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Handmade Totem Poles
by Steve Thompson

Totem Pole Carving ... Various Stages

Carving a totem pole is a fickle art.

In the woods the trees sing to you, if you listen. In the woods you are amidst an orchestra. In order to capture that sense of majesty when I go into the woods to find raw materials I try to cut a variety of sizes of logs including different wood varieties, thickness and length. With a modest stock pile of ready materials on hand to carve on, I can create this art as often and in as magnificent a scale as the spirit moves me.

Each totem pole really does start with a design idea. As the idea starts I start to think about how big should it be and then what exactly will fit in the dimension of this log. Commissioned pieces tend to be more idea specific, but the same principal theory applies, even in free form. Keep in mind that there will be artistic liberty in every creation, after all, that is the point!

Step 1
It all begins with a log and an idea
Carving continues
The carving continues on site

So, I start with a design concept and meditate on the symbolism that will represent the spirits and associated emotions that the totem is inspired to represent. Often with my first totem poles, I simply tried to be funny.

Before I start carving with a hammer and chisel sometimes I will sketch out on the log where the initial cuttings will start. I use a pencil, chalk or a magic marker. This helps me get a feel for the scale of the various sections of each totem. Even on wood that has a thin pulp layer, the sanding process removes any sketch marks, at the same time exposing the fine grains of the Appalachian woods.

I start to chisel an outline around the patterns. In this part of the process I try to use what the wood gives me. Knots make interesting eye designs. The outline is not as critical a stage as compared to when the carving gets deeper. Outline mistakes are often the first hint at a new design idea.

Sanding the Totem Pole
The totem is carefully sanded
Finished Totem Pole
And then a finishing is applied

The carving is simply a labor of love. A five foot oak can take two weeks to carve and two days to sand. Black walnut is so hard, in a single day of carving I will have to sharpen the chisels several times.

But, once the totem pole is finally sanded, and the oak, cherry, walnut and maple grains shine through as the saw dust washes off, the magic of life each totem pole represents just makes you smile and it is all worth every minute of it.

All designs & content © by Steve Thompson   Charleston, West Virginia