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.

Spring 2014

Blacksmithing is something I’ve done only a little of in my life until last year when I got my forge. It’s been increasingly hard to get good carving tools in the last few years, and I’ve also wanted some particular qualities which I couldn’t seem to find.
Hoffman anvil, Cliff Carroll anvil, Lee Valley tools anvil
My progression in anvils over the last year, with my Lee Valley anvil on top, a 35 pound Cliff Carroll, and now my Jymm Hoffman 110 pound anvil on the bottom.

I started out with something called the one-brick forge, which is just a soft fire brick with a propane torch stuck in the side. It was precarious, but helped me make some repousse tools for my jewelry making. I even bought a small anvil, which is about one kilogram, but is actually hardened properly.

The limitations of the one or two brick forge are mainly that I could not get even heat on a piece, and it was kind of slow. Not a problem with the repousse tools, but I couldn’t seem to make a decent knife with it.

Thermal Art Design makes a bladesmith forge which is pretty simple to use. It has some interesting little innovations such as a stainless steel burner, and a dish-shaped hearth inside. It is also a ‘through’ design, with not doors on the front or back, but it still works better than the other propane forges I’ve used. I got the one burner design which seems to be working just fine for me for knives and adze blades. I want to start making some jewelry stakes also, and might need a slightly bigger forge for that.
3 anvils (1)
My old anvil stand with construction ties and big wheels in the way.

I just got my Jymm Hoffman anvil this week also, and set it up on my old anvil stand. The construction ties didn’t look as retro chic as I thought they might, and just kinda made the stand look slapped together. So I and hammered out some mild steel straps, darkened them with some wax and screwed them on for much better results. The construction straps all vibrated and made noise also, which drove me nuts. I’ll probably put a couple of holders on it for a hammer, punch, chalk pencil etc., but I don’t really like to have stuff jangling around on the anvil stand as I find it distracting and noisy.
Hoffman anvil
Fixed up the old anvil stand: removed the wheels, changed the braces, and cleaned it up a little.

I caulked the new anvil in place, and removed the big wheels from the side of the stand, as they were getting in the way. I might move a smaller wheel under the flat horn side, where I think it’d be in the way less, or even make a small dolly for the entire thing. I move stuff around my shop all the time, and having things on their own wheels seems best for me.

I’ve only really used a few anvils in my life, and out West here most have been more like farrier anvils used for horseshoes. I was looking at Nimba Anvils also because they and the Hoffman anvils both have big centre masses, but went with Jymms anvil because it has a little less in the horn and more weight in the body, and I think the H13 steel is wildly tough, after having tried to forge some of it. In the picture above of my three anvils, you can see the horn on the Cliff Carroll anvil is about the same size as my new Hoffman anvil. As I don’t make horseshoes, or do any ornamental scrollwork, I’d like to keep the mass where it’d do me the most good.

I used it yesterday for the first time and I have to say that I love it! It’s got some mass, but I can still move it around my shop when I need to, and the finish on the surface is excellent. There are a few bumps in the hardy hole, but my Cliff Carroll anvil’s hardy was really uneven, so tooling I made for it could only fit in one way, and often seemed to get stuck. I’ll just file out this hardy hole a little, or file down my tooling; pretty easy either way.
Har lev hammers

Among a few other odds and ends, including an old leg vise, were the purchase of a Har-lev rounding hammer to compliment a diagonal cross pean I got for my birthday. I fiddled around with them a bit and liked the feel of them enough to also buy Amit’s dvd on blacksmithing and ergonomic hammering. It’s great for me, as I have no one around to show me what to do with my tools, and I’ve had an ongoing problem with tennis elbow and am really paying attention to my adzing and hammering technique. The handle shape is far superior to any other hammer I’ve used, and the hammers I got were really well made, with some kind of rubber holding the hammer head on and dampening the vibration. I think I’ll add a bit more of a convex shape to the rounding hammer, but at 3.5 pounds it really moves metal. I’ve only ever seen short handles like these on silversmithing hammers used to forge spoons and the like, but Amit’s hammers have more of a rectangular shape like you see on Japanese hammers.

I’d put up a YouTube video a couple of months back and was astounded by the number of stupid comments. Anyway, if you’re here on my webpage you may be less disappointed that I show how to make a carving knife, than how to make a zombie killer knife (while living in your moms basement).

I’ve done several workshops on this because I can’t take it for granted that people will know how to sand and grind blades while not destroying the temper of the steel. This tool is inexpensive to make, and of all the knives out there which can be modified, Opinels are pretty easy to get, have a steel (similar to 1095) which holds a decent edge and isn’t too hard to sharpen. These blades are also quite thin, which means it can cut the long thin slices of wood we tend to take off while woodcarving; so it doesn’t ‘wedge’ the wood open like a thicker blade does, and create a lot of drag.

opinel knifeopinel carver
If you can make this blade modification, you have also learned how to be safe with a knife, how to sharpen, and respect for a tool because you’ve essentially made it yourself and know how long it takes.

Summer and Autumn 2013

Summer 2013

Took some time to work on my carving and jewelry spaces over the summer and autumn, and just slowed things down after a year of commuting and carving like crazy. The big pieces can really take a toll on a body. And my work spaces were driving me nuts with how unorganized they were.

It turns out some of the pictures of my carving shanty didn’t turn out so I don’t have some of the ‘before’ pics I’d wanted. I call it a shanty because it was essentially a roof with ragged tarps stapled onto it. It looked like a poorly wrapped Christmas present. I could see my tarps blowing off, and around littering my backyard from Google Earth, so knew I had to do something about it.

So I spent the summer nailing in some blocking to clad it in galvanized steel siding. I figure the steel is fairly secure, and now that I have locking doors I don’t have to put every single thing away as much as before. With the siding on it, its looks have been upgraded to ‘shack’ status.

With a bit of electricity, lighting, and maybe even insulation, I think I could eventually even upgrade to carving ‘shed’ status.
messy jewelry studio
I also redid my jewelry room, because I was able to move some of my carving stuff outside into the newly renovated carving shack. I upgraded some of my tools, but mostly separated my sawing and engraving into two different stations. I’d used the GRS mounting plate to hang my engraving block, or bench pin from, and had to constantly switch them out. So now I have two wells, and can just leave everything in place, or even have a friend come by and have some space. jewelry studio

The jewelry bench is now affixed to my wall like a shelf, also, because the old table would jiggle and shake like Elvis every time I hammered on it. My new bench is also narrower, front to back, because I could reach everything at the back anyway, and it gives me more floor space because I want to put in a better hammering station.

I have only a couple of jewelry stakes, and every one of them has a different mounting on it, a Pepe domed stake set, which has one post holder like a bottoming stake, but with a screw which is supposed to hold the stake in place. I also have a Potter, USA stake which I use a lot, but which I find rather soft for raising and planishing, as it gets marked up fairly easy. I just got two Peddinghaus stakes also, which I think are made to go into an anvil hardy hole. Add to the mix: a couple of the new Bill Fretz stakes, and its a real jumble.

I’d got an engine block stand, and used some leftover lumber cut offs for a very thick table top, like a butchers block, and drilled out some hockey pucks for feet to make my hammering stand, and put some leather loops on the edges for my forming hammers. It sounded like a good idea, but my little hammering station jumps around when I hammer on it, and ‘walks’ around my studio like it’s trying to get away from me, and is never even close to level, tilting back and forth like a cafe table with a full cup of coffee on it, and the hammers all clank around with every hammer blow.

So I’ll tackle that next. I’ve ordered a ‘universal stake plate’ from John Newman Forge and Pattern (which you can also get from Blacksmiths Depot, if you’re in America), and hopefully most of my stakes will fit in there. The tapered stakes are fantastic if you’ve got a holder, being much easier to take in and out, and very stable, but they don’t work held in a vise that well.

I may just land up making some of my own stake heads, and a sort of horses head stake holder for them. I’ve been waiting for the bigger t-stakes I understand Bill Fretz may be making.
It’s odd that with all the clanking and hammering, I find raising metal over the stakes quite relaxing and enjoyable. The pierced and engraved jewelry that I’d done I always found quite flat compared to the wood carving I’d done, and it’s only been since I’ve started in on repousse and smithing that I feel like I’ll be able to truly create the things I see in my imagination.

Woodcarving knife

I started teaching carving class again this year, working with a program established by my teacher and some dedicated teachers in the Langley School District. We start by making our own (straight) carving knife, modified from a no 8 Opinel high carbon steel pocket knife. I think the knife turns out better than many that I’ve bought and used over the years, and is much cheaper.

It is a really useful way to students respect for their knives, so they don’t tend to damage a blade they’ve spent so much time on; and teaches the students sharpening also, which lots of beginners struggle with. With a lot of grinding of the knife bevel, the students get a feel for the angles needed when they sharpen the knife.

The video I made on the knife is on YouTube, and I think I should make companion to, talking a bit more in depth about the grind and bevel shape of the blade.

Totempolooza complete

January 2013

The four projects are really progressing, with Ray pushing ahead on his piece and moving it inside the building. Xwalacktun has his giant log taken apart, and I think both pieces are big than mine. It's given him the opportunity to create a really interesting design on both sides, since he has lots of wood volume to work with.

Johnathon has a completely different approach to ours, which isn't surprising as he's from Lil'wat, and is one of the first carvers from his First Nation to approach larger sculptures. I've seen people take two basic approaches to carving: one designs completely beforehand, and the other designs as they work, and Jonathan is of the more 'Zen-like' approach who has a very intuitive approach which changes his design as he progresses. He has left the tree very much visible in his approach, and is integrating his designs onto the original shape of the log.
Johnathon Joe, Mt Currie Band, Northwest Coast Artwork, Totem pole
Jonathon’s pole

There are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches, of design and intuitition, and I believe it has more to do with your personality, and preference of work-process, than it has to do with either way being better or worse.
Aaron Nelson-Moody, Splash, totem pole, yellow cedar, Coast Salish art
My house post ready for drawing on of design

With my piece, I've got the log sized and dressed, with clean surfaces to draw on, and have cut it lengthwise through the centre wood which means it will have less inner tension to develop cracks. I've started some rough cuts to block out the figures on the front, so that I can tell what's going on in terms of thickness when I start to hollow out the back.
Aaron Nelson-Moody, Splash, totem pole, yellow cedar, Coast Salish art
New ‘wheels’ dead handy for cutting from both sides with my little chainsaw

I've got a few different ideas for making the back look nice, and have changed my original my idea about putting the back piece back on because I like the proportions of the piece right now, and I think it's dimensions are truer to the old houseposts.
Aaron Nelson-Moody, Splash, totem pole, yellow cedar, Coast Salish art
Here is the house post with the back cut off (on left)

I also spent a few days working on, and helping out with the installation of the welcome figure we'd done during this last summer. It's nice to get it raised, as these big carvings kind of tug at my emotions until they are done, even coming to my dreams until I finish them.
Aaron Nelson-Moody, Splash, totem pole, red cedar, Coast Salish art, copper raised form
Welcome figure from summer finally goes up. Was cold.

The welcome figures were an expression of hospitality and respect for the people who came into our traditional territories. You'd see them as you came through the waterways, but they appeared on other carvings as well. We hope it will be taken as it was meant, and help direct people to our museum in Whistler. We had it upright for about five minutes before a woman with her baby stroller walked by and said, "Just what Whistler needs, another totem pole."

Aaron Nelson-Moody, Splash, totem pole, yellow cedar, Coast Salish art, adze
Used a curved base power planer, and then my lip adze to clean it all up
Aaron Nelson-Moody, Splash, totem pole, yellow cedar, Coast Salish art
Decided to leave back as smooth surface rather than completely hollow out
Aaron Nelson-Moody, Splash, totem pole, yellow cedar, Coast Salish art, Todd Edmonds, Mt Currie
Todd starts roughing in design
Aaron Nelson-Moody, Splash, totem pole, yellow cedar, Coast Salish art

Aaron Nelson-Moody, Splash, totem pole, yellow cedar, Coast Salish art, Rilla, Mt Currie
Rilla helps to oil the wood to reduce cracking in dry building
Our Elder puts some medicine into base
Back painted and carved, with silver leaf for visibility

Spring 2013

Just getting the poles up, along with a few bits of other work at the Squamish / Lil'wat Cultural Centre. Driving back and forth to whistler, I used up a lot of time, which meant I got behind on lots of little odds and ends, including updating this part of my website.
Thermal Art design, tool making, forging tools, Northwest Coast Tools
My new Thermal Art Design propane forge

So I had also created two tools workshops, including a one day neck-knife making workshop, and a carving tool workshop for some of the Lilwat carvers. We still have to make the handles, and Jonathon Joe couldn't make the class, so I'd like to work with him on that also.
Thermal Art design, tool making, forging tools, Northwest Coast Tools
Rilla works on a knife

David Baker, a long time cultural ambassador from the SLCC, donated some car spring steel for us, which we treated with the assumption that it was 5160' and it seemed to work out okay. It was thick metal, so it was a real workout to forge, especially with my little anvil, but I learned a lot about moving metal keeping it a little less lumpy than my first attempts.
Thermal Art design, tool making, forging tools, Northwest Coast Tools
I have to say that forging is a lot more straightforward for making carving tools. I was buying all sorts of dimensional steel stock to make different sized knives, and always running out of the size I happen to need. I've been having to send away for my steel, which I will still need to do, but now I can just buy round bar stock and make any size I want.

Thermal Art design, tool making, forging tools, Northwest Coast Tools
Two of my basic carving knives

I've read a lot of debate about whether or not forging makes better blades, but I've noticed all the best tools are made by forging or drop forging. I have also noticed so far that the shape of the tools I'm forging are better, with graceful tapers, and very little waste of material and grinding supplies.

Blessing Ceremony

The public unveiling day came and was kind of simple and meaningful, which are two things I like. The carving process is mostly about lots of hard work, and I lose track of what the pieces may mean to the community, so it was nice to see so many people invested in the carvings, and us carvers.
Somewhere along the way I realized that it has taken me about 15 years to finish this project, making the four Cedar Woman carvings, and telling and retelling the story. So here it is one more time:

Several years ago I met several women from across the boarder, Coast Salish and some others, and a man who was driving them around. They dropped by at the house of a friend of mine who phoned me and told me to come right over. So we all had dinner and the women were telling me that they were a Society of women who would help keep track of the state of the traditional Native territories; things like number of salmon in runs, animals we hunted, medicinal plants and the like. One thing I remember in particular was about doing controlled forest burns, to reduce the overall fire hazard, and to replenish the undergrowth which is medicine for us, and food for animals. Another story they told was of about rivers and streams, and when they are healthy they are narrow, and deep enough to keep salmon eggs cool, and make it harder to catch adult salmon. Trees grow right up to the edge, and even lean over the water, again keeping the water cool, and the river banks stable.

They mentioned that girls had to start learning this long history when they were young, as they had a lot to remember an keep track of. They would meet up with other women from different First Nations because regardless of political relations, it's all the same world.

I didn't know anything about this Society, although I knew we Coast Salish had storytelling societies, and warrior societies, and several sacred societies. When I asked one of my friends and teachers, Theresa Nahanee, she at first said that she didn't know anything about it.

I had started taking part in what became known at Utsam / Witness project, through our Hereditary Chief Bill Williams. The project combined Nature, Environment, and the Arts in a kind of camping weekend where we also shared some of our Squamish Nation ceremony. There was a lot of conflict in that part of our traditional territory at that time, with increasing pressure on the land from logging, tourism, recreation, hunting etc.

There was also a lot of pressure on Squamish Nation to pick a side, but Chief Bill choose instead to work with the Witness project. I think it was a very smart decision, as the Witness weekends are the closest thing I've seen to one of our traditional Potlatches in that we gathered lots of people who weren't necessarily part of the same community of beliefs or values, but who were willing to sit together to share a meal and ceremony together.

During this time, Chief Bill Williams asked me to think of a carving we could do which might inspire some more Squamish Nation members to travel out onto the part of our territory. During my youth we just spent more time hunting and fishing and gathering medicine, but today there just isn't the same need, or population of animal and plant life for us to hunt and gather the way we used to.

When I spoke to Theresa again, she was very excited because she had remembered something from when she was quite young, about these women who looked after our land. She told me to carve four of these women, so that people would remember this role our women played and the care we put into our land; she'd get me money and logs, and she'd tell the story. She was there for to bless the first log before we started carving, and then she passed away.

So it was very emotional for me to continue the project, and I'm grateful that Chief Bill Williams stepped in to support me in the carving of these figures. It turns out that it has been an emotional and thought-provoking project for others as well, if only because where we can doubt today whether or not we can ever find balance in the impact we have on our land, and maybe see that polar ideas like conservation/development maybe aren't completely different after all.

So I just have the one little piece left to put on the carving, and complete the project. It is a engraved piece based on a sand dollar, which was the logo for the Utsam/Witness project. It is a piece of aluminum, which engraves okay sometimes, and not so okay other times.
Natural marker for end of project

My next project is to side in my carving shed. Well, shed is maybe a bit too glamorous a word for my shack. It's just a roof right now with some plastic sheeting stapled to it in the same haphazard way that I go about wrapping my Christmas presents.


Okay, its not really called Totempolooza, its just four guys with whirling chainsaws, swinging big adzes, all in close proximity, carving four totem poles at the same time.

Quite unexpectedly, I got word about a competition for more carvings at the Squamish/Lil’wat Cultural Centre in Whistler, British Columbia. I heard back fairly quickly that I got one of the commissions, and we were up within the week, on Christmas Eve, to start work on four houseposts for the Centre. I’ve never seen so many carvings happening in the same place. Johnathon Joe from Lil’wat Nation, and Xwalacktun, Sesiyam (Ray), and myself all have 20 foot carvings going into the Centre by March.

The temperatures are right around freezing, and below, with a fair amount of snow.
Ray’s welcome figure/housepost outside the Centre.Did I mention it's cold?
Did I mention that it’s cold?

The housepost is a kind of totem pole that the Coast Salish people carve. With over 200 First Nations in British Columbia, alone, there is a lot of diversity in the kinds of formats people carve on, and their are subtle differences which distinguish them. Houseposts are the main upright supports which hold up the cross beams of our longhouse, historically, but are carved for a variety of other reasons today. Some Nations focus on carving clan symbols, but ours depict what kind of stories and values hold up individual longhouses.

These logs are yellow cedar, sometimes called Cypress, or Alaska cedar and I think it’s the nicest carving wood in the world. The yellow cedar isn’t always used on these big pieces, because it has a tendency to crack if it is thick and doesn’t dry evenly. Mine has a big fall-crack in it from when it came down. I estimate it weighs 3,500 pounds/1,600 kg, and mine is the smallest of the four logs being carved.
my log
I couldn’t get to the ‘bottom’ face of the log at this point, but thought my best option was to follow this big crack, and it turned out to extend at least half way up the log, so it’s just as well I removed it to make this side the back of my piece. It’s a shame, really, as this side only had one little knot.
first step carving totem pole
Start on the ends, and make a centre line to work from.

I made a big old mess of sawdust on this part. Bigger than I normally make, even. But I got this far (above) before trying a new idea for me. I made some plywood ’wheels’ so I can roll the log without damaging the edges, and leaving marks from my car jack and levers. Now I can roll it over by myself to am able to carve the edges and front more easily. Xwalacktun had made a kind of spindle system, with carriages at either end so he could roll even giant logs by himself. These plywood wheels aren’t as good, really, but fine for this kind of project.
beam roller, log roller, totem pole rollers
Reinventing the wheel.

rolled right over
Here is what is to become the front of the post. Some knots in this side of the wood, but at least it isn’t cracked like the back was. I can complete a scaled sketch now that I know what kind of wood I have to work with. I like to sketch on a scaled piece of wood to get a better sense of the depths and planes I have to carve. I have made a plan to remove the back of the log, and hollow some of it out to reduce internal cracking and have it dry a little more evenly, then put the back back on and carve it also, as it will be seen from both sides. Normally these posts would be flat up against the inside of the longhouse, so wouldn’t be visible from the back, but the SLCC is clad in glass.

Above to the left, you can see Ray’s log has become a large squared post, with nice clean surfaces to draw on.
my sketch on the log
My scaled sketch on the face of the log.

I’ve made some ‘cake’ cuts or ‘witness’ cuts through the bark of the tree and through the slab/sapwood, which is the outer layer of growing tree. This pinky-white sapwood doesn’t have an oil in it, and will blacken and fall off in a fairly short time, so we take it off first. I chopped most of this off between the sawcuts with a big adze because cedar splits off nicely. If the wood has cracks, or bruises from taking it down and moving it, we can see it better this way, also, and it gives us a clean surface to draw on.

Xwalacktun going old school
Xwalacktun started off kind of old school, removing all the bark and the outer sap wood with a broad axe and adzes. He doesn’t always do this, but the frozen sap wood and very dirty bark was playing havoc with our chainsaws, and doing it this way saves the most volume out of a log for him to design with. He has a plan for carving which will be as complex on the back as the front, and he just sliced the log in half lengthwise so he can hollow a lot of it out. Ray Natraoro / Sesiyam
Victor and Ray

Meanwhile, Ray and his apprentice Victor jumped right onto his log with a big chainsaw, and freehanded this difficult first cut. Ray is an accomplished carving, making masks, canoes, and poles, and composes beautiful songs. He and Victor are also very involved in our Squamish Nation ceremonial works

We endure many slurs about using modern tools like a chainsaw, and for using steel tools from about half the people who come by. And even get negative comments about using our traditional adzes and bent blades, from a smaller minority who seem to think we’re just playing the primitive. A guy can always get advice, eh?

Most people don’t seem to have any ill-intent, as far as I can tell, but I think it speaks to the historically anthropological view most people still have of us. I can even see a lot of people are quite surprised by what they say out loud to us, because sometimes it sounds pretty bad. But at least we get to have some interesting and positive conversations with people, which seems to be a big part of the job.

Xwalacktun has mentioned many times over the years that these big carvings are for instigating conversations, and people who have never seen one before can share stories from their own cultures and unique perspectives, about the creatures they see depicted on the carvings. We carvers design these to tell a specific story, but also realize many people interpret them their own way.

Rainy Autumn 2012

I’ve wanted to get some more pictures up, and keep track of my projects because here, because I’d like to add to the pool of growing knowledge on the Internet, which I appreciate so much.

I’ve had three relentlessly paced, back to back projects since about last December, and have been out of my home studio so much, I’ve got lots to share. I’d worked on a very nice carving project for the North Vancouver School District which combined making something for the part of Squamish Nation Traditional Territory that I grew up in, Paradise Valley, in Squamish, British Columbia.

It had some red cedar flat carving on a 5’ by 7’ panel, with some engraved and reposed copper additions. It depicts the spirit of the Cheak’mus area, with the face being my way of visioning the spirit, with eagles for hair, and salmon for the eyes. The two repousse faces in the wings are Wawantee, which are the spirits in the valley which watch over the people and animals, and the little round panels off to the sides are deeply engraved ‘rubbings panels’, which the students at the Outdoor School can use to make some artwork with.

repousse, carving, Coast Salish art, Squamishrepousse, Coast Salish art, Squamish

I’ve also been working at learning metal raising, which is hammering a disc of metal in such a way to make it thicker on the edges, and draw it up into a bowl form. I know, it doesn’t sound like it makes sense. I’ve been trying to learn this hands-on technique by surfing the Internet, which has been challenging. But thanks to John Marshall for his inspirational video clip, and especially to my favourite silversmith Theresa Nguyen for her clear explanation of the process, and wonderful videos.

silversmith, raising, dome stake
Here’s a pic of a practice bowl form, and also a very very large sheet of copper (42”) which I’m forming into a Coast Salish style hat for a welcome figure which I’d been carving at the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural Centre over the summer. It should be going up next week, so I’ll get some photos of it then.

coppersmithing, raising

Heres a picture of some Northwest Coast style carving tools which I’ve just started making. Still in the trials period right now to get some of the blade design and heat treating down right. It is a skew on top, ready to be mounted in a long handle, a medium sized bent blade, and a straight knife on bottom, all in O1 tool steel.

carving knives, bent blade, NWC tools, Native wood craft


I’m excited that my log has finally arrived.

I had spent a very rainy digging through a log sort with Jeff from Squamish Nations’ logging company, and he helped me find a part of a log from the outer rim of a large tree that was felled. It seems to take about 150 years and more for a red cedar tree to grow large enough for the limbs to start falling off, and the really clear, close grain to start growing, like in the picture below; and in this case the trees’ centre rotted out and left a kind of tube of growing wood. When the tree was taken down it shattered into a few pieces and left a big rough plank of wood, just what I need.
We organized a blessing and had a lot of the family together, had a luncheon, and brushed the log off with cedar boughs and rain water. We wanted to start in that good way, and also let people know that we were going to begin work in Janurary, and that they know that they can stop by and help out with the carving.
I’ve got a rough sketch, but usually wait until I see the log trimmed to size before I complete the design. I’ll see about filming some of the process, and posting it here.
repousse tools/w1 steel
My new tools.

I mentioned last time that I’d been working on several commissions of the “tribute” style of repousse bracelet, based on an old mountain goat-horn style of Coast Salish carving. Here’s an image of one in progress, and I’ve been using the new tools I made, based on using Valentin Yotkov’s tools, and from some ideas I have from the repousse I’ve been doing on my own.
Coast Salish, bracelet, repousse
These are smaller and short tools for when I work on the bracelets. I hold them differently for these also, floating just above the surface, which gives me the rougher texture.
I’ve also got some idea for some figurative pieces, and want to do another large piece this new year also. I’ve been reading up on some smithing and forming, so that I can make a bowl or cup to chase as well.


I’m still waiting on the log for the Mosquito Creek Marina carving. Whenever I’m contemplating these bigger carvings, I’m very aware of how rare these big trees are today, and I can only guess at what they have seen in their lifetime. The really good carving wood only seems to start growing on a tree after about 200 years and up, after the tree gets big enough to need to drop its lower branches, and start the clear, knotless growth along most of its height.

I’ve got a design concept so far, a reworking of the thunderbird, killer whale, and bear figures from the original totem pole. I’ll be ‘Coast Salishing it up’, and use our more traditional housepost style, and will want to create a two-sided piece because there is now a pedestrian trail running along our waterfront there, and the piece will be visible from their as well as our village. I will not make final decisions until I see the log, and get final dimensions.

Otherwise, I’ve been working on jewelry lately, and have had a lot of interest in the Mountaingoat horn style bracelets I’ve made. These bracelets were originally carved from the horn, but I’ve made several now, first engraved very close to the original designs, and then onto a couple chased ones, and now I’m working on a couple repousse versions. It is one of the few really old designs, and other Coast Salish artists all seem to take a crack at it.

Peter Lattimer, from the Lattimer Gallery, gave me a extremely small bracelet-sized piece of gold to work on, and I’ve been trying to do the horn style repousse on it. I would not recommend it, in case you were thinking of doing this also. I’ve made some new tools, and had to figure out a completely different way of making this little bracelet; which is the good thing about just doing things myself, without anyone more experienced around, who might tell me that it what I’m trying is either foolish, or impossible.

I’ve also been warming up to making a more figurative repousse bracelet for Chief Bill Williams. It will be two wolves, or perhaps two aspects of the same wolf. I think I’ll need to combine my own hit-or-miss approach to repousse, with what I learned from Valentin Yotkov in New York, and the gems of information which seem to just fall from Phil Janze the times I heard him talk about repousse.

I’ll also be teaching a a bit again, working with my friend Drew Atkins, who I’d gone to Scotland with, to teach a carving course for high school students. Besides that, I’ll be doing a few basic silversmithing workshops, mostly sawing and piercing pendant forms.

Here is a bracelet I made for my uncle for his chieftenship naming last month. It tells the story of how he got swept along by a surge of dog/chum salmon, while gaff fishing on the Squamish river. My uncle Vern was on shore, and saw Ronny get swept by, literally on the salmons backs, and he said, “That’s the biggest chum I ever saw.”

When the salmon turned into the main river body, they dispersed, and Ronny went into the river, half shocked, half laughing. So he became Uncle Chum to us all. Picking up his name has been something he has wanted to do for years now, so now he is also Sxelapchtn siyam’p, and still one of the best and most generous men I think I’ll ever meet.

End of summer

Aaron carving a 12' by 3' houseplank

Having just finally finished the last of the 2010 Olympic pieces, and the backlog they’d created for me, I am now getting geared up to choose a log, for a project carving a houseboard for Mosquito Creek Marina, in North Vancouver, on the shore of Eslha7an village.

very old totem pole

The old pole was starting to fall apart, rotting from the outside, and had sections where only the paint was holding it together. Some mushrooms were starting to grow inside. Everyone decided to bring it back out into the woods in Squamish Valley and let it return to the world. It sits in one of our old village sites, in sections, with a beautiful view of the forest and the sky.

Some people party quite a bit up there, as it has access to the logging road, but we have fewer and fewer places to practise our old ways. Maybe the party people will see the pole and feel a different sort of medicine and spirit.

totem pole put back into forest