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Māori carving or whakairo has developed over the centuries. The main mediums worked are wood, pounamu (nephrite jade) animal and human bone and onewa (basalt).

Māori carving is unique in the world as each taonga (treasure) encompasses three main kaupapa (ideas) - record of history and events, identity and decoration.

Although the Māori did not have a recorded history in the form of the alphabet and books, what many people fail to realise is that the carvings themselves are in actual fact recorded history. Every piece carved traditionally had a kaupapa and everyone could read them. The shape of the heads, position of the body as well as the surface patterns came together in each piece to record and remember events.

Wood - and its uses in Whakairo

Every tree in the world falls into one of two wood type categories - hardwood or softwood.


All native hardwood is slow growing producing growth rings close together, making the wood dense and heavy. These type of woods were mainly used for weapons, building structures and utensils that were required to last a long time. The following is a short list of native hard woods:

bulletAkeake - the hardest of all natives and a bush man's nightmare to his chain saw.
bulletMaire - the second hardest wood and the favourite kai (food) of the huhu (a native grub).
bulletManuka and kanuka - mainly used for palisading.
bulletand many more.



 Softwood is the opposite of hardwood, fast growing, with growth rings wide apart and light. This type of wood was mainly used for waka taua (war canoes); large, decorative carvings like poupou (wall carvings); as well as the carvings on the front of whare hui (meeting houses). The following is a short list of native soft woods:

bulletKauri - The hugest native tree of all the forests. (Grows over 200 ft) It is also the oldest, maturing at about 2000+ years. Swamp kauri is still found and carved today. From being buried amongst the minerals in the ground, when it is carved, it has a natural sheen of its own - provided by Papatuanuku. Kauri is also a soft white pine.
bullet Totara - Is a soft red pine. Growing to 150ft with 800 years until full maturity. Totara burl is the rarest wood. It is produced by bad growth years and only the totara produces it.
bulletKahikatea - The tallest (250ft) and the most emergent tree. This is also the softest of all the native woods.
bulletand many more.

images/tik-whk4.jpgTips for Carving Native Wood

 The following list comprises a few tips to carving native New Zealand wood.

bulletAlways work with the grain and have patience - for the grain goes where it wants to go, not where you think it should.
bulletAlways work with sharp tools - if you can shave the hair off your arm without any pressure on your skin, the chisels are then considered sharp enough.
bulletOne chisel should last at least seven lifetimes - don't grind them unnecessarily- 10 seconds on a grinder takes off one year of life.
bulletHave patience and care as you do each stage - don't move onto another stage until you have completed the previous one.

Pounamu - Nephrite Jade


Pounamu is found only in the South Island of Aotearoa (New Zealand). This is why, the South Island is sometimes called Te Wai Pounamu, the greenstone water. This variety is native to here, and cannot be found anywhere else in the world. 

images/tik-poun2.jpg The characteristic of pounamu, that stands it apart from other types of jade are as follows:

bulletPolished pounamu can turn to a glass feel and look.
bulletPounamu also holds different wairua (spirit).


The most prized bone is whale bone. Carvers in Aotearoa (New Zealand) need to hold a certificate issued by DOC (Dept of Conservation) before they are allowed to collect, buy or sell any whale bone artefacts, pounamu, native birds and/or feathers.


The most common bone that is around and carved today is beef bone. Sometimes deer antler, goats teeth or bull horns are used instead. Beef bone, when polished is a clean white. As whale bone has a marble look about it or an off yellowish white colour, other artists try to imitate this by staining the beef bone with tea, shoe polish and dyes. If you ever buy a beef bone that does not have a clean white colour - it has been stained - don't get fooled!!!

How To Do A Bone Carving

bulletCleaning the bone
bulletFirst you soak the bone in warm water for about 2-3 hours, the meat that is still attached to the bone will get soft and it will be much easier to scrape off.
bulletRemove the marrow from the centre with a knife.
bulletAfter the scraping you leave the bone in water with a bit of bleach and washing powder for another 20 minutes.
This is to get rid of the oils.
If you want the bone whiter, just leave it a bit longer.
bulletAgain, scrape the bone and use a bottle brush to clean the inside of the bone.
bulletThen the bone will be left to dry.
You can leave the bone in the sun to dry if you wish.
The best way to dry the bone is to leave the bone in upright position, so any oils that are still in the bone will go down.
Oils left in the bone will give a change of colour.
bulletDesign your carving
bulletFor simple designs, you can just draw this on the carving. If you lack inspiration, you can make a 'doodle' and shade the different parts until you find a design you like.
bulletYou can 'trace' your design onto the bone, using carbon paper. If needed, you can also re-size your design.
bulletYou can also design on paper and then cut and paste it onto the bone.
bulletCutting and shaping
bulletYou can use a machine to cut out the shape 'in rough'.
bulletTo get the shape as in your design, you can use a small jewellers saw.
bulletIt takes a bit of patience, but speed improves with practice!
bulletThen use sandpaper to create the exact shape you want and remove any edges you do not want.
bulletAdvanced carvers may then got on to embellish the taonga with further carvings...
bulletTo finish, you need to polish the bone, or better, buff your carving.
Buffing will give a really good finish.

When carving bone, you must always ensure that there is adequate ventilation and always wear a mask when grinding or shaping.


Māori people used to, and some still do today, carve stone, apart from pounamu which has already been discussed. Stone, like wood, comes in hard and soft as well as medium. Soft stone are mainly volcanic or igneous, for example pumice stone.

Medium stones are mainly sedimentary types, for example Hinuera (a type of sandstone and one of the early stages of pounamu).

Hard stones, also known as complimentary stones, are onewa (basalt), grey wacke argelite and obsidian.


Here's a few nice pictures of whakairo.










Guardian of the Ocean

Opposite is shown a bone carving entitled "Tangaroa". Here's a little of it's meaning.

For lovers of the ocean and the sea, Tangaroa is the Māori Guardian of the ocean, traditionally known for his power and protection over the oceans and the seas.

Tangaroa is one of the children of Ranginui (the Sky Father) and Papatuanuku (the Earth Mother).

The fin reminds you to be well balanced in life and to stay on course.



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This page last updated 06/07/2003 02:11:44 AM


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