Saturday, March 30, 2013

Spokeshaves and Maple Syrup, Welcome to Ontario

Rob Stevens and Roger Foster at Roger's Carlise Canoe Co ( wood working shed. Notice a red canoe in the background.

Ahhh, Snow. Finally back in my habitat. It was great to see the old white friend, crispy on the Canadian ground once, after so many months, I made it full circle around the globe back to North American. I'll be here for the next month with the Canadian Canoe Museum where ill be learning as much as I can about traditions from this expansive continent, particularly the birch bark canoes. 

Among the most important people to this incredible journey is Rob Stevens, Board Member of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association (, who connections, knowledge, and constant kindness has made my first week in Canada, essentially kickin' it with Rob, quite spectacular. 

Rob Stevens and Roger Foster looking at a restored wood canvass

For starters on this great week we went to visit the workshop of Roger Foster, and wood strip and canvass canoe building in Ontario. Roger's work and his willingness to teach is quite incredible. New inventions, paddle blanks and good dogs were abundant in the true sense of the word.

Rob, a knife, canoe pack, canoe, paddle, and toboggan maker spent a generous amount of time showing me his treasures and wonderful skills. We hand crafted a few paddles, my brain nearly flooded with unforgettable information in working with wood, varnishing, and designing a good paddle that will push the canoe forward with might.

Paddles from different parts of Canada except for an Amazonian on the bottom

The spokeshave is a double handed wood working tool that can carve a paddle almost on its own. Its all in the wrist. Whether locking it or letting it loose for a curve, the spoke shave is metal and wood meeting at their best. The cherry paddles that I was able to carve all have lessons in balance, strength and flexibility, and effective shape worked into them. Thank you Rob!

Spokeshaving  a cherry paddle, Rob's in-progress wood canvass canoe in the background.
My finished cherry paddle.

Rob gave me an incredible hunting knife and taught me to make a sheath treated with bee's wax. That was between our adventures making maple syrup. Rob and Bruce Farrand every March, when the maple trees are beginning to wake up from a wintery slumber, when their water blood is beginning to run again from ground to sky, and make something utterly delicious. They go to the trees and hang buckets, dozens of them. In a perfect partnership, as the men clear and maintain the forest below, the trees fill the bucks with a bit of their sap.

Farrand Land, Ontario, a gorgeous place to spend time
Steam the water out of that sap and it turns to syrup, the delicious kind with various maple flavours, perfect for your bacon and pancakes.

Bruce, Rob, and Don steaming the sap to syrup
A little teamwork to make harvesting easier

Bruce checking for the perfect consistency

That was my introduction to Canada, a massive amount of learning, meeting good folk, and making a delicious heritage product from healthy and happy trees.

Finished syrup from different parts of the season. Grandmother tree in the background.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Hoe : Making the Maori Paddle

The face of a finished Hoe, paua shell eyes and the gorgeous awa (river in the background)
I have been on a vision quest of sorts over the last few weeks, paddling from the top of volcanically active Mt. Tongariro in central North Island, New Zealand, down the Whanganui River, to the Tasman Sea. While there's infinitely lots to tell you about the journey, I'll first get back in the groove with a little bit about making paddles, while I rest at my very good friend's Dan and Nerja's in Auckland.

Chiseling a hoe blade

Using natives pieces of Kauri (and for a few not so native radiata pine), I made a set of paddles, all from single chunks of gorgeously grained and strong wood. The first Hoe I made, depicted in the first picture and below, was cut with a chainsaw but then shaped using adze, plain, my knife and a rasp, making it a pretty much hand-tooled piece. Following a ceremonial hoe design that Hector showed me, I have a curve in the shaft and an extremely long blade. For the handle, I carved an eight-point star, my personal crafting symbol, as well as a turtle shell.

Making sure the centerline is correct is priority number one (thanks Opo!)
The blades on each of the paddles come to a fine point, symbolizing the war uses in Waka Taua (war canoes) for hoes in the past. The backward side of the blades were carved out using a chisel to give a cupping effect on the water. The blades for the hoe are considered the tongue. The hoe, like all carvings, once completed, have a Mauri (life force) and are considered a living thing. Putting the tongue on the ground, as it would be for a human being, is considered highly disrespectful. It is also tapu (sacred code) to step over a hoe, dishonoring its life force.

A marlin carved onto a hoe for my good ol' uncle Gavin
I did use a few power tools, particularly the super friendly power grinder. I made a hoe for Opo in which I carved a triple curve in the shaft, like a flowing river, or to depict the three baskets of knowledge he taught me about in Maori symbolism.

Grinding the hoe shaft for a tripple curve
It was an incredible feeling when I finished each hoe, particularly for those individuals whom I cared about. The face of the hoe came to life once I set eyes in from paua (local shellfish) shells. The symbols and energy I put into each hoe as a gift for someone mean a great deal to me, literally bringing a creation to life.

Gavin's finished Hoe looking to the sky
 Learning to carve in the Maori style taught me a lot of discipline and carefully choosing the symbols that are meaningful to you. Those symbols and carve figures can give you constant power and teachings when surrounded by them. When they are something you've made, your always connected to them.

The eight point star on the handle of my hoe

I realize the pictures are a little out of order but I was too excited to show the finished product. For one week, Opo and I stayed up late into the nights carving. That was a powerful experience, being so deeply involved in the work.

Drawn face, ready to carve

Adzing the blade thinner

Opo's finished paddle in-front of our newly lashed Waka

Monday, March 11, 2013

The Vaka of Rarotonga

Mike and I lashing the stern
There are no words for my last week in Rarotonga, an incredible mountainous island in the center of the Pacific Ocean. I am changed as a person. I went to see Mike Tavioni, a traditional Vaka (canoe) builder, stone and wood carver, artist and community elder for the Rarotonga/Cook Islands people. The man keeps alive many of the islanders traditional arts and I felt truly blessed to spend the week with he and his wife, the sole female master canoe builder in the pacific.

A Vaka Ama (outrigger canoe), made by Mike Tavioni, in the National Museum,

We spent much of our time preparing a hull, shaping the bow and stern and lashing on the gunnels at a Vaka Ama or outrigger canoe. These canoes are used for paddling within the reefs and fishing by islanders, but very few exists in this part of the world. What Mike knows of these processes are the last bits of cultural knowledge, yet his willingness to teach is inspiring. Mike is a man of ideas, a fast flowing river of ideas, constantly carving the world by trying them. Each day with Mike was an optimistic and energetic reminder that we are "all artists".

Mike examining my work on the gunnel, and me waiting nervously for his feedback.

We lashed into our new Vaka Ama a plank from an old sailing canoe the Te Toronui, keeping alive the canoe into the future as those who are alive today keep their ancestors in their hearts. From a bog in his taro patch we took coconut husk, ready to be weaved into cordage or sennit.

Lashing towards the bow

Mike showing me an adze he made from an old lawnmower in Hawaii, at the Festival of Canoes, providing his resourcefulness

Mike also gave me lessons in carving, philosophy, economics, and just about any topic in which a person can learn and entertain. THis is one of the incredible things about the man, his fearlessness not only in approaching a topic, but in actually participating in it. That is what makes his an incredible teacher and inspiring artist. When I told him that my finger had been broken the week before in a Taiaha spar (a traditional Maori stick fight), he said I must carve a Taiaha for myself. So with only the use of my right hand, I carved a Taiaha from local Taua (war party wood, or ironwood). In every movement I could feel my hurt finger, and in turn feel the responsibility of what I was making.

Mike wielding the chisel

Using my broken finger to hold the chisel on my Taiaha
Rarotonga is a beautiful place and my soul is recharged after a week that will always be with me. There is to many story to tell to many epiphanies for a single week. I know, later in my life I will be back, but more importantly, I will always have the mindset to return to. I was taught this week a new meaning of following ones passions and ideas, of truly embracing love and openness, of seeing the beauty of a place, and simply doing a task as best as you can.

The Mountains of Rarotonga

Black Rock, the place of departure for souls

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Finishing Touches on a Waka Tete

Hec sketching a Tauihu out of a Kauri chunk. Another waka tete tauihu acts as our  model.
Besides enjoying Aurere, an incredibly beautiful and alive beach filled with tea tree and plentiful wildlife, my last few weeks of time in the workshop of Hector Busby was spent learning the finishing beautiful touches of the waka. My introduction to carving at such a scale, Hector and Opo showed me how to chisel with patterns and chisel on a Tauihu, or frontal piece of the canoe. On a waka taua (war canoe) the frontal piece is a very large plate with holes through (which have deep philosophical significance in Maori design). On the waka tete (fishing canoe) a face with protruding tongue is usually carved out of once piece, including a front splash board.

Hec and I chiseling the Tauihu once we know our basic shape.
Most Maori carving is based off of natural patterns which are derived from natural motions of the hand to draw on the patterns. A center line is still extremely import in the carving of something that is meant to be symmetrical. Though modern tools such as grinders and chainsaws are used in carving the waka pieces, the meaning and importance behind the carving remain the same. As Hector says "our ancestors used the best they had and we are using the best we have", the importance is in the end result and our persistence in getting  there.

Opo drawing on our center line
Taumanu, or thwarts, are places for strength and beauty, making even black lines ever meter and a half or so. These are sunken and then lashed into the Rawawa (carved planks).

Getting our pattern drawn for the spashboard, finished Taumanu (thwarts) are visible in the background

A splash board is added to the back using engineering minds and persistence to perfection to sit it just right over the rawawa and the piway (the black pieces made to secured the lashed gap).

designing the splashboard

The taurapa (vertical standing back piece), is a gorgeously carved piece that has both function and philosophical importance. Important patterns such as genealogy  cultural stories, uses of the canoe and religious intentions can be carved into the sides of the waka. Each symbol on the vertical piece has an intricate and heavy story to tell. Opo showed me some of these patterns as he did the finished touches on this taurapa. Again, as in so many experiences in my travels, I am humbled by how litttle I know and how much there is to know in our incredibly interesting world. I am grateful for the Maori friends who have showed me a little of their world and the incredible arts they are keeping alive. Just as a taurapa stands tall to show what those in the canoe are all about, it literally holds the canoe steady in the wind. That is what the Maori waka builders and carvers do for Maori-dom today, standing tall for who they are, the land  which is theirs, and keeping the canoe of culture steady into the future.

An unfinished Taurapa