Story: Whakairo – Māori carving

Page 2. Carving materials and techniques

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Symbolism of carving materials

The trees used to provide wood for whakairo (carving) represented Tāne, the god of the forest, and carving timber was sometimes referred to as the embodiment of Tāne. Special rituals were required to fell trees such as tōtara for carving. Once transformed into poupou (carved posts), the timbers took on the properties of the chiefs and other figures they represented. The pāua-shell used in the eyes of the figures came from the sea, the source of carving knowledge. The red ochre used to colour completed carvings was also worn as a personal decoration by high-born men and women, since red was the colour of high rank.

Suggesting a third dimension

Roger Neich, who studied the work of Ngāti Tarāwhai carvers, vividly described the three-dimensional qualities of the work of early adze carvers: ‘Spirals bulged out of the surface, hands passed through mouths from the rear, and the profiles of figures met the background in various angles … Several layers of superimposed supplementary figures often overlapped each other and the main figure that carried them.’1

Adzes and chisels

A carver’s toolkit included a number of adzes and chisels in various shapes and sizes. The other essential tool was a mallet, with a head made from wood or whalebone. This tool has remained almost unaltered since earliest times. An adze (with a long handle at right-angles to the blade) was used for roughing out the basic shapes, and short-handled chisels were then used to carve the fine details. Traditionally, these tools were made from stone and pounamu (greenstone or jade). They acquired some of the tapu associated with their owner, and no one else could use them without the carver’s permission.

Metal tools

Metal tools could be made much sharper and held their edge better than stone or jade, and iron for making tools was in high demand among carvers from the first contacts with Europeans. Nails, barrel hoops, bayonets and carpenters’ drills were all adapted for use in carving.

An art of subtraction

The Māori carver worked within the bounds of the piece of wood chosen for a specific work. A head and limbs were never added later, but shaped from the same piece of wood as the trunk of a figure. So a carver always removed wood to make his poupou, canoe prows, maihi (bargeboards of a meeting house) or other pieces.

Carving rituals

The act of carving was a ritual with its own prohibitions. Chips and shavings could be brushed away, but not blown off by the carver. They could not be used as fuel for a cooking fire because of the cultural prohibition against combining sacred objects with food.

Carved canoes

When artist Augustus Earle visited the Bay of Islands in 1827, he observed, ‘A dozen superb war canoes were lying ready to convey the forces; and, considering their limited means, the solidity of their structure and the carved work on them are surprising. None but men of rank are allowed to work upon them, and they labour like slaves ... Here were carvers, painters, caulkers, and sailmakers, all working in their different departments with great good humour and industry. Some of their vessels were eighty feet long, and were entirely covered with beautiful carving. Their form was light and delicate.’2

Carving technique

Carving was, and is, hard physical work. It began with the carver standing astride or alongside a selected piece of timber and adzing out the required shape. This was traditionally done without preliminary drawings or other markings on the wood – carvers carried the completed design in their heads. Next, the carver sat beside his work to add the detailed decoration with a mallet and chisel. Large projects such as war canoes or meeting houses were usually the combined efforts of a number of carvers working together, under the overall direction of a master carver.

Traditional training

Traditionally, a novice carver was expected to spend up to 20 years becoming expert in all aspects of the art of carving. A mistake committed while carrying out work, or in the rituals associated with it, was seen as life-threatening.

  1. Roger Neich, Carved histories: Rotorua Ngati Tarawhai woodcarving. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001, p. 162. Back
  2. Augustus Earle, A narrative of a nine months’ residence in New Zealand in 1827. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman, 1832, p. 110. Back
How to cite this page:

Brett Graham, 'Whakairo – Māori carving - Carving materials and techniques', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 July 2024)

Story by Brett Graham, published 22 Oct 2014