Tiki Statues are a fun and exciting element of tropical culture and certainly a big part of a “Tiki Island Life.” Acquiring one any way you can is great, but making your own is simply the best way to get a tiki in your life. It gets you involved in the process. When you’ve played a part in its creation it gives you a whole new level of appreciation (and potentially the admiration of others).

Carving a tiki statue may seem like an overwhelming task, especially if you focus only on the end result.  Looking at other tiki statues can be daunting. Many tiki statues are truly works of art. With some effort and patience, however, I believe anyone can achieve 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 away from the end result (which may seem so far off) to the next step in the process.  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.

The first thing to consider is what to make your tiki out of. Tikis can be made out of lots of things. Some are made out of palm tree trunks. Others are made out of a variety of other woods. Still others are made out of stone (or concrete). I think that traditionally (at least in Hawaii) Tiki Statues were carved out of the trunks of palm trees indigenous to a given area because that was what was around. The Moai sculptures of Easter Island, however, are great monolithic stone structures. Any of these can be good choices, depending upon availability and the direction in which one’s taste runs. I think palm trunks have a nice “feel” to them since they were originally part of a palm tree which, by definition, grew in a tropical or subtropical area (or close to it), maybe making the resulting tiki seem extra exotic. For the purposes of this post I will focus on palm tree trunks, specifically the trunks of Cabbage Palms.

If you live in an area in which palm trees grow, acquiring one should be fairly easy. In my area (central Florida) housing or construction projects almost always involve clearing land of scrub and palm trees. The kind of tree most often cleared is the Cabbage Palm (Sabal Palmetto) which grows wild here, and as far north as North Carolina. A construction site would be a simple, easy and cheap way to acquire a trunk to carve. Another way might be to get one from a friend or neighbor who wishes to have a palm removed from their yard or landscape for aesthetic purposes or perhaps because it died. It would be a good idea to have it removed by a professional, since Cabbage Palms are somewhat difficult to “cut down” and-because they retain so much water- are very, very heavy.

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Always remember when selecting a palm trunk to check it for soundness. Many palms can have areas of structural deterioration, even when alive and standing. This can take the form of deep scars or “erosion” of the trunk, causing a section of bark and fiber underneath to be simply gone. It is easily spotted by visual examination. This eroding (or rotting) can even happen UNDER the bark or outer surface, making the trunk appear solid and sound when it’s not. An easy way to check for this is simply “knock” on the trunk. When the trunk is sound, you will hear a solid, resonant thump. When it’s not, you will hear a hollow sound, and may even find the trunk feels soft in that area.

Once acquired, the palm trunk can likely be moved around with a moving dolly or with a friend to help with the lifting. Many people simply carve them on the ground and then move them to the area in which they would like to place them. I prefer to use somewhat longer trunk pieces and actually dig a fairly deep hole where I want to place them and put them in the ground to stabilize and hold them securely. I think it helps make them easier to carve, and allows for easy perspective in estimating what the finished product will look like in that location. Obviously you couldn’t do that if you wanted to place your tiki on a patio, deck or sidewalk.

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.  Focus on the designs that interest 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. The drawing will 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 trunk. 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 the lines 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 the tiki statue’s 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.

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With the carving done, it will be time to consider the finishing touches. The first thing to consider when finishing or embellishing a tiki statue is a sealing material. If it is to be displayed outside, the need for protection from weather is obvious. Even if the tiki is used indoors it is a good idea to have it sealed to protect it from dirt and stains.

One of the best sealing materials is polyurethane. Simple to apply, durable and easy to clean up, polyurethane makes a great finish. The best way to apply it is with the biggest brush that will fit in the urethane container. Bristles of the brush are able to get into tiny crevices that sponges and other application tools are unable to reach. I have found that using a circular motion with the brush really allows the brush to cover well.

Something to consider is that it will take a LOT of polyurethane to cover your tiki, especially if it is the first time you are sealing it (it must be redone once in a while to ensure good protection). When I sealed a 7 foot tiki, it took about one gallon (admittedly the tiki had many rough areas which tend to soak up more of the polyurethane).

Attention must also be given to the type of polyurethane used. Not all polyurethane is the same. They are designed for many different purposes. Try to find one that is specifically for outdoor use, protection from UV, heat and moisture. I used Helmsman Spar Polyurethane, and it seemed to work well.

An enhancement that I find very attractive and allows for a very authentic look is the burnt look. Perhaps it has to do with the connotation of primitive cultures, or Polynesian affinity for fire and acknowledgement of its power, but it just looks darned cool! Making it an even more attractive enhancement, it’s VERY easy to do. All you need is a propane torch and you’re all set. Simply decide the area for the burning and apply the torch. I like to burn the areas around the eyes, nose and mouth, but you can really add it anywhere you’d like. If you use this technique, make sure you have a safe area (noncombustible) and a bucket of water or other fire suppressant because sometimes the wood or palm trunk will catch fire. It usually goes out on its own in a few seconds, but it doesn’t hurt to be safe.

Next you may want to consider adding color. While many people consider it “unauthentic” and prefer their tikis natural, others enjoy the judicious application of a bit of paint. I enjoy both types; they each have their own appeal or “vibe.” When I do use color, I like colors in the red/orange/yellow spectrum (perhaps again tapping into the “fire” motif), and generally paint just the eye and mouth areas. I have, however, seen tikis painted with virtually every color you could imagine,-sometimes completely covered!  As with most of these issues, it’s a matter of personal taste.

If there are decorative carvings on your tiki (for example palm trees, pineapples or flowers) you may wish to highlight them with paint. On my first tiki, I carved a palm tree below the face and colored the “fronds” bright green, and burnt the “trunk” with a torch for contrast. It made the palm tree stand out nicely.

If you do choose to use paint, carefully consider your brushes. I would recommend using one smaller than one used for the application of the polyurethane. You will probably want to get into areas that are relatively small, taking care not to get paint beyond a certain point. Actually using two brushes is a really good idea. Use a medium one for larger surfaces and a very small one for tiny or highly detailed areas.

When choosing paint, make sure that it will be durable. Do not use a type that will wash off (for example Tempura). I chose acrylic paints from a local department store craft section, and was able to get exactly the colors I wanted in the quantities I wanted. Unless you are painting a whole tiki, you would probably not use more than 8-16 ounces of any one color. If you’re painting really small areas for accent, you may use even less.

If you take it slow, and keep at it I believe you will have a tiki you will be proud to display, and one that adds to your Tiki Island Life. When you’re done don’t be surprised, when you show off your work, if others have a hard time believing that you actually did it yourself instead of some professional tiki carver or artisan.