Carving tools & technologies of Coast Salish art

January 22, 2014
Robin K. Wright

New tools and technologies have always been rapidly adopted and adapted by Northwest Native artists as they become available. 

The adze is the most important carving tool used by indigenous carvers on the Northwest Coast. Many different styles of adzes were developed in ancient times, using ground stone blades made of a hard greenstone called jadite or nephrite. Chisels were made of beaver teeth and elk horn. It is believed that iron blades were made from metal salvaged from Japanese shipwrecks that floated in on the currents before the first Europeans brought iron in greater quantities to trade for furs in the late 18th century.

Coast Salish carvers use two basic styles of adze, a short-handled “elbow” adze, and a D-adze, named for the shapes of the handles. These were used to carve canoes, smooth cedar house posts and planks, and rough-out bowls and spoons. Finishing work is done with straight-bladed knives as well as “crooked knives” with curved blades that can hollow recessed areas. Today, carvers use chain saws and other power tools, but adzes and crooked knives are still used for carving.

Coast Salish Adaze

Coast Salish Adaze
Skokomish elbow adze, Burke Museum cat. no. 18, collected by Rev. Myron Eells for the World's Columbian Exposition, 1893.
Photo: Burke Museum

Quinault D-adze

Quinault D-adze
This D-adze belonged to Captain Mason, a Quinault leader, who used it for making canoes. According to Oliver Mason, the great-grandson of Captain Mason, ‘The little figure represents the spirit that helped carve the canoes. He was a helper and when they’d get tired, he'd help them keep going.’
Photo: Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 05-7-10/65509.

Canoe Carving

Until the early 20th century, the main method of travel on the Northwest Coast was by canoe, and many different styles of canoes were used for different purposes.

It is believed that the Coast Salish style of canoe may have been ancestral to the northern Northwest Coast canoes. It is characterized by a vertical cutwater, upswept bow and outswept stern. A groove is carved along the inside rim of the gunwale and a notch is cut in the bow.

Canoes were carved from a single log, hollowed, steamed and spread in order to increase the width of the canoe, and bring the bow and stern up (see spreading diagram below). In addition to the Coast Salish traveling canoe with the notched bow, the people of the Salish Sea also used the ocean-going west coast canoe type, also used by Chinookan, Makah, and Nuu-chah-nulth tribes, as well as the flat, dugout shovel-nosed river canoe to pole up shallow rivers.

Canoe race at Coupeville Water Festival, 1934

Canoe race at Coupeville Water Festival, 1934.
Photo: Washington State Historical Society, neg. no. 16.01.001

Illustration of three basic types of canoes

The Coast Salish people used three basic types: shovel nose canoes for river travel (top), Salish style canoes for travel, fishing, and hunting in the Salish Sea (middle), and Westcoast (or Nuu-chah-nulth) style canoes for long distance and ocean travel (bottom). 
Illustration: Kennth Greg Watson, 2008 (Brotherton S’abadeb, 2008 Fig. 11.7:253)

Illustration of canoe changes in spreading

Canoe changes in spreading: top, typical Puget Sound canoe after spreading; bottom, typical Puget Sound canoe before spreading. 
Illustration: Wright, Robin K. A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State, 1991, page 245, figure 6.

Coast Salish canoe bow diagrams

Coast Salish canoe bow diagrams: top, Northern Gulf with vertically compressed prow and deep, angular cutwater; bottom, Puget Sound with slanted prow and rounded cutwater.
Illustration: Robin K. Wright.

Puget Sound-Georgia Strait Salish canoe

This diagram shows the features of the Puget Sound-Georgia Strait Salish canoe, based on Burke Museum canoe #1-167. From top: side view; view from above; waterline showing fine entry and run; cross section amidships. 
Illustrations: Bill Holm, “Coast Salish Canoes,” in Wright (ed) A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State, 1991, p. 242.

Canoe Journeys

Motor vessels largely replaced cedar canoes on the coast in the early 20th century, but canoe racing remained a popular social event for Coast Salish tribes. Since the first Paddle to Seattle event that took place in conjunction with the Washington State Centennial celebration in 1989, canoe journeys have become an annual event and have inspired the revival of traditional traveling canoes carved of cedar logs that are steamed and spread in the traditional way.

Canoe journeys also inspire the production of ceremonial regalia such as woven robes, cedar bark hats, and the carving of canoe paddles.

Emmett Oliver Honoring Canoe

Emmett Oliver Honoring Canoe, painted design by Marvin Oliver; photo taken at the 2009 Canoe Journey at Suquamish, WA. Norris: Contemporary Art on the Northwest Coast: Salish, Nuu-chah-nulth and Makah, page 14-15, top.

Learn More

Continue reading Contemporary Coast Salish art or explore more Coast Salish art
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