Carving tools & technologies of Coast Salish art

Photo: Burke Museum
Photo: Burke Museum

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.

A hand tool with a handle and sharp edge tied together
Photo: Burke Museum
Photo: Burke Museum

Coast Salish Adaze

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

A carving tool with a figure decorated on the handle
Photo: Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 05-7-10/65509.
Photo: Courtesy of the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 05-7-10/65509.

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.’ 

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.

An illustration of the three basic types of canoe
Illustration: Kennth Greg Watson, 2008 (Brotherton S’abadeb, 2008 Fig. 11.7:253)
Illustration: Kennth Greg Watson, 2008 (Brotherton S’abadeb, 2008 Fig. 11.7:253)

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). 

An illustration of the changes in canoe spreading
Illustration: Wright, Robin K. A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State, 1991, page 245, figure 6.
Illustration: Wright, Robin K. A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State, 1991, page 245, figure 6.

Canoe changes in spreading: top, typical Puget Sound canoe after spreading; bottom, typical Puget Sound canoe before spreading. 

An illustration of Coast Salish canoe bow types
Illustration: Robin K. Wright.
Illustration: Robin K. Wright.

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. 

An illustration of the features of the Puget Sound-Georgia Strait Salish canoe
Illustrations: Bill Holm, “Coast Salish Canoes,” in Wright (ed) A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State, 1991, p. 242.
Illustrations: Bill Holm, “Coast Salish Canoes,” in Wright (ed) A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State, 1991, p. 242.

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.

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.

close up of a comb

See More Coast Salish Art

Continue exploring the history of art in this region, what makes Coast Salish art distinctive among the many regional Northwest Coast styles, and the vitality of contemporary Coast Salish art.

woven hat

Additional Coast Salish Art Resources

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Photo: Dennis Wise/University of Washington
Photo: Dennis Wise/University of Washington