I like to say, “There’s no tool like an old tool,” misquoting an old adage. But seriously, often on the road to improved technology, simple but useful things get dropped along the way. Years ago, when I began carving, I automatically looked to commercial carving tools like chisels, gouges, mallets, and saws. All these, with the addition of my pocket knife, allowed me to make a few carvings.
Then I read about the traditional tools used by the Northwest Coast Natives and saw some drawings of them in a book. I thought they looked pretty cool so I made some facsimiles. I started with a “D” adze, a straight knife, and a couple of curved knives, and ground the blades from old files. I used them well for a few years until one day I saw some very old ones that a fellow had purchased from “Ye Old Curiosity Shop” in Seattle. They were a little on the crude side, but they were obviously the “real” thing and a heck of a lot better than mine. So, back to the tool bench. My next set of tools was much improved and so was my ability to carve more effectively.
Prior to European contact, the master Native artists and craftsmen of the Northwest Coast built grand communal houses, carved totem poles, canoes, masks, bowls, bent-corner boxes, and a host of other items without the aid of steel axes, chisels, electric drills and saws, etc. The art form didn’t undergo any serious change due to the eventual acquisition of modern tools, although production probably increased to a large degree.
The twenty-first century carver of Northwest Coast Native-style art takes advantage of any modern tool that is practical, such as factory made chisels and gouges, hand saws, and of course for larger work, the trusty chainsaw. The chainsaw probably accounts for roughly a thirty percent reduction in man-hours on larger jobs, but the bulk of the work on projects regardless of scale is still done with the traditional adze and knife. These are positively the tried-and-true tools of the trade.
I still make my own adzes and knives. I regard these tools as part and parcel of this art form. They are, like much of this art, examples of form and function.
— Duane Pasco
Traditionally on the Northwest Coast of America containers were made by folding birch bark or sometimes cedar bark to conform to specific needs. Baskets were woven from strips of cedar bark and/or spruce root for the same purpose. For sturdier containers wooden planks were used on which grooves called kerfs were cut at three strategic places and when steam was applied the plank could be bent at right angles. In this way when the two ends were brought together a box was formed. All that was left to do was make the bottom.
In modern times it’s possible to purchase a plank from a local lumber store, or mill, but for thousands of years native people procured their material for planks by splitting them from a log. This is actually more reliable for the quality and the task of making a bent corner box.
After splitting a plank from a log, taking it down to the desired thickness, surfacing it with an adze, and cutting the kerfs a fire was built to heat rocks, which were placed in an excavated trough in the ground. A bed of foliage such as sword ferns, was laid over these and water poured over the whole, creating much steam. The kerfed board was placed over this with the kerf side up and allowed to cook for ten minutes, or fifteen minutes, at which time the board was bent to form the four sides of a box. The joined corner was secured with pegs, or laced with spruce root. A bottom is made from another shorter plank. The box is placed over it and a line is traced around the inside and the outside of the box. It is cut to length and a rabbet is carved into which the box will fit snugly and it is pegged like the joined corner and the project is completed.
Boxes made in this way were great for storing almost anything from smoked and dried fish, oil, dried seaweed, hunting and fishing equipment, tools, clothing, blankets, rolls of dried cedar bark and they even served as water canteens.
On the Northwest Coast there are traditionally three types of bowls: canoe shaped, round, and zoomorphic with a hollowed out area for the bowl. They were and are generally carved from harder wood such as alder, birch, or maple. The exception to this are the large feast bowls carved from red cedar and are in the shape of wolves, killer whales, seals, or giant Dzonaqua which can be as much as fifteen feet in length, or more.
Flutes, Whistles and Horns
Whistles used in Northwest Coast Native ceremonies are made mostly from red, or yellow cedar and although not used for playing melodies some are complex and have several tones from very low to very high. Horns are made from these same materials and can be extremely loud.
Flutes capable of playing beautiful melodies used by the Natives of the plains, plateau and Southwest areas, while not traditional to the Northwest coast have become very popular today.
Rope and string are obtained from the inner bark of red and yellow cedar, maple, roots of spruce, cedar and the stems of nettle and fireweed which are split into strands and twined into cordage ranging in size from sewing thread used in making nets and fine baskets to large diameter line capable of lifting totem poles and house beams.
The Pacific Northwest indigenous traditions made use of a wide variety of natural materials such as the bark of red and yellow cedar to weave mats, canoe sails, baskets large and small, as well as clothing in the form of rain capes, robes and hats.
The wool from mountain goat and a special breed of dogs, was used to weave beautiful ceremonial robes and aprons. Commercial sheep wool is used today.
Traditional colors are derived from a variety of Native plants and gathering these along with weaving is part of our legacy to share.
Traditionally drums used to accompany singers were made from hollowed logs, bent corner boxes and skin covered hoops.
Rawhide from deer, elk and domestic goat is the preferred skin for today’s drum makers. It is stretched over round, octagonal, or square frames and attached with lacing or tacks.