The inspiration for carving totem poles came from the Douglas' desire to find a creative outlet for his artistic vision and creative talents.
It all starts with paper templates outlining the design.
In the past five years, he has totally renovated the real estate office in Wildwood Crest and tavern in West Wildwood. Both were dilapidated structures that he transformed into visually appealing and functionally superior business properties. Each project had stringent time frames to be met in order to be ready for well-publicized grand openings. Douglas pulled it off, even managing to receive rave reviews. There were many other smaller projects, including a new living room and new kitchen in our home plus several outbuildings.
Douglas works on totem pole wings from a rough cedar slab.
The original intention of our totem pole carving venture was to sell the poles. However, after putting much sweat equity into carving the first totem pole, an attachment formed that made it impossible to part with these pieces of art. A new direction was spawned – create a totem pole park right here in Swainton, New Jersey on our property. That way we, along with our friends and visitors, could enjoy them forever.
Totem poles tell a story about a person or clan. The carver is the storyteller. Only the carver and the owner know the true meaning of a particular totem pole, although sometimes the carver will put symbols in the totem that have hidden meanings known only to him.
The inspiration for the totem poles we make come from the Native American carvers from Alaska, British Columbia, and northern Washington State. An authentic totem pole is fashioned by one of these carvers approved by the Northwest Pacific Coast tribe. Obviously, we do not represent that our traditional design totem pole is authentic.
Douglas gets up close while putting in details with a dremel tool.
Totem poles are also produced in Japan, Africa, India, New Zealand, Hawaii and Tahiti. They are usually called Tiki's or Greeting Poles, and unlike Native American poles, these typically represent taboos, ancestor worship or gods. Despite common misconceptions, Native American totem poles were never worshipped and never placed to fend off evil spirits.
The animal figures on Native American style totem poles are derived from one of the three kingdoms - Sky, Earth, or Underwater Realm. The natives believed that some animals could transform themselves into other forms, including human. The animals on a person's or clan's totem pole often represented a mystical ancestor that could perform such a transformation into human form. Or sometimes the animal was one they had encountered in life.
Totem poles were originated by the Haida tribe of southeastern Alaska, then the craft spread to the Tlingit and Tsimshian tribes. From there the art was adopted in coastal British Columbia and northern Washington state. Strangely, the term “totem pole” was given by Europeans.
Totem poles were traditionally placed at the front entrance of the family longhouse 1.) to honor its ancestors, 2.) to record the clan’s standing, qualities, experiences, and accomplishments, and/or 3.) to record a memorable ceremony (called Potlatch) or spiritual experience. In other words, the totem pole represented the emblem of the family, much like a coat of arms.
The carver commanded much respect in the community. It was the responsibility of the totem owner who commissioned the carving to keep the carvers warm, fed, happy and amused during the long process.
Detailing the face of the Thunderbird
If the carver felt slighted, his retaliation might be 1.) put a figure upside down, 2.) inject ridicule into the totem pole by adding something like a little figure in an ear or belly button, 3.) put a human face in the whale’s blowhole, or 4.) put in a figure’s small head and hands looking like it was trying to escape from the totem pole.
The traditional colors on a totem pole are black, white, red, blue/green, and yellow. The paints were made with the oil from salmon eggs as a base. To that the natives added charcoal for black, ground clam shell for white, cinnabar pigment (mercuric sulfide) for red, copper salts or berries for blue/green, and yellow cedar chips or tree moss for yellow. The head carver decided whether to paint the totem or not. The Tsimshian tribe tended to not use paint.
OUR TOOLS & CARVING TECHNIQUES
A few of the tools used in shaping a totem pole.
While the native carvers used hand tools, we use power tools in fashioning totem poles of white cedar. Here is a simplified version of the process we employ:
- Remove the bark.
- Use an angle grinder with medium sandpaper to smooth out the log.
- Use poster board templates to lay out the designs.
- Use a chainsaw to remove the large pieces.
- Use the angle grinder with coarse sandpaper to further remove and refine large area.
- Use router and/or jigsaw to remove material in tight spaces.
- Use a dremel tool with metal bits and stones to remove more material. At this stage the figures are beginning to take shape. This is the first long step and can take up to 20 hours for a 6-8’ totem.
- Use a palm sander to smooth large areas.
- Use a dremel tool with sanding discs to put definition and fine details into the figures. This is the longest and most laborious step.
- Filler putty is put into the cracks (checks). We use our own homemade putty consisting of the cedar sawdust and stainable wood glue.
- Use a dremel tool to sand over puttied cracks. More putty may have to be added.
- The finish sanding is done. This is the last chance to make it right.
- Stain the totem and wings.
- If painting, it’s time. This is time consuming and can only be done one color per session.
- Attach the wings to the totem and enjoy your creation!
After about 100 hours of work, the finished totem pole stands proud. .