Any advice for totems? - Woodworking Talk - Woodworkers Forum
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post #1 of 7 Old 06-15-2015, 12:02 AM Thread Starter
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Any advice for totems?

I have fell in love with looking at totem pole carvings.

I want to figure out how to carve totems.

What kind of hand tools will I need? to begin this journey!?!

I am completely new to wood carving so any advice is welcome!!!
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post #2 of 7 Old 06-15-2015, 06:53 AM
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There are a number of different tools that could be used to carve totems. I've even seen people chainsaw carving them. Myself, if I were to make one I would use woodcarving chisels. Doing it that way you would need an assortment of about 4 gouges about sweeps 8 varying from about 3/8" wide to 1 1/4" wide. A set of common carpenters chisels would be good to have too. You would need a parting tool about 3/8" wide as well. A draw knife would probably come in handy too. Finally a round mallet would be needed. Woodcarving chisels have wooden handles and a hammer would damage the handles. Anyway you need to be thinking of carving not thinking of the hammer. With a mallet it's hard to miss the chisel so you don't have to think about it.
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post #3 of 7 Old 06-15-2015, 08:34 AM
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Totem carving does require the "right tools", a design of characters/items you wish to create, and of course good dry wood. Depending on the final size of your totem, the carving can take many days, weeks, or perhaps a month or two. Consider going on line for more information, ideas, and perhaps available books on that craft. Keep your tools clean and sharp, and be safe.
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post #4 of 7 Old 06-20-2015, 12:35 PM
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Totem poles are carved with three general purposes in mind.
1. House poles: these totems describe the clan heritage of the people living there. The pole is out front, facing the ocean.
2. Mortuary poles: somewhat akin to a head-stone, these describe the heritage of the deceased.
3. Story poles: these describe lessons or great adventures. Difficult to interpret unless you know the story. The designs/totems represent characters in the story.
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a) you read them all from bottom up.
b) if and when they fall over, they are never stood up again.
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Probably best to consider drawing designs of characters in your own story. I doubt that you or I could claim affinity and heritage with any of the great Haida, Tlingit, Tsimshan, Kwakwaka'w and other clans of the Pacific Northwest.
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"Learning by Designing" is a pair of volumes from Raven Press. The late Jim Gilbert and Karin Clark detail the characteristic differences in the carving styles of the Pacific Northwest native cultures.
There's no better place to start to learn how to draw the design elements which give such richness to any pole.
I have my own design elements, things not allowed in any cultural carvings. They are immediately recognizable as being non-native. Having said that, my carvings do show strong influence from my exposure to the art and carvings of the Pacific Northwest for more than the past 60 years.
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post #5 of 7 Old 06-20-2015, 02:14 PM
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The mechanics of pole carving.
Let's assume that you have a bunch of drawings that you're happy with. Next step is to find a suitable log, western red cedar is the wood of choice. Where I live, no big deal to visit several mills and log-sort yards with 20 minutes of the house. Then you have to arrange to get the log back into your carving shed (all the work is done horizontally).
Get all the bark off, the 1/2" - 3/4" of white sapwood has to come off next. Then you can decide which is the best side for carving. Usually, there are fewer branches/knots on the north side of the log. OK, roll the log over and cut away 1/3 or more of the "bad side", right to the center of the log. Many WRC logs are normally rotten in the core and that cuts down on the work. Take your pick of chain saws. I like a 16" Remington electric because I can use it indoors with no exhaust stink.
Any gas saw outdoors is OK, 16" is good for smaller logs, forget about a bar with a dime tip.
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post #6 of 7 Old 06-20-2015, 02:23 PM
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Lay out center lines, etc and transfer your drawings. Left/right symmetry is critical.
The carving comes down in stages. Let's face it: anything goes to get the rough work done.
I use the CS first, maybe a couple of bow saws then a BIG chisel and 2lb hammer to knock out the waste chunks. Next comes the adze work, elbow adzes and possibly a D adze. The designs should really look like something after this. My D adze can take less than 1/16" at a time.
PacNW carvers don't hesitate to use the conventional european style gouges & mallet as needed. Me, too. However, the time comes when you need to carve sideways most of the time and the gouges fail. Time to switch to a variety of crooked knives, the traditional tools of the PacNW. is an old bladesmith in the PacNW with great experience.

By the time that you get to the paint, you will have invested hundreds of hours for a serious pole.
Tool cost? I can only guess. Possibly $1,000, maybe a lot more if you can't or won't buy just blades and haft your own.

Go for it.
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post #7 of 7 Old 06-24-2015, 12:28 PM
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If you have any interest in the art and carving of the Pacific Northwest native cultures, it's worthwhile to learn what you're looking at. Partly because there are 4 distinctively different regional artistic styles. Most native artists and carvers (maybe one and the same!) keep to their heritage style.

The art and carvings are built out of design elements which are assembled into all sorts of animals and mythological creatures, many of which can slide back and forth = transform.

1. Learning By Designing. vols I (2001) & II (2002). Jim Gilbert & Karin Clark. Raven Press.
ISBN 0-9692979-3-9 and 0-9692979-4-7.
These describe and compare the 4 regionally distinct artistic styles. There are many useful drawing lessons.
2. Looking At Totem Poles. 1993. Hilary Stewart. UWash Press. ISBN 978-0-295-97259-6.
Very carefully drawn illustrations of some 60 poles that you could search out to look at. Detailed descriptions of every figure on every pole.
3. Looking At Indian Art of the Northwest Coast. 1979. Hilary Stewart. UWash Press.
ISBN 978-0-88894-229-6.
More photographically illustrated with many comparative descriptions of designs and design elements in both 2D art and 3D carvings.
4. Northwest Coast Indian Art, An Analysis of Form. 1965. Bill Holm. ISBN 978-0-295-95102-7.
A fairly technical discussion of the design "rules" in the shapes of the design elements, written and illustrated by a master native artist, Bill Holm.
5. Cedar: Tree of Life to the Northwest Coast Indians. 1984. Hilary Stewart.
ISBN 978-1-55054-406-0. Very well illustrated discussion of the multipurpose values of the western red cedar, still abundant along the coast and in the ICH zone of the Rockies where I live.
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Now to get serious. What is a skilled and famous artist's "take" on the art and carvings of the Pacific Northwest? Read anything and everything about Emily Carr (1871 - 1945). In particular, the excerpts from her notes and sketches:

The Sketchbooks of Emily Carr: Seven Journeys. 2002. Doris Shadbolt. Douglas & McIntyre.
ISBN: 0-295-98246-2. Great insights into what she saw on her northern painting expeditions.
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There are lots of others, coffee table picture books which leave you as ignorant as you were.
All these books are available in paperback and as such, won't break the bank. Bear in mind that the artists and carvers began, apprenticed to an uncle or grandfather, as children. You're looking at lifetimes of skills.
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