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Carving & Purchasing the Right Totem Pole

On the beaches of Friendly Cove, I could get a log anywhere. Sometimes they would practically drift up to my shop door. The great thing about having access to so much wood is that after a lot of trial and error I could determine which types of trees were best for carving different types of projects, and still have logs left over for more work.

Even before attending Gitanmaax, I could experiment with different trees to see how they felt while carving, what type could withstand the environment, which ones produced too much pitch (tree sap), how much absorption to expect from different trees, and so much more.

For the purpose of this entry, I want to focus on totems. As a carver, I have to decide first how my customer is going to display their totem pole or figure. I have to ask the right questions such as where it will be displayed (inside or outside), if it will be exposed to direct sun or rain, if it will be outdoors but undercover, and how much maintenance the customer intends to put in to the totem. For example, almost all carvings only require light dusting with a dry cloth and refreshed with salad oil each year. But a yellow cedar item tends to attract darker particles requiring a lot more attention.

My go-to wood of choice for almost all totems is red cedar. It looks great indoors and is easy to carve on. Customers who have seen The Welcome Pole at Friendly Cove usually react with the same question: “Why is it grey?” That’s the joy of living by salt water. The salt air inevitably changes the wood’s colouring to grey, just as it does all driftwood. If you’ve seen the totems at Haida Gwaii, you’ll notice that they too have weathered from the salt air.

Last year I had a client request a yellow cedar pole. It was the first time I carved with yellow cedar, and I was a bit concerned of how the pole would look after a short time. Even after carving and cleaning it up, the odd marking (i.e. a fingerprint) looked dark against the yellow. This pole would require constant attention. Sure, it’s a soft wood to work with and takes paint beautifully. Colour on yellow cedar just pops and looks stunning. But it’s soft for a reason. It absorbs water easily and takes a lot more time to dry.

Well-meaning neighbours have offered to give me their logs to work with, but I have had to refuse because the logs they want to be rid of aren’t easy to work with. Fir is an example of a very heavy, hard wood that produces too much pitch. Alder has the tendency to rot quicker. If you are a carver who is accepting wood, be careful that what people wish to discard won’t cause a safety hazard for you or will expose your existing materials to pests and toxins. All too often, people wish to get rid of wood because they experienced a pest problem or salvaged wood from a forest fire. None of these materials should be accepted.

The ideal way to care for your totem is to display it indoors, away from heat. If it is in a dry environment (exposed to air conditioners or will be transported inland to a dry climate), prepare to maintain the wood to slow down the cracking process.

Lastly, cracks will happen. It’s just the way it is. I’ve yet to see a totem pole without cracks over time.

According to our custom, once a totem pole falls, its intention is to return back to Mother Earth. Let’s hope that your freshly carved totem includes good support in its foundation and a little love with some dusting and vegetable oil to be enjoyed for many generations!

(And if you choose to re-raise a repaired pole…well…I won’t tell if you won’t.)

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