Bill Holm Center, Burke Museum, repousse, silversmith, coppersmith, new hammer style, BCIT British Columbia Institute of Technology, spindle whorl, Squamish Nation artist,

Summer & Winter 2014

I spent a bit of time at the British Columbia Institute of Technology over the past few months carving a 5 metre/17’ housepost. It’s based on the kind of upright post which would have held up our traditional longhouses here in Coast Salish territories.

BCIT forestry students
BCIT forestry students take advantage of having a log on site to study, and are present for the initial blessing and work behind the housepost. Click on the photo above to see students move the log around the entire campus to the carving site.

Besides being a part of the structure of our homes, it also displayed the stories unique to the family who lived there, or sometimes stories shared by the village, or even the larger Coast Salish peoples. Today housposts are sometimes raised and placed a bit more like freestanding totem poles, but still have the idea behind them of displaying the stories and values that hold up a house (or a building, or a school).

This particular piece is to celebrate the schools’ 50 year anniversary, and the idea of the past, present, and future, and uses the schools’ anniversary colours. I’m using three faces to portray the idea, and have a ground layer based on our traditional mountain goat horn bracelets, which are quite interesting in their use of flowing lines, and repeating elements, and allow me to work in the three faces being placed on the post all looking different directions

This school has some really talented students, and I did a radio interview with Daniel Stevens.
(Click here for link to interview)

BCIT housepost, Coast Salish art, Aaron Nelson-Moody
Above is the half log being dressed down to a more even surface for drawing. Below is the surfaced log with initial drawing.
BCIT housepost, Coast Salish art, Aaron Nelson-Moody
I’ve also been playing a lot more with my forge and my fantastic new Hoffman anvil, which reflects quite a bit more force into my work when I’m hammering. I had no idea how complicated making tools was, and am constantly learning about how to shape the steel with the hammer, better filing and grinding techniques, and especially heat treating the steel. I’ve had some tools snap on me because I didn’t quite get how important normalizing the steel was, and had some trouble getting the right combination of hardening and annealing of the tool. I’ve even been experimenting with the tool shapes and handles.

One experiment is the adze handles I’ve been making. I’ve cut some alder trees and lugged many branches out of the woods for traditional adze handles. Because of the grain of the wood around the tree branch is so twisted, it really makes a tough tool handle where the branch meets the tree trunk. Our traditional tools made this way are really much better than any other carving tools like this I’ve tried. My one adze handle is 20 years old and still going strong as one of my main rough shaping tools.
Northwest coast Native, Coast Salish tools, carving tools
My old lip-adze, so named for the little ‘lips’ on either end of the blade. Useful for cutting cross grain, as along the top left edge of the wood in the picture above. Hand forged head with a makers’ mark “Cass” (or an anvil) and an alder branch handle, over 20 years old and one of my most used tools.

But the last two batches of handle wood I’ve cut, carried home, dried and shaped have all broken because of some unseen rot within the branch base. Many of the branches weren’t really the right angle so I couldn’t use them, or the branch/handle part was so thin they were uncomfortable. So I’ve decided to try my hand at constructing handles even though I haven’t like any of the ones I’ve tried in the past.
carpenter adze, totem pole, housepost, Coast Salish.jpg
Carpenter adze; soft steel means it doesn’t hold an edge, but it can really take a beating. I use these only for this rough work.

All of the constructed handles I’ve tried have been really rigid and carried all of the vibration into my hand and wrist. So I tried several new approaches with two pieces of wood, then four, with splines and dowels etc. My wood working tools/skills didn’t seem to add up to anything stronger or more flexible than a traditional handle.

Then I tried using lots of wood layers glued together into my own plywood-like handle and finally got some better results: the handles turned out tough, light, flexible, and are relatively easy to get the wood and cut it to shape. I’m hopeful to get some good handles with repeatable angles, and which will last through some heavy use.
new raising hammer, silversmith hammer, Aaron Nelson-Moodynew raising hammer, silversmith hammer
New take on two ancient tools: silversmith raising hammer head on my new NorthWest Coast Native-style constructed adze handle.

And speaking of better handles, my tennis elbow was really bothering me after my last few smithing pieces working on copper bowls, and a few copper shields. I liked the hammers with straight, rigid handles through the hammer eye about as little as I’ve liked the European adzes like this I’ve tried. So while I was making my new adze handles, I made a few handles closer to 90 degrees to mount some smithing heads on to.

So far I made a cross pein raising hammer to try the idea out and I was amazed at how much less vibration there was. I made it to compliment the raising hammers I have already, so it is a medium sized face and weight but has a longer handle for some of the bigger stuff I make sometimes. That’s the one in the pictures above. I’ve also made a domed round face adze/hammer for some of the sinking and shaping on work.

Adze tools are pretty old, and seem to appear almost everywhere in the world. For some reason, using a tree branch for a handle gives people the idea that the tools much be primitive and useless. I’ve used every chopping and carving tool I could get my hands on, from a variety of cultures, and nothing could be further from the truth. Adzes are awesome tools, and can be made full length and tough to rough shape wood with heavy chops, or made very small with finely tuned handles with enough spring in them to create the beautiful textured surface found on some totem poles and carved canoes. I figure any tool which sees a lot of use gets stripped down to the efficient essentials, especially when they are hand tools.

Northwest coast Native, Coast Salish tools, carving tools, Aaron Nelson-Moody
D-shaped adze with Yew wood handle and forged truck leaf spring

I have also got to do some more repousse lately, making some bracelets and pendants, but also a larger piece for the Burke Museum and Bill Holm Center. I’d gone down to Seattle several years ago to study an old spindle whorl originally collected at the village of Eslha7an here in North Vancouver. It’s an amazing old piece, and was well used in the spinning of dog hair and mountain goat wool for our traditional weavings.

The original spindle whorl next to my copper repousse piece.

I’d wanted to do the piece justice in my own piece based on the old whorl. Without doing a detailed recreation, I choose bits that I liked, and filled in parts which were missing with my best guesses as to what may have been there originally, and evened out the piece into more measured symmetry. Anyway, mine looks quite different to me, but I am happy with it.

It was actually my desire to make this piece in metal that got me into repousse in the first place. My teacher Xwalackun found me trying to carve this design into some 6mm copper plate, and suggested the repousse as the more sculptural option without so much weight. And copper is a little frustrating to carve as it is so soft it feels sort of gummy, and smears onto the gravers to make the cuts rough and less reflective.
Northwest Coast copper repousse
Copper repousse whorl in progress.

I read up on the repousse, and tried some terrible advice from a few people, and then just used whatever metal junk from my benchtop that I thought might make an interesting shape when I hammered with it. I actually made a few pieces this way, doing everything backwards and the hard way before I went to see Valentin Yotkov in New York and took his class. I recommend learning from him if you’re interested in getting good results straight away, but I have to say that my doing things the wrong way first sure made me understand Valentin’s skill and teaching ability, and the depth of his knowledge. He is also one of the nicest human beings I have ever met.

The smithing part I’ve been teaching myself is similar to repousse, but on bigger scale, and using hammers the same shapes as the little repousse punches. So now I rough out the pieces with hammers on top of sand bags or plastercine, and then refine everything down and add details later.

copper mask
“Wawante spirit” copper mask in progress.