How to Carve a Totem Pole

A totem pole is a rather unorthodox way for an artist to tell a story, unless that artist is of American Indian or Eskimo descent. Anyone can carve a totem pole using different symbols that tell about the individual or family that the pole will represent. Read on to get ideas that will help you carve a totem pole.

Decide on the different symbols you want depicted on the totem pole you will carve. Animals signify strengths on a totem pole. An eagle is sharp witted, a bear is strong and a frog means the family had great wealth.

Choose the pole you want to use for the totem pole. A white birch tree is a good choice as it is easy to carve detailed images in this type of wood.

Determine whether you will be leaving the totem pole natural wood or if you are going to paint the pole. If you are going to paint the images you will need to choose the colors that will make the carvings stand out the most. A painted totem pole's carving is a little more forgiving than a natural wood pole. You don't need to be quite as precise with carving if you are going to paint the pole.

Make enough room in the area that you are using to hold the totem pole that you are going to carve. You will need to hold the pole in a wood vise, or several vises if the pole is longer than three to four feet.

Sketch the images out on paper before you begin carving the totem pole. It is best to sketch to scale of the pole. There will be no need to convert measurements if you take this step.

Sharpen your tools and begin carving the totem pole from the bottom of the pole towards the top. You will stack image upon image to tell the story you wish on your totem pole.

Sand your finished pole if you wish to paint or seal it with sealant, or leave it unsanded if you want to go with a completely natural look. However, painting and/or sealing the pole is recommended to preserve your creation.


Always use sharp carving knives, awls and chisels. The chance of injuring yourself when carving a totem pole will not be as great if all implements are sharpened on a regular basis.


It is considered bad luck to duplicate a totem pole unless you have the original carver's permission. Don't push your luck.

Things You'll Need

  • White birch pole
  • Paint
  • Paintbrushes
  • Wood vises
  • Carving tools
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