Totem poles are wooden pillars on which totems and familial crests and/or animals associated with spirits and mythical creatures are engraved or carved. These poles were first erected by the First Nations of the northwest coast of America as monuments to kinship and community between nature and man. Nowadays, the totem pole is also a merchandisable product and can be found in souvenir stores as a novelty keychain, for example. It takes heart and skill to make a totem pole that has meaning, which makes it a perfect project if you want to build one yourself and symbolise your family and community for posterity.
- Skill level:
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Things you need
- Totem designs
- An appropriate piece of wood
- Small hacksaw
- Scout knife
- Small chisel
- Fine claw chisel
- Spoon gouge
- Work bench, bench hook and wooden vice
- Wood varnish
Select your wood. A totem made from teak or mahogany would be especially beautiful, expensive and maybe worth carving after a few attempts with some other totems. For a down-to-earth totem pole, select wood from a tree that grows in your garden, or that may have some other significance for you.
Prepare the initial shape of the pole before the detail is added. Secure the wood to your workbench and saw off all the extraneous wood. Aim to end up with a square pillar a little longer than the full design of your totem; a precautionary measure to minimise the chance of running out of space when carving the final designs.
Consult your designs and draw them onto the wood with pencil. The flat sides of the square pillar should make it easier to draw in greater detail. The totem pole will eventually have its edges rounded due to the carving and refining processes.
Use the scout knife, both chisels and a spoon gouge to carve, sculpt and bring your design on the wood to life. Follow the pencil lines of your design, removing larger pieces of extraneous wood with the knife and chisel. Create the detail of your design with the claw chisel and spoon gouge. Remember to round off the edges as you go so the totem eventually appears round.
Gently sand down the totem pole. Use the sandpaper as accurately as you can to access all the nooks you have created with your totem design. Ensure that the pole is as evenly sanded as possible all the way up. Now you can saw the top or bottom of the pole off if needed. Sand the points of sawing.
Paint your totem pole. Many totems are brightly painted with vibrant, clashing colours that have made them oddities curious to behold for centuries. Your totem pole is almost ready for display.
Varnish your totem pole. As with all wood, your totem pole can aways benefit from some protection against the elements, especially if you are wanting to stand your totem pole up outside. Otherwise, securing your totem pole in a large plant pot, in the soil, so it springs up between the plants, makes an equally symbolic indoor decoration.
Tips and warnings
- Protect your eyes and hands and use appropriate safety clothing and equipment when using saws and knives and sharp wood crafting tools.
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