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Browse the 1966 Encyclopaedia of New Zealand
Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.



The Maori Carver and His Implements

Carving, particularly the main types on buildings and canoes, was an honoured profession. The services of an eminent tohunga whakairo (carver) were keenly sought after, not only by his own tribe, but even by distant tribes. In some tribes carvers tended to come from certain subtribes which specialised in carving, as, for instance, the Ngati Tarawhai hapu of the Arawa tribe. Carving was a tapu occupation, with its appropriate ritual and prohibitions. Women were not allowed to be present while a craftsman was working. All chips from carving had to be carefully collected and burned in a special fire in case they became contaminated by contact with cooking. When a building was being carved, students would be employed under the watchful eye of the experts. This is still the way of passing the craft on.

High-relief carving was done with a greenstone adze (nowadays with a steel adze), the carver standing on top of the slab of timber while working. Lower relief work and the finishing of the high relief was done with smaller adzes with short handles. The surface decoration was done with chisels and a mallet. The mallet was not like the European mallet; it was about a foot long, rectangular or rounded in cross section, with a grip fashioned at one end. Fine chisels were made of greenstone or other fine-grained stone, or possibly of bone. Contrary to the popular conception, greenstone chisels take a keen edge and retain it reasonably well.