set, they are cleaned and polished to specification. Some of our horns demand a high polish and smooth look, while others are less refined and have a more natural look. It is purely a matter of taste how much to polish.
While it’s true that raw horn doesn’t necessarily need coating to hold liquid, owners of raw horn must be careful not to use the cup for dairy or acidic beverages like cider. Because of this, we’ve opted to coat our horns so they’re able to hold any cold liquid.
Traditional finishes include varnish, wax, or brewer’s pitch. Since wax and brewer’s pitch are more susceptable to degradation by acidic drinks and washing, AleHorns are sealed using a specially formulated food-safe water-based coating.
After polishing, sealing and finishing, the horns are affixed with any metal fittings or other decorations the horner had planned and (optionally) engraved before being used.