We have a lot to learn from these ingenious coastal Indians. For many generations, they knew how to harvest resources from the land and survive amongst their own surroundings and community. Now they are world renowned for their ability to harvest and use the Northwest cedar tree. Their knowledge spanned from building thickly planked houses to weaving fabrics. They have such an expertise at carving and cutting cedar that they are well known for their large totems and intricate carvings.
Cedar can be worked in many ways with a minimum of tools. These tools were so simple that the simplicity speaks of knowledge and experience refined over a vast period of time.
To harvest and build with cedar, the Indians used many tools such as the hammer (or maul), wedge, adze, chisel, and a variety of other simple tools.
The hammer stone, or maul, was a water-worn cobble, chosen for its shape and hardness and resistance to cracking or chipping. It could be grasped in the hand and easily used. The Southern Indian used just the hand maul, but the Northern Nations used the heavy hafted maul, the maul with a handle. Many of these stones were sculpted to resemble the users' spirit helper in a form of an animal or bird.
Along with the maul the Indians used wedges. They used these to split cedar planks and other pieces of wood to build houses and furniture. Tough, fine-grained yew wood provided the best material. Other woods were used as well such as spruce, maple, and crabapple. The workers would scorch the wood to make it harder, rub tallow into the heated wood to keep it from warping, and twist a grommet of cedar withe around the top to prevent hammer blows from splitting the wedge. Thick beams of elk antler, beveled at one end, served as a wedge also.
After the logs were cut into appropriate sizes the adze and chisel were used to hollow out shapes and forms. There were several different types and sizes of these tools, but the most universal piece was the elbow adze. Southern people used an elbow adze with a stone head on a short haft, and the Coast Salish and Kwakiutl peoples used a long-handled adze. The Northern wood workers had an even heavier version. Metal blades were used in these, even up to several hundred years before settlers came. These metal pieces probably came to this region by Native trade routes. But before the metal blade, stone bladed adzes were used. There has been little evidence of these stone blades since the metal pieces have been used for over three hundred years.
The large sized elbow adzes were used for rough shaping and chopping, such as removing branches, carving out the basic shape of a canoe, or the initial stages of roughing out the figures of a pole. Alder wood is a good choice for the haft of this tool since it retains its spring, which is necessary for proper use.
From the Vancouver Island southward the D adze was used quite frequently as well. This adze had a narrower blade then the elbow adze. In these adzes the hafts were carved to represent spiritual creatures. These pieces were used for finer work and for finishing a piece. With precise repeated strokes in a continuous line, the D adze gave the work a characteristically ripple effect. Most cultural groups considered a pole not finished unless it bore this effect.
A straight adze was used as well in this Native American culture. This tool was similar to the D adze, except that the blade was aligned with the knuckles instead of being set off and it had a knuckle guard of leather or wood.
The chisel was an essential cutting tool as well. It has a long shaft topped by a grommet or crown of cedar withe to prevent it from splitting. Chisels were often used to fell trees; some them had a haft of up to 4 feet in length to reach deep into the trunk. Before iron, these tools had blades of fine grained stone or bone. Chisels with blades of mussel shells were also used for scraping and shaving wood. These were brittle though, and would break if hit with a hammer.
Other tools used in this region were curved, split beaver-tooth knives, metal blade knives, sharp scrapers made from quartz, obsidian, sharpened bone, mussel shell, beaver teeth and other material such as metals. Fine pointed quartz tools called gravers were also used. These pieces were used to make holes and were made out of bone awls and stone drill bits. To sharpen their tools the Coastal Indians used sandstone to get a clean edge, although obsidian blades were made by chipping the rock with another stone in such a fashion to create a razor sharp edge.
The Northwest Coastal Indian is well known, not only for elaborate carvings, but for the exactness of their symmetry. For those perfectly symmetrical poles or engravings, templates were used to precisely mark the ornamentation. For canoes though, only years and years of experience could perfectly mirror the design, because a template could not be used.