The Finishing

Through interviews, research and example, information regarding the traditional finishing process of the waka siu is incomplete or perhaps nonexistent. Again, this is a result of the traditional knowledge lost since the last canoe of this type was carved. It is generally agreed upon however, that the canoe was painted and that the paint was formulated by mixing quick lime, obtained by the burning of shells and coral, and water. When preparing the lime, a hole was dug and a fire was built within. Once the fire was burning well, the shells and coral were cast into the flames. They were eventually reduced to a fine white powder (i.e., quick lime). After some time, the ground water began to seep back into the hole mixing with the powder to form a paste which is the base for their canoe paint. Depending on the type of canoe, color was sometimes introduced to the white paste through soil and plant derived admixtures. Some of the elders have mentioned a pattern of "X's" achieved through application of two different tones or colors. This pattern was said to occur on the washstrake, the momo, connecting the holes through which the lashings attached the plank to the main hull.


 Jimmy Amita applying the second coat of varnish


From what little information I could find concerning the finishing of the waka siu, I believe they were painted mostly white with the area below the waterline a different color. I suspect this for three reasons. First, it is generally agreed upon that the canoe was painted. Second, the canoes I have seen, both on the atoll and in the canoe houses of Porakiet, are painted in this fashion and Aisea, the master carver, suggested this as a possible pattern. Finally the Emory report, based on research done in 1951, described the waka siu as having no decoration. "The canoes were of breadfruit wood and undecorated." (K. Emory 1965: 213)

The actual finish chosen for the canoe was a natural wood finish. This decision generated a lot of discussion. In the end it was agreed that despite how the canoe was finished, it would be traditionally incorrect. The beauty of the natural wood and the clarity of the construction process that the natural finish allowed eventually tipped the scales.

Once the type of finish was decided, the lashing holes were puttied with a mixture of wood glue and sawdust (traditionally, the sap from the breadfruit tree was used.) The entire canoe was sanded with 60 to 150 grit paper, and scraped with glass from a broken bottle. Two coats of an oil-based wood preservative were then applied and allowed to dry overnight. This was the first chance to preview the beautiful golden colors of the natural wood. A test was done to insure that the wood preservative and varnish to be used were compatible. Satisfied that the finishing materials would work together, we prepared to apply the first coat. The first coat of varnish, thinned with roughly twenty-five percent kerosene, was started. The moisture and the high humidity of a storm system caused the varnish to dry slowly. Assuming that the varnish would be dry, the launching was planned for Monday. It was hoped that three coats of varnish could be applied before the launching. Unfortunately, this was not the case, and the launching took place after only the first layer was applied.