Whangarei: Almost all our own handiwork

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles is delighted to discover a hidden talent for carving.

Fishhook and koru bone carvings produced by Jim and Chris Eagles at Pacific Carvers. Photo / Jim Eagles
Fishhook and koru bone carvings produced by Jim and Chris Eagles at Pacific Carvers. Photo / Jim Eagles

The distinctive sound of Pink Floyd was blasting across the room as I proudly put the finishing touches to my very own bone carving of a fishhook in the shape of a whale's tail.

A pity their Learning To Fly wasn't playing, I thought. For me - after always coming bottom of the classes in art and woodwork at school - actually making a rather smart bone carving felt like suddenly discovering I could fly.

To try our hands at this craft my wife, Chris, and I had headed for Whangarei - which is building a big reputation for the quality of its craftwork - and the home of Len and Candy Kay. There, in a shed in the back garden, they do bone carving and offer classes.

The work displayed was so good it almost put me off: a superb 25cm-long tuatara, several elegant white herons, geckoes, horned sheep and deer, neck pendants in different styles and a beautiful double sculpture of a Maori manaia and an American eagle representing Len's Ngapuhi heritage and Candy's Oglala Sioux ancestry.

Len reckoned he's had all sorts of people come to his classes "and with a bit of help - some more than others - they've all been able to produce something nice. You'll do just fine."

First we had to choose a design. Chris quickly picked a spiral koru. I took ages to go for one of the hook patterns.

Len mainly carves deer buttons, the stubs of bone left when deer shed their antlers, so our next job was to select the slice we wanted to work with.

Chris opted for a clear white piece while I chose one with a grey pattern in the bone to add more character.

We used carbon paper to trace our chosen designs on to the bone and Len cut them out with a tiny electric scroll saw (the outside of the button later had a piece of leather stuck to its base to make an attractive holder for the finished carving).

A few pencil marks indicated which areas to shape and which to leave alone and, after a brief practice session, we were each set loose with a compact power tool worryingly reminiscent of a dentist's drill.

Chris, who got started first, tore confidently into the work but took off a bit too much bone and Len had to step in to rescue the pattern. Forewarned by that, I worked very cautiously, removing the bone only gradually and checking regularly with Len that I was still on course.

It was actually quite relaxing to do, although the smell of burning bone did provide an unpleasant reminder of horrid times at the school dental clinic. Gradually, the fishhook shape started to emerge but it was still after lunch before Len said, "I think you've got it Jim. Do you want to move on to sanding?"

That meant switching to a tiny disc sander to complete the shaping and smooth off any bumps on the bone's surface.

After an hour or so of sanding I thought my little hook looked pretty good. But, when it was polished, using an abrasive compound and a brush, all sorts of imperfections were revealed. Finally, after more sanding and polishing, Len was satisfied.

"Looks pretty good," he said. "Would you like me to add a lip like that" - he pointed at one of the completed fishhooks on display - "to give it more drama? I think you might find that a little tricky to do yourself."

With a few expert touches he had my hook looking even better. A tiny paua shell button was added to Chris's koru. Candy fitted a couple of cords she had been making, put our carvings in their deer button surrounds and packed them into little flax kete. And our bone carvings were done.

When we got outside Chris and I were still fizzing with excitement. Nothing would do but we had to take the carvings out and put them on. I'm wearing mine now. Would you like to see it?

CHECKLIST

Bone carving: Len and Candy Kay operate Pacific Carvers. Their bone-carving lessons take about six hours, including lunch, and cost $125 plus GST per person.

Further information: See northlandnz.com.

Jim Eagles visited Whangarei with help from Destination Northland.

- NZ Herald

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