Rough Carving

In the process of falling the tree, it was discovered that there was some rot in its base. Once the tree was felled, the end was systematically trimmed with a chainsaw until the area of dryrot was removed. This process shortened the log by five feet. On the ground the butt end of the tree was downhill. Shortly after the falling, a liquid began to trickle from the cut end. Boaz drank some of this liquid and some of the other carvers tasted it. After watching this, I also sampled the lifeblood of the tree; it had a sweet taste.

With the end of the tree free of rot, a measure stick was made of roughly six feet (one fathom). This distance was found by the distance of one's stretched arms fingertip to fingertip; one loho.

(loho. Unit of Measure: fathom (span of the outstretched arms); to measure by fathoms. (Kapingamarangi Lexicon: Lieber and Dikepa. 1974)

The loho stick was then used to locate the other cut point (the length the log that was to be cut). The distance used was three and one-half loho. A mark was made and the log was cut. Again the chainsaw was used, at this point fixing the length of the dugout. The cut log measured at almost 22 feet. It was my understanding that the boat was to be longer but perhaps due to the rot, the length was shortened. Some rough carving at the butt end was started. Information in Material Cultures of Kapingamarangi indicates that the base of the tree was usually oriented as the bow of the canoe.

"At the same time, men were narrowing the ends to form the bow and the stern, with the bow, as always, at the butt end of the log." (Buck, 1950. P. 176)

Later, interviews with master canoe carvers Yoni and Noah on Kapingamarangi confirmed the information in Material Culture of Kapingamarangi. When asked what might be the reason for having the butt end of the tree as the bow they said it was probably because the wood at that end of the tree was stronger.

With the tree on the ground a rest was called. Aisea seemed interested in continuing and so he did. The branches were trimmed off and the shaping of the ends was continued. The process of roughing the hull continued while the primary undertaking was moving the log.

The moving was accomplished through the use of small log skids, a heavy-duty jack and a come-a-long. This process took about thirty minutes. This work, as with the rest of what I had witnessed, moved along at a steady, though relaxed rate. As some men tired others who had been resting took their place. The carving continued throughout the moving. The log was eventually pulled up to a flat, shady area. It was lifted up off the ground about ten inches and placed on logs.

Roughing out the form of the canoe (at least on the exterior) was done by a series of curf cuts (cuts made across the grain spaced about a foot apart), and then smoothing cuts (glancing axe blows that removed the wood in between the curf cuts). The axes were of the normal type, not broad axes. When a minimum amount of wood needed removing, the curf cut was not used. Once a rough shape was achieved for the underbody, the log was righted and the flattening of the top commenced. Again, the men took turns working as each person tired. Although there was some trouble with the chainsaw, it was still used at times. Most of the work was done with axes up to this point.

A tool change occurred once the top of the hull was roughed flat. Instead of axes, adzes were used as they refined the smoothing process. This took about thirty minutes.

With the hull upright and flattened, Aisea turned his attention to cutting a "d" size battery open with his machete. I had no idea what he was doing and thought it had nothing to do with the construction. Once he had the battery open, he emptied out a black charcoal-like powder onto a jar lid. The term "chalk line" was mentioned. Water was added to this black powder and mixed up. A string was then drawn through the paste and made ready for marking the hull. Two lines were marked on the topside of the hull. They were running fore and aft about seven inches apart. The space between these lines was to be removed. This removal was done in two ways; the first was the traditional manner.

Aisea, using an axe, alternated between diagonal cuts and then for wood removal his axe landed parallel with the grain and split out the remaining wood. The other method used the chainsaw. Long cuts were made along the layout lines and then cross cuts were made at a spacing of about ten inches. The in-fill wood was then removed by either an adze or wedge.

Into the second day of roughing out the canoe more rotted wood was discovered. Eventually it was determined that the log was unsuitable for the canoe main hull. The log was cut in half and then shaped into the rough form of the fore and aft momos, the washboards, stem and stern of the canoe. What lumber that could be salvaged was re-sawn and stacked for drying. A new tree was needed. We packed up the tools and drove back to town.

The next tree was found on the opposite side of the island. This time it was on property owned by someone from Kapingamarangi. Kosen owned land not far from where the second tree was found. The same process as described earlier also occurred with the second tree. Work moved much faster, as the practice of the first tree allowed for a more organized approach. After a few days of steady work the roughed out hull was covered with leaves to protect it from the sun and left to dry. This usually took a month or more but for this project it was decided that a week was sufficient.

An excellent description of rough carving a canoe can be found in Material Culture of Kapingamarangi by Buck, (1950) pages 175-179. The report describes the shaping of a canoe in 1949 on the Kapingamarangi atoll. Forty-seven years later, what I observed closely followed the methods described in his report.(See Appendix I, pp.175-179)