Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Maori Wood Carving Tools

In the Museum collection is a whalebone mallet and a number of stone chisels from New Zealand. Maori carvers still use mallets like the one you can see below to drive chisels into wood.

Wood carver's whalebone mallet showing wear from use on the surface area © Pitt Rivers Museum 
The mallets are made from either wood or whalebone, this particular one is made from the bone of a sperm-whale. If you look closely at the picture, you can see the wear and tear on the surface where the mallet has been used to strike chisels.

Today a Maori carver's toolkit will contain a wide range of metal chisels but early carvings were made using stone tools. Chisels made from greenstone nephrite (pounamu) were particularly popular for fine work. When examining old carvings it is difficult to tell whether nephrite or metal tools were used, as both produce similar cuts.

Stone chisels including one of greenstone nephrite (top).
From top to bottom PRM 1923.87.45, 1921.93.233 and 1927.73.5 © Pitt Rivers Museum 
If you visit the Museum you can see a number of Maori stone woodworking tools on the first floor (Lower Gallery) in case L.83.A Tools for Building and Carpentry. Staff are also working on a forthcoming display highlighting woodwork techniques from around the world, which may include the whalebone mallet. You can also explore the entire collection online using the object database on the Museum website.

If you want to find out more about Maori wood carving I have suggested some reading material below. You can also read about the history of wood carving, plus see the work of contemporary carvers, on the website of the Te Puia Maori Wood Carving School.

Zena McGreevy
Senior Assistant Curator

Suggested Further Reading:

Neich, Roger, 2001, Carved Histories, New Zealand: Auckland University Press.

Neich, Roger, 1996, 'Wood Carving' in Maori Art and Culture, D.C. Starzecka (editor), London: British Museum Press.

Paama-Pengelly, 2010, Maori Art and Design, New Zealand: New Holland Publishers.


  1. Hi! This is your maori-wood-carving-tools? so niche and beautiful blog.

  2. I read many article about the subject. But this article is really a good summary and introduction to the subject.

  3. Thanks for sharing this Maori carvers. I really like your writing style and how you express your ideas. Try to keep up the effective works.

  4. It often amazes me how our ancestors managed without power tool around to use!

  5. I read many article about the subject. But this article is really a good summary and introduction to the subject.