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Totem Pole

Age Range: 6-15
Difficulty: Hard
Time Frame: 2-4 Weeks

Making the Totem Pole

      One of the more enjoyable projects I have done with the kids. My son came home one day saying that their class project involved him making a totem pole. The teacher had in mind pieces of paper and cardboard being used to build the pole. Instead, what came to my mind is making an actual totem pole carved from one(1) piece of wood.

      Looking for a piece of wood to use, I was surprised to find that Home Depot actually sells dowels - long pieces of cylindrical wood that seemed ideal to the project. As a bonus, they can even cut it into the length that you need for free :-) When you have them cut it, have an idea as to how many levels your pole will have, and how long each level will be so that you can have an idea as to how long to cut it. I find that around 2 feet long on a 2 inch diameter dowel worked the best - coming out with around 5 levels/parts of the totem pole.

Totem Pole Painted
      Here are the materials you will need:
1) Dowel of appropriate thickness cut into desired length
2) Pencil with eraser
3) Rotary Drill with or without shaft attachment
4) Varnish of choice
5) Brush
6) Mineral Spirits - for cleaning the brush after you are done
7) Clear acrylic spray

Totem Pole Finished

      Making the totem pole goes as follows:

      Cut the dowels to 2 feet long pieces. Plan the design of the totem pole. Discuss with your child what design he wants on the totem pole. Animals would be the most popular but it does not have to be limited to them. For example, because my son liked fishing, we carved a boat on top of my son's totem pole.

      Once you have settled on the sequence, make drawings on top of the wood to get an idea of the design you want to come up with. I found that referring to pictures on the internet of sculptures of the specific thing I am carving (i.e. animal carvings), helped a lot in getting ideas.

      Start carving using a rotary drill, I've used the drill by itself as well as using the shaft attachment and both work as well. Expect to get dirty. Start with superficial cuts to delineate the shapes that you want, make adjustments as necessary, then make them deeper as you go along. In one of the totem poles, I actually carved out my son's name in the back in bubblegum font, not so obvious, but legible once you point it out. The carvings don't have to be spectacular or accurate even, as long as they are deep enough to be visible from afar. Do not rush, you can stop regularly and take your time carving it out. Try to get your child involved, if they are old enough, and let them do some of the carving.

      Once you have attained an acceptable sculpture, varnish the wood with a varnish of your choice. I chose an ash color to make it look more ancient. Let your child do some of the brushing to let them get a feel of how varnish is applied. It would be up to you whether you want to put an acrylic coating over the varnish after it is dry to give it a shine and protect the wood.

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