How to Carve a Tiki Statue From a Palm Trunk

Carving a tiki statue may seem to be an overwhelming task. This is especially true if you stay focused on the end result and how difficult it may be to achieve. Looking at other tiki statues having a vast array of designs can be daunting. Many of them are very elaborate and quite intricate, obviously representing the work of a skilled artisan. Truly, many tiki statues are works of art.

At the same time, I believe there is nothing preventing any of us from directing our energy and effort toward this task and achieving a result which, even if not a work of art, can be quite satisfying and attractive. One simple way to get the process started is to shift our focus to the “next step only.” This will keep things in better perspective, allow you to see the project as much more “doable,” and will allow you to make steady, incremental progress.

Before you put “blade to trunk” to begin the carving, it will be important to have a clear idea of the design you would like for your tiki. A quick stroll around the internet will reveal that there are more varied tiki designs around than one could possibly imagine. Many tiki statues have more than just a face design, incorporating arms and legs into the tiki (though usually miniaturized relative the tiki face). Also included may be carvings of pineapples, flowers, palm trees or other symbols of Polynesia. Some simply have a design pattern to embellish the tiki. While all of them are good for somebody, somewhere, at some point, it is important for you to focus on the designs that interest or please YOU.

Personally, I’m sort of picky, and don’t like many of the designs out there because I think they look silly or goofy. That said, I’m sure many people would find the designs I like to be “silly or goofy.” Obviously this is all about personal taste. You will have to see which designs appeal to you. See which PARTS of which designs appeal to you. If you don’t find one that is exactly what you want, make drawings incorporating features you like, or make up our own. A drawing can become your plan or blueprint for your tiki. Whatever your aesthetic requirements, keep at it until you have a design that is “just right.” You’ll know that it’s just right when you go back to it to make small adjustments and find that you don’t want to make any!

Unless you wish to make your drawings on a 1:1 basis (meaning that your drawing would be exactly the same size as the tiki you wish to carve), you may wish to consider making them in “scale.” For example, if you would like the eye of your tiki face design to be about 4 inches long by about 2 inches wide, you might draw it about 1 inch long by about ½ inch wide. That would be a 4:1 scale (meaning you would multiply every dimension on your drawing by 4 to get the actual dimensions to mark on the palm trunk). This technique allows you to make drawings more quickly and easily, yet retain the ability to transfer the design to the piece with relative ease.

Once you have your design and all relevant dimensions, it will be time to transfer it to the piece. Take your time with this step, since it will be your guide, and prevent you from straying too far from your design and the overall “look” for which you are going. Chalk is a good marking medium for this purpose since it is easy to use, easy to see, and cleans off well when you are done. A step that many take at this point is to make a center line down the length of trunk with the chalk. The center line will give you a reference, especially for the tiki face allowing you to maintain symmetry more easily (unless you are actually going for a skewed, asymmetric look). Use a tape measure to ensure the dimensions are correct, and to make sure everything looks right when you’re done.

It is now time to decide exactly how you wish to carve your tiki. Some people use nothing but a chain saw to create their entire tiki statue, and believe it gives the finished product a more primitive look. There are examples on the internet, and I have to say they really look pretty good. I would not, however, carve a tiki statue entirely with one, mostly because I’m not skilled enough with a chain saw. That level of precision would require that someone be very experienced and very, very skilled; even a small error or accident with a chain saw can be extremely dangerous (or even fatal).

I would recommend use of hand carving tools, such as chisels, gouges and a hammer or mallet. Hand tools obviously take more time than motorized tools, but they also allow for greater precision. The slower pace also allows you to be more careful, and to alter your design before it’s too late if something isn’t looking right.

The first step in carving is to go around the perimeter of each element of your markings with a chisel or gouge and actually cut a line into the outer surface. This will give you a good outline of your entire design. For some elements (for example the purely decorative) you may wish to only remove the bark or outer layer simply to make them stand out from the surface of the rest of the palm trunk and be visible. For other elements (eyes, nose, mouth) you may wish to carve more deeply to create three dimensionality.

As you are carving, remember to cut out only a small amount of material at a time. While it might be tempting to take out large chunks of material (to finish your tiki quicker), do not do it. It is simply too easy to take out too much all at once. This may result in cutting too deeply, chipping out material you didn’t intend or inadvertently cutting outside of your design. When cutting any kind of fibrous material, including palm trunk, a cut will want to follow along the grain. If you have cut too deeply a split may extend well beyond the boundary of your design even if you were not originally carving in that spot. Correcting these mistakes can cost a lot of time. Obviously if the mistake is big enough it can ruin the piece.

For carving straight lines or removing material from a flat surface, you will want to use a chisel, because it has a straight beveled blade. Always make sure you cannot see the beveled part of the blade as you hold the chisel; the flat side should face up. If the flat side is down, and as you hold the chisel you can see the beveled part of the blade, it is upside down. Cutting with a chisel upside down will cause it to dig deeper and deeper, even if you were trying to make a small cut. In the correct position, the chisel will want to rise back to the surface of the wood as you cut, allowing you to make small cuts easily.

For carving curved lines or for hollowing out an area (as you may wish to do for the eyes and mouth), use a gouge. Gouges were made for hollowing out areas. Obviously larger ones work best for larger areas, and smaller ones work best for finely detailed work, or for getting into small tight areas. Those who carve tikis professionally have a huge array of tools allowing them to make any kind of cut they want. You may wish to acquire tools specific to the job/design you have in mind.

The nose will require a somewhat different technique, and is what some may consider the hardest part of carving a tiki. It is called carving “in relief.” Carving in relief simply means to lower a flat surface around an object (in this case a tiki nose) to make it appear that the object is raised. Since you don’t want to simply “glue” a nose onto your tiki (that would look silly), you must lower the surface around the nose to make it appear that the nose is raised. You will want this “lowering” of the surface to appear gradual, getting lower as it gets closer to the nose. You can choose to cut a very deep relief, or a relatively shallow one. Even a half inch relief will be enough to make the nose stand out and be visible. Once the relief is done, you may wish to carve some detail into the nose itself. I prefer relatively simple, primitive triangular nose shapes. Others prefer highly detailed and realistic nose carvings, with nostrils, etc. The choice is yours.

If you work slowly and methodically, you will be surprised how the tiki begins to take shape before your eyes. If you get stuck on an area, take a break. Come back to it later. It may change your perspective and provide insight as to how to clear up the issue. Once you have your tiki carved, you may wish to seal it in some way. Clearly this is much more important if it is to be displayed outdoors rather than indoors, removed from the elements. There are many commercial products available that will do the job.

That’s really about all there is to it. Obviously the more detail, pattern and decoration there is, the more elaborate the design, the more time it will take. Consider, however, that some of the simplest designs can look the most striking. The Moai sculptures on Easter Island are exceedingly simple and yet have held our interest and imaginations for centuries. Attractive doesn’t have to mean complicated. Determine what appeals most to you, and will fit the best in the environment in which you wish to display your tiki. Have fun and good luck! Who knows, after you’ve completed your first one you may want to make a whole bunch of ’em.

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