How to Carve a Totem Pole

Stump of a utility pole

Have you ever wanted to make a mark on the world? To leave a lasting sign of your ego, your greatness, so that future generations will bow down to honour your memory? Or do you just like making funny faces and leaving them on display in odd places to confuse passers-by? Making your own totem pole will provide a common outlet for both these desires. Here we provide instructions that the absolute beginner can follow.

To carve a totem pole, you will need some wood and tools with which to carve. One place to get wood is at a lumber yard. However, there are two problems with lumber yards: (1) most lumber yards do not stock totem pole material, but only boards and planks which are too skinny (unless you are carving stick figures); and (2) the wood at a lumber yard costs money, and money doesn’t grow on trees. Fortunately, though, wood is not like money; it can be found in almost any town or city, growing from the earth in tall, strong stalks, which are readily cut down with an axe or chainsaw, called “utility poles.” When you cut it, keep it at least 8 feet long, and do not split the wood.

But you also need the proper tools with which to carve your totem pole. First of all, find a carving knife. Most people have a carving knife in their kitchen, and use it to carve a turkey at Thanksgiving and Christmas, then let it sit unused the rest of the year. This is the time to put it to use, especially if you are carving a turkey as part of your totem pole. If you don’t have a carving knife, you may be able to borrow one from the farmer’s wife, who used it to cut off the tails of the three blind mice. (She was not particularly sensitive to their disability.) Just make sure you don’t carve any mice on your totem pole, or at least don’t tell her if you plan to.

Other tools are available for more specific purposes. You may use a Bowie knife to carve an image of David Bowie on your totem pole; a samurai sword to carve a Japanese warrior; and a spoon to carve a spoonbill or any rounded shapes.

Once you have some wood of the proper girth and some good carving tools, you can set about the real work of designing and carving your totem pole. Totem poles usually include several disembodied heads of animal or human form. They are often symbolic in character, such as the jackass, the dodo and cuckoo birds, and the bald-headed man. Depending on how you want people to remember you, you may choose any of the above, as well as creatures that eat dirt, that wallow in filth, or that reproduce once and die within the season. All of these will tell onlookers that you are intelligent enough to make a lasting statement about the purposefulness of your life.

Now make a few sketches of your chosen characters before you start carving, then draw them onto your pole. Planning is the key; otherwise, you may end up with a polar bear standing on top of a man, and the man on top of a honeybee, and although the order of the food chain may be correct, your totem pole may collapse from problematic structural engineering. But do put something large and visible at the top, so that large people have something to look at. One good choice is a scarecrow, since it will also ward off birds that would otherwise perch upon your totem pole, giving the impression that your work is being mocked by God and nature.

After you’ve laid out the figures, you can start to carve. This is perhaps the most difficult part, because knives are sharp and there is a tendency, the first time you carve, to end up with a piece that looks like it’s been bathed in blood (and then you would have to paint it red to make it seem like part of the design). So at this point, if you are not already an experienced woodcarver, you should probably just give up, and resign yourself to the fact that totem poles are for much more important people than yourself, and you will probably never make your own mark on the world, much less be remembered by future generations like your children or your children’s children.

If you want to use the leftover wood for firewood, read Vim’s excellent article on How to Split Wood.

1 Comment

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  1. Rubye says:

    This is funny but I still think it can be done,maybe not easily.

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