Totem pole - 1st half

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Project by linjay posted 01-02-2012 12:22 AM 5629 views 9 times favorited 6 comments Add to Favorites Watch

This is my 1st totem pole – a gift for my wife on her birthday. At first I was just going to figure it out for myself. Visions of chisels, chainsaws and other implements of destuction. Then I found out I could take a 5 day course from an expert. A guy named Wayne Hill who lives less tha 1/2 hour from our place and who has written a book on the subject and has been carving poles for a living for more than 20 years. Took the course—good decision. The pole was green basswood – 4 ft long x 9” diameter purchased from Wayne’s stock for $50.
1st of all I should say that Wayne has definite artistic ability and I don’t. And Wayne supplied a model pole that I could use as a reference. To start, Wayne drew in an oval where the Thunderbird’s right eye was going to be and then hacked out a really big chip of wood that made me think—what are you doing???!!. The concept was that the eye had to point down and you had to hack in on an angle to achieive a starting point. I transferred the oval to the left side and repeated Wayne’s hacks. Then he sketched in the basic eye detail on the right eye and left the rest to me. So the eyes were pretty easy from that point on—by looking at one of Wayne’s poles it was fairly obvious what I was trying to accomplish. But after that I was in a fog for the next 2 days or so—just hacking at wood with no real idea where I was going. I was beginning to think this whole idea was a big mistake, I really wasn’t having any fun—it was just a lot of work. But on the 4th day I started on the fox’s tail and I really had a pretty good idea of what I wanted it to look like. From that point on things started going much better and I started creating. It was the difference between leading and following. While artistic ability would have been a major advantage I found that having a good sense of design—what looks good—can get you where you want to go. Not quite as quickly perhaps.
The tools and techniques used were far different than I had anticipated. Carving hatchet—basically a standard hatchet but blade thinned down to a thin taper. Small & large #11 gouges, fish tail gouge and small parting gouge—all from Sweeden—pre honed ready to go. I bought these from the ‘gouge lady’ who comes on the 2nd day of the course. I was hoping to buy a 1-1/4” chisel—but she only sells gouges. 4 gouges + tool roll to store them in = $200. I also purchased some Marple gouges on the internet and found they needed a lot of grinding to thin them down and then final honing. I bought a good 1-1/4 chisel at the hardware store—but this was just a wood working chisel – not a carving chisel. These chisels are used (what I would consider as) upside down—with the bevel down and touching the wood. For this to work effectively for carving the bevel has to be ground down to a very low angle—then honed. So I spent a lot of time getting my tools ready for carving.
Gouges and chisels are final honed on a felt wheel impregnated with grinding compound—both from Lee Valley. I’m an experienced wood worker and have always honed my tools with a 4000 grit stone. The felt wheel and honing compound created a whole new definition of sharp!!! And I’m hooked now. The only sharpening I had to do with these gouges during the whole project was to buff them for a few seconds (literally) on the felt wheel and they were just like new. Just the slightest pressure moves the tool through the wood if it’s sharp. I learned that gouges and chisels bought at Lee Valley or similar suppliers still need to be honed to sharpen them properly.
By the time I finished this pole I was getting faster. The 2nd wing took about half as long as the 1st. I have no idea how much time I have in this pole but if I had to guess I’d say at least 150 hours—maybe more. I’m guessing Wayne could do one of these in 50 or 60 hours—maybe less.
It was a great experience and I ‘ve learned a whole new skill. The plan is to do another 4 ft pole for the bottom half—but not until the spring because I need a break from carving. But now I can imagine adding some carving to my cabinet making projects in the future.
The next step is to protect the wood with Seikins stain—the best apparently – but not cheap. About $80 per gallon. Then selective painting some of the primary features—which is considered optional. I’m turning the finishing over to my wife because it’s her pole and she normally does all the finishing on all of our projects anyway.

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

6 comments so far

View doncutlip's profile


2832 posts in 4566 days

#1 posted 01-02-2012 12:33 AM

Nice carving, good looking tools

-- Don, Royersford, PA

View EyeOfTheJen's profile


205 posts in 3426 days

#2 posted 01-02-2012 12:41 AM

wow. very nice

-- Jen ~ Happiness is being covered in sawdust.

View a1Jim's profile


118161 posts in 4587 days

#3 posted 01-02-2012 06:09 AM

Very nice work a very cool totem pole.


View MShort's profile


1798 posts in 4428 days

#4 posted 01-02-2012 06:16 AM

Wow that is quite the project. Thanks for all of the details of the story behind this. Pretty cool to find such an authority on them living that close to you. Thanks.

-- Mike, Missouri --- “A positive life can not happen with a negative mind.” ---

View dustprocrastinator's profile


76 posts in 3695 days

#5 posted 01-03-2012 04:36 AM

That looks awesome!

View 3DBMe's profile


134 posts in 4694 days

#6 posted 01-08-2012 11:20 PM

Good job and nice description of your process.

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