Totem Pole

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Project by linjay posted 01-16-2021 08:36 PM 386 views 1 time favorited 3 comments Add to Favorites Watch

This is a 10 ft. totem pole I carved from a western red cedar power line pole. To remove the dirt imbedded in the surface of the pole I removed about 1/2” of the original surface with a router before starting to carve. This is key to maintaining sharpness of gouges.
The characters are: Beaver, Bear, Fox, Racoon, Hooded Owl. The owl was the real inspiration for this pole and I envisioned large curved wings based on an owl picture I had seen, hooded eyes and prominent curved claws.
I have no idea how many hours are in this pole. I think I can define a basic character in about 32 hours but then there’s a lot of finishing to do and that adds up. I like a lot of detail and depth and all that adds time. The noses for the beaver and bear were built up with added material. Western red cedar is a bit difficult to carve because the growth rings are fairly thick. I had cases where I would be carving a detail and an entire growth ring piece would fall off.
For initial roughing out of characters I use a carving axe. This is really an extremely sharp hatchet with a thin blade and is used in combination with a rubber mallet. Once you get the idea it’s amazing how much wood you can remove while at the same time creating shape.
I use gouges to create a lot of the detail. To keep these sharp I have a felt wheel on a grinder that is embedded with diamond grinding compound. I’ve been a woodworker and sharpening chisels for about 60 years and I thought i understood sharp. Sharpness of gouges is a significant higher degree of sharpness. The buffed surface is so smooth that it looks like it has been chrome plated.
I used a die grinder with many different Dremel type tools to define a lot of the detail and fine detail finishing.
When it came to making the wings I really had no idea how I was going to achieve the double curvature. So I just started making a strip about 3” wide and approximated a single curvature by mitering 3 pieces. Then I duplicated the opposite hand for the 2nd wing. Then I just kept adding strips with a bevel on one edge to create the inward curvature. There are about 21 individual pieces in each wing and it surprises me that these aren’t visually obvious in the finished wing. I used urethane glue to join the pieces and to make the joints waterproof.
For the final finish I used TimberProUV XP. This is an expensive coating – over $100 a gallon – but when you want a project to stand up to outdoor conditions you pay the price. I found it was difficult to get a uniform coloring because the tinting would float to the top. In the end I found the best way to get a uniform coating was to dip a stick in the can, pull it out and get coating off the stick along in combination with occasional stirring.
This is my second pole. My first was carved from basswood which is much easier to carve but not really suitable for outdoor applications. Basswood has no real grain and is more like carving cheese. On my first pole I just about gave up thinking I just wasn’t artistic enough for carving. Then i discovered if you can visualize what you wanted to create it was easy.
To mount the wings I used a router with a long 1/2” diameter cutter to create a pocket that matched the length and thickness of the wing using a jig. The jig had to be carefully set up to ensure the wing tilted inward and down and that both wings had the same tilt. It’s one of those operations you hope you get it right the 1st time because you don’t get a second chance.

-- It's easy when you know how - but that's the hard part. Ontario, Canada

3 comments so far

View PapaGary's profile


104 posts in 60 days

#1 posted 01-16-2021 08:54 PM

Wow, great project.

View KWBaughb's profile


50 posts in 335 days

#2 posted 01-17-2021 03:28 PM

That is a beautiful looking piece; and probably the best use of a utility pole ever!

-- Bob, Waterloo, Ontario - "I came, I sawed, I sanded...."

View Foghorn's profile


1033 posts in 395 days

#3 posted 01-17-2021 08:49 PM

Really nice! Looks like a heck of a lot of work. Nice design chops.

-- Darrel

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