Jump to content

Best type of wood for totem pole???

Recommended Posts

I am looking to do some totem pole projects in the near future. I have access to some land and have permission to cut the trees.


What kind of tree should I look for. I live in NC so I need to make sure that the trees are actually here. The size I am looking for are about 8 - 12 inches in diameter and maybe about 6 - 8 feet tall.


Any suggestions??

Link to post
Share on other sites

I come from totem pole country, sort of, need to go a few 100 miles north in to British Columbia and Alaska to be where they really did them. They used cedar for them, long lasting, rot resistant and easy to carve. Do a search on Northwest Coast Indian Art at the library or bookstore and you will find excellent books. Next time you see an Seahawks helmet you will see a stylize version of the designs. If you find a book by Bill Holm, my college prof at the University of Washington youll get some of the best scholarly studies of the art form.


The virtual endless food supply of the coast of Washington, British Columbia and Southwest Alaska plus the availability of cedar made for a fertile area for development of the art form.


Here are some pictures I posted about camp: http://www.flickr.com/photos/21571421@N08/ It has a few pieces of regalia from our OA chapter using NW Coast Art.


Link to post
Share on other sites



Thanks for the info. I figured that the pine would have too pitchy.


I guess it is time to brush up on tree id so I can find the right tree.


Thanks for the info.


For the rest, I will have to ook at the links for the pics.

Link to post
Share on other sites

SctDad, talk to Nelson and/or Reggie at Bonner as I've been told camp does have a few trees that they grow specifically for totem poles cor conclave. They may have an one you can have.


Cypress is also rot resistant, and I believe you can find in the area.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Hi, I'm also from the area so I understand your question. Tulip poplar rots really fast. So does hemlock although you'll probably be able to find a huge supply of dead hemlocks now, due to the adelgids. I agree on the cypress if you can afford it. The others also rot fairly quickly (sorry NW, even your cedar goes away pretty fast in this climate, I have demonstrated this empirically with the structures around my home. ;) )

Even redwood rots around here. How long do you want it to last?

My deck has mixed woods, pine, teak, cedar, redwood. The only thing that has really lasted is the teak decking itself. I'm already replacing cedar posts and siding. Most of the pine was replaced years ago. The redwood furniture wasn't much better than the pine. Prettier while it lasted.


Once you finish the carving, regardless of your choice of wood, you will want to seal it and make sure you cap the top with aluminum or copper to protect the end. Fence posts last a lot longer that way, should work for you too. Good luck.

Link to post
Share on other sites

As can be seen in the above references, east coast tribes did not "do" totem poles. The west coast tribes did them for identification, decoration and glorification of their clan spirit animals.

All this doesn't mean you can't try your hand at a similar project. I have two friends who are pro wood carvers. They love the occasional commission to "adjust" the profile of a standing tree. One did a white oak, evoking the human struggle to overcome adversity, near a local Metro station. This sculpture unfortunately had to be removed due to construction. The other recently completed a really big magnolia, covering it with very realistic animals and birds, modifying his plan to accommodate the various limbs and knots. It stands at the entrance to the Friends Retirement Community in Sandy Spring , MD. A third man, whom I do not know, created the "Angel Joseph" out of a red oak chunk (! it's 15 feet tall and it's wings as wide) in honor of a local religious leader. It stands behind the Brookeville Academy in Brookeville MD.

Me, I'll stick to the occasional necker slide.

All would recommend that whether you do a tree "in situ" or a pole that you later place somewhere, that for preservation purposes, you treat the surrounding ground against termites.

You have earned your Totin' Chip, haven't you? ;>)

Link to post
Share on other sites



WHy would I use a chain saw. I have an axe and if I get em from camp, they have that 2 man cross cut saw.


As for what they are for, I was thinking of doing one with the Cub Scout ranks on it for my pack. I have also asked about doing another project, but to avoid problems, I will keep that one to myself for now.


So am I understanding it right, that a cedar or an oak. I just need to make sure that I seal it real good afterwards.

Link to post
Share on other sites

If I had Cubs working on the project, I would go with Tulip Poplar. It's a soft wood that's forgiving of mistakes, and won't chip. Ideal for wee ones learning how to use handtools. With a totem pole different types of wood can be added in the process to enchance features of the pole. You don't have to be stuck with using only one type of wood. Without Cub help, I would go for Maple, or Red Oak. If I was using Pine, then Loblolly, or Yellow, avoiding the more pitchy Jack pines. Needless to say, all woods in the Carolina's tend to rot fairly fast. However, of the pines, Yellow pine tends to fare better here.

If plans are to set the pole into the ground, then tar that section, plus several inches or so above ground level before setting.(This message has been edited by Le Voyageur)

Link to post
Share on other sites



Before anyone jumps on that, the cubs will not be working on this project. This is a little side project of my own.


This is not an outside pole. It will probably be setup inside a building.


And Yes, While working on it I did plan on having it up off of the ground. Maybe setting up some saw horses in my shed.

Link to post
Share on other sites

Just a thought....


Pine telephone poles have been standing for years holding up wires with nothing but tar treatment below the ground level.


They don't get painted.


They don't have caps on the top.


Pine is soft and should be easy to carve.


Use the roofing sealer below ground level and one should be able to make a cheap pine totem. In a year from now if it rots and falls all apart, why not just have the next bunch of Cubs get involved in making another one?


Am I over-thinking this?



Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...