How to Carve a Totem Pole with Chainsaw in 6 Simple Steps

Patrick McMann

Knowledge Based

Carving a totem pole or a tiki head with a chainsaw is a unique and challenging art requiring a steady hand, skill, and patience. Totem poles and tiki heads are iconic cultural symbols that have been around for centuries.

“A totem pole is a large wooden sculpture traditionally representing family crests, stories, or events. They were often erected as house posts or monuments by the indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America.” (University of British Columbia)

On the other hand, tiki heads are wooden sculptures carved from a single piece of wood to represent deified ancestors or powerful spirits. They originated from Polynesia and are often associated with the Hawaiian culture.

Chainsaws have become a popular tool for carving wood because they are capable of creating intricate patterns with incredible speed and precision.

Despite its growing popularity, carving a totem pole or a tiki head requires practice and dedication to master. In the following sections, I will outline the steps involved in etching a totem pole or tiki head with a chainsaw and offer tips for success.

carving totem pole and tiki head with a chainsaw

How to Carve a Totem Pole with a Chainsaw

Carving a totem pole with a chainsaw requires sketching your design and choosing the right piece of wood. Then, use the basic carving techniques with a cutting tool to carve out details and add texture before finishing and installing your totem pole.

To carve a totem pole with a chainsaw, follow the steps below:

Step 1: Choose a Suitable Log

Look for a piece of wood at least 10 feet tall and 2 feet in diameter. The log should be free of knots and cracks.

Step 2: Design Your Totem Pole

Create a rough draft of your chosen design on paper. Then, use a marker or chalk to draw it on the pole.

Step 3: Wear Safety Gear

Wear protective goggles, gloves, and eyewear to protect yourself against flying dust and debris.

Step 4: Rough out the Shape

Use the chainsaw to rough out the basic shape of the totem pole. Start from the top and gradually get to the bottom, cutting away excess wood. Use a smaller blade for the details and a larger one for the roughing out.

Step 5: Carve the Details

Use the smaller chainsaw blade to carve intricate details such as mouth, nose, and eyes. You can also use chisels and gouges to fine-tune the design.

Step 6: Sanding

Use sanding to smooth out uneven surfaces and apply a protective coating to finish the totem. Display the pole in a place you like.

How to Carve a Tiki from a Palm Tree?

Here’s how to carve a tiki with a chainsaw:

Choose the Right Palm Tree

Not all palm trees are suitable for tiki carving, so choose a tree with minimal branches and a straight trunk. Coconut palms are ideal for tiki carving because of their relatively soft wood and straight trunks.

Remove the Fronds

Use the cutting tool to remove all the fronds from the tree trunk. But leave a few at the top to provide you with shade.

Choose a Design

Use the chalk or marker to sketch out your design on the tree trunk. You can choose a traditional pattern or create a unique one of your own.

Begin Carving

Use the cutting tool to begin carving the basic shape of the tiki. Begin with the head and work your way down to the body. Next, use a chisel or a mallet to refine the details and add texture.

Sand the Carving

Once the tiki head is complete, use sandpaper or a sander to smooth any rough surfaces. This will give the tiki carving a polished finish.

Apply a Protective Coating

To protect the carving from outer elements, apply a polyurethane or another protective finish to the surface.

Materials Required For Carving a Totem Pole or Tiki Head

If you are using the best chainsaw for carving a totem pole or tiki head, make sure to use a cutting tool with a longer bar, as it can carve larger pieces of wood and make deeper cuts. Other than the cutting tool, you’ll also need a few other materials, including the following:

Protective Gear

Protective gear such as a helmet, face shield, gloves, and sturdy boots are a must when using the cutting tool for carving tasks. This will avert risks of injuries and keep you safe from flying debris.


The type of wood used for carving depends on availability and personal preference. Redwood, cedar, and pine are commonly used for carving totem poles, while palm, bamboo, and other tropical hardwood are used for tiki heads.

Carving Stand

You’ll need a workbench or a carving stand to hold the wood securely while carving.

Marking Tools

A chalk or a marking pen is required to draw the design on the wood piece before carving.

Cutting tool Accessories

You’ll also need accessories such as spare chains, lubricating oil, and a filer to maintain and sharpen the cutting tool if it gets blunt during carving.

Power Source

A power source is required to operate the cutting tool. For outdoor carving, I recommend a gas-powered chainsaw, while an electric chainsaw is suitable for indoor carving.

Finishing Tools

You’ll need finishing tools and materials like sandpaper, paint, and polyurethane coating for polishing and finishing the carving.

Totem Pole Carving Patterns

The carving patterns for a totem pole rely on the carver’s specific cultural traditions and artistic styles. However, some common design elements are frequently found on the totem poles. One of the most recognizable patterns is the use of animal figures representing family clans or tribes.

Animals such as wolves, bears, eagles, and salmon are often depicted in symbolic form. Each figure has a specific meaning, and their arrangement on the totem pole represents an event or tells a story.

For example, a totem pole may start with an eagle on top, followed by a bear, wolf, and salmon at the bottom. This arrangement may convey a story of how an eagle caught the salmon, with the bear and the wolf representing obstacles along the way.

In addition, the totem carving patterns often include a variety of textures, such as smooth wood, rough bark, or carved scales.

Sometimes, colors are also incorporated into the designs, with red and black being the most commonly used colors in totem patterns. Other design elements may include abstract geometric shapes, human figures, and masks.

Tiki Carving Patterns

Knowing how to carve a tiki head also depends on specific cultural traditions and your artistic style. One of the most common designs in tiki carving is a human head, often with exaggerated features such as bulging eyes, a nose, and a prominent jaw.

Other elements may include geometric shapes like triangles, concentric circles, and spirals used to create patterns on the surface of the carving. Furthermore, tiki heads may incorporate natural elements such as flowers or palm fronds to enhance the overall design.

Textures are also an important aspect of tiki patterns, using rough and smooth surfaces to create visual interest and depth. Colors enhance the carving, with lighter colors highlighting certain areas and darker ones creating shadows.

You can also learn a new tiki pattern from the tiki carving tutorial on YouTube. There are many unique designs available there.


What tools do you need to carve a totem pole?

You’ll need a chainsaw, carving knives, chisels, and gouges. A chainsaw is used for rough cutting, while knives, chisel, and gouges are used for fine-tuning and detailing. You’ll also need protective gear such as a dust mask, goggles, and gloves.

What kind of wood is used for totem poles?

Woods such as Western Red Cedar, Sitka spruce, and yellow cedar are ideal for totem carving.

How do you cut a totem pole out of wood?

Cutting a totem pole out of wood entails choosing a log of suitable size and tools such as a chain saw, carving knives, chisels, and gouges. First, draw a design on the log with chalk or marker.

Next, use the chainsaw to make a rough cut and gradually work on the design with knives, chisels, and gouges. Finally, sand and apply a protective coating on the totem pole.

How do you carve an animal with a chainsaw?

You’ll need a chain saw with a carving bar to shape and carve the wood into your desired animal shape. Use different techniques and angles to achieve the desired effect.

How long do totem poles take to carve?

The time it takes to carve totem poles depends on their size, the design’s complexity, and the carver’s experience. But it generally takes several months to a year to complete a totem pole, based on the aforementioned factors.

How much does it cost to carve a totem pole?

The cost of carving a totem pole can range from several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. But it’s best to consult with a professional for an accurate estimate.

What are the six types of totem poles?

The six types of totem poles are mortuary, house, memorial, shame, heraldic, and story poles. Each one has its unique symbolism and design and serves a different purpose.

What is the difference between a totem and a totem pole?

A totem is an emblem representing a person or group, while a totem pole is a carved wooden pole serving as a manifestation of a totem. It usually depicts multiple totems stacked on top of each other, with each one representing a different meaning or story.

Final Thoughts

Carving a totem pole or a tiki head with a chainsaw requires skill, experience, and the right tools. While the carving process can be challenging, it is also a rewarding way to preserve cultural tradition and express creativity.

Remember to take safety precautions and gather suitable materials before diving into the process. With patience and techniques, anyone can learn how to carve a totem pole with a chainsaw and create a unique piece of art.

Patrick McMann