Totem Pole Maintenance

Conservators Ellen Carrlee and Ron Sheetz at the Governor’s Totem Pole, Juneau, Alaska in May 2010

Southeast Alaska is the land of totem poles.  These iconic outdoor sculptures are powerful, valuable, and remarkably vulnerable.  The Tongass National Forest, covering 80% of Southeast Alaska, is a temperate (cool) rainforest, with precipitation between 80 and 100 inches per year in most places where totem poles are made and displayed.  (In comparison, Seattle’s annual precipitation is usually under 40”.)  Imagine placing a wooden pole in the ground and exposing it to the weather for decades.  Utility poles, which are heavily impregnated with preservative chemicals, typically last 25-50 years in much less aggressive conditions.  Most totem poles are not treated with preservatives when they are erected.          

Ron Sheetz applies water repellent


I’ve been involved in the maintenance of several totem poles, and in May 2010 had the great pleasure of working with Ron Sheetz, retired National Parks Service conservator who specializes in furniture and wooden objects.  Ron has treated well over 50 totem poles in the past 20+ years, and is a wealth of useful information and experience.  We agreed it might be useful to have basic totem pole maintenance instructions on the internet.  Ron also wrote a Conserve-O-Gram for the National Parks Service a few years back called “Protecting Wood with Preservative and Water Repellents” available at           

SUMMARY:  If you are responsible for the care of a totem pole in an outdoor environment, a maintenance/inspection schedule should be developed and carried out.  Inspections should check for loose parts, damage, and signs of decay or insect infestation.  Borates and water repellent should be periodically applied.  Borates help protect against rot and insects, but are water soluble.  Water repellent protects the pole and prevents the borates from washing out with the rain.  The application of borates and water repellent should occur every 3 – 5 years, depending on when the water repellents have worn off (water no longer beads up on the surface of the wood.)  If the totem will be moved it is recommended to contact the Native community to allow them the opportunity to comment and to be involved with the preservation process.  Moisture management is key to preservation.  Proper drainage around the base of the pole and lead or copper caps at the top help preserve the wood.  Typically, if you set aside a week to do the work, that’s plenty of time and allows for vagrancies of weather.      

INSPECTION:  Every time a pole is taken down, there is a risk of damage.  Better to leave it vertical if possible.  This is fine for inspection and cleaning, but perhaps not convenient for the detail work painting and re-carving may require.           

Scaffolding used for maintenance of the Auke Pole at Centennial Hall, 81.01.033 in the Juneau Douglas City Museum collection


Sometimes scaffolding is used.  Rental of an electric or diesel boom lift is very helpful for maintenance purposes.  A lift can usually hold two people if the total is under 500lbs.          

Diesel boom lift for treatment of Governor's Totem


 Note the importance of wearing a safety harness while on lift.  In addition to the obvious safety issue, nothing brings out the local newspaper photographer like work on a totem pole, and a front page photo of you on a lift with no harness is an easy way to get a fine from OSHA.  A few hours may be spent photographing, taking condition notes, measuring cracks, and probing the wood with an ice pick.  When wood is damp, the hole from the ice pick swells back shut right away, leaving no mark.  Plants near the base should be removed to promote air circulation and drying at the base of the pole.          

Base kept clear of foliage to allow air circulation


I prefer to document a totem pole from the top down, referring to the highest figure as “Figure One” and describing each figure separately.  The figure’s own right side is called “Proper Right” or PR and likewise the left is “Proper Left” or PL.  I refrain from identifying the figures as specific animals unless a record has been left by the carver.  It can be difficult to know, for example, if a bird-like creature was meant to be an eagle, hawk, mosquito, thunderbird, kadjuk or some other real or mythological creature.  Best to keep the description simple, just enough to make clear which figure you are talking about.  From the ground, I note the following:          

Detached head with broken mortise and tenon join. Four Story Totem Pole, Juneau Douglas City Museum collection 84.19.001


Missing, loose, or detached elements.  Inspect any lead or copper caps as well to see if they are loose or have missing or rusting nails.          

Paint loss on top figure of Governor's Totem


Degree of paint loss, usually as an estimated percentage (ie “20% of the paint is lost from the 3rd figure”)          

Moderate green biological growth on figure four of Governor's Totem


Color and degree of soiling and biological growth (ie “localized green patches of biological growth” or “overall black biological growth” or “moss and lichens forming on the upper surfaces of the arms”)  Look, too, for evidence of insect infestation.           

Carpenter ant infestation in a rotting totem pole


 Some insects, like carpenter ants, will make their home in rotted wood.          

Ron Sheetz measures a large crack near top of Governor's Totem


Large Cracks.  Totem poles always have cracks.  I just keep an eye on the largest ones, and perhaps take a measurement or two of crack width.  Photographs are a better way to keep track of overall cracks than written notes.          

Sound wood will not allow deep penetration of an icepick


Rotten areas.  Using an icepick or a sharp steel awl, push the point into the wood and see how deep it goes.  It is best to do this when the wood is damp anyway, as the hole will swell shut quickly.  Sound wood will not easily allow penetration of the awl, while rotting wood will allow the tip to go in without much resistance.  If the pole is directly in the ground or in concrete, the base may have rot.  Sometimes the base is solid on the outer layer, but underneath there can be soft areas and loss.  It is not uncommon for there to be rot beginning at ground level and extending down down 18-20” until the wood is more sound again, deep underground.  Upper areas of the pole often have more rot than lower figures, and there is usually one side of the pole that suffers more intense weathering.   If available, a Resist-o-graph is very helpful, especially around the base of a totem pole.  The tool is a drill that measures resistance of the wood, indicating location and depth of decay.  The drawback is the cost of the equipment, perhaps around $12,000.  However, sometimes one can be found or contracted though specialist companies or govenrment agencies.  I have heard of this tool being used on various Alaska projects by the National Parks Service and by the private company Extreme Access, an Oregon-based inspection and testing company.        

PR wing has more cracking


PL wing has more biological growth













Palmyra gong brushes with nice long handles


Ivory soap and warm water can be mixed in a bucket to make a cleaning solution.  Use just enough soap to bring up bubbles when you swirl your hand in the water.  Vegetable fiber or nylon scrubbing brushes work well, and a long handle is your friend.  Smaller dish-washing sized nylon brushes are very helpful as well, to clean more detailed areas of carving, under noses and the like.  Start from the top and work your way down, rinsing with a garden hose as you go.  If biological growth is especially thick, you may find popsicle sticks and bamboo skewers useful to help scrape it off the surface.  Remember not to use tools that are harder than wood or you may damage the pole.  Occasionally, totem poles may have grass or small trees growing from them.  In those situations, it is probably  better to cut off the growth flush with the wood, since pulling out big roots can cause more damage and create empty spaces for water to pool.        


RESTORATION:  It is best to leave your cracks open (NO WOOD SPLINES), as this allows the water to flow out without getting trapped inside, and allows air circulation for the wood to dry out when it is not raining.  Putting a sliver of wood into a crack usually creates a problem of holding moisture in the totem pole.  Any attempt to fill the void eventually leads to a situation that encourages moisture retention in the joint between the wood and the fill as the two separate over time.  This moisture retention will promote further decay.  Cracks that develop in the pole surface due to the drying/shrinking of the pole over time should also be left open and not filled.  Poles carved in the round usually have more cracking naturally than poles that have been hollowed out a bit in back.  Epoxy:  Sometimes small pieces of wood are in danger of falling off and need to be adhered in place, as well as larger segments such as wings and beaks wth loose mortise and tenon joints.  Epoxy is typically used in this instance, but epoxy repairs are considered a specialist treatment.  Judgment and experience are needed to determine when an epoxy repair is need and will contribute to the ongoing stability of a pole, since poorly executed repairs can cause more problems and be aesthetically disfiguring.  Epoxy repairs are difficult to reverse without harming the wood, and skill and experience are required to select and apply epoxies, bulking agents, and tinting products.  Most of epoxy work is generally done when a pole is taken down for extensive treatment.  You can still do normal cleaning, biocide, and water repellent application for maintenance if you are not prepared to do more advanced restoration work like epoxy repairs, re-carving, and re-painting.  Painting and Carving:  If repainting or re-carving is to be done, the current preservation ethics require the work to be done by the appropriate Native carvers.  Factors to be considered are if the original carver is alive, if living members of his family are carvers or perhaps other people he has trained, if a new carver is artistically mature and can match the quality of the pole, and issues of clan and moiety.  Local museums, tribal organizations, or historical societies may have useful information.  Newspaper articles about the original installation of the pole usually list the name of the carver, too.  Traditionally, the oldest poles had little or no painted surfaces.  20th century carving styles and maintenance theories have seen periods where entire poles were painted.  In general, paint has a tendency to trap moisture underneath and hasten the degradation of the wood, so less paint is better from a preservation standpoint.  Less paint on a pole also means better penetration of the borates and water repellent, thus easier maintenance.  However, occasionally re-painting is desired.  In that case, borates should be applied FIRST and allowed to soak in and dry, followed by painting and then a final coat of water repellent.  (The paint will not adhere well to the water repellent.)    


Borate application goes much better with two people


Biocide: Bora-Care is a brand name of a water-soluble solution of sodium borates in polyethylene glycol.  It will not penetrate well where there is paint, and penetrates best at endgrain areas.           

Borates will soak in readily in endgrain areas like tops of these arms. Apply until it no longer soaks in.


In larger amounts it can kill surrounding plantings and grass, which should be tarped when it is used.           

Cover surrounding foliage for application of both borates and water repellent.


It provides residual protection against biological growth, but must be used in conjunction with a water repellent, or it will be leached out prematurely by the rain.  As a borate salt, it is hygroscopic and will travel within the pole, continually attracted to water (ie areas of prospective rot) and provide ongoing protection.  The product works against insects by interrupting the digestion of nutrients, starving them to death.  Bora-care mixes one-to-one with water for application, and the mixing goes much better with warm water.  1 ½ gallons of Bora Care (mixed with equal amount warm water) is enough for a typical 30-foot pole.            

Ron told me he learned the strainer trick the hard way once...


Use a 6” metal strainer over the opening of the garden sprayer when pouring the mixed borates as a precaution against the sprayer getting clogged.  A 2-gallon hand-pump garden sprayer helps greatly in application: you avoid the mess of a sloppy bucket, can spray deep into cracks and endgrain, can reach around the back of the pole more easily, and access hard-to-reach areas like wings.  Working with two people is much easier than working alone, as one person can spray and the other can back-brush for improved penetration.  Bora-Care can be applied while totem pole is still wet from washing to aid in the penetration of the borates.  Wearing gloves helps keep your hands clean, as the Bora Care is rather sticky.  Borates are also available in a solid stick as “Impel Rods.”  These are useful for placing inside big voids or cracks, or under caps and in loose mortise and tenon joints before re-adhering.  They are a little larger in size than a stick of chalk, and can last around 10 years.  You would not want to drill any new holes for putting in the rods, as this is counter to conservation ethics of preserving the original material of the totem pole.  An exception may be at the base or below ground of buried totems.  Washing and applying borates is usually a good day’s worth of work.          

Juneau Douglas City Museum Curator of Collections Addison Field applying BoraCare to the Four Story Totem pole 84.19.001


Water repellent:  A quality water repellent should be applied after the wood dries from the application of the Bora-Care.  It is best to have a drying day in between if possible.  Paraffin-oil based products are desirable, and your water repellent should be breathable and non-film forming.  UV inhibitors and fungicides are also good ingredients.  The totem poles in Southeast Alaska are most frequently protected with X-100 Natural Seal Wood Preservative.  This product is also used by the National Parks Service and Parks Canada.           

Back-brushing aids in penetration and catches drips, too


Water repellent is oily and greasy, you’ll want to wear old clothes, gloves etc and protect surrounding foliage.  Put plastic carefully around the bottom to collect drips, you may even be able to re-use what pools on the plastic when you get to the bottom of the pole (sop it up off the tarp with a brush and apply to the bottom areas of the pole.)         

Plastic tarping to protect foliage and catch drips


 Apply repellent slowly with the sprayer, starting at the top and working your way down, back brushing and preventing excess dripping and mess as much as possible.  The need for the 2-gallon garden sprayer and the use of two people is the same as for the borate application.  Approximately two gallons of X-100 water repellent is adequate for a typical 30-foot pole.          

Caps:  Custom-fabricated metal caps are used to prevent penetration of water into the end grain of the wood, particularly on the top of the pole and upper surfaces of beaks and arms on the higher figures of a totem pole.  Done well, these are almost invisible from the ground.         

Lead cap on top figure of Governor's Totem


Capping used to be controversial, because some people were concerned that water would get trapped underneath and cause accelerated rot.  But Ron Sheetz removed some old CCC-era lead caps from poles in Sitka Historical Park and found that they were in much better condition than the poles that were not capped.  For one in particular, the Twin Village Watchman (it was too tall for a lift so he had to go up in a crane with a cage!) the cap had blown halfway off and you could compare the two halves.  The half that was still capped was much better, looking almost like new wood.  The uncovered side was black and cracked and starting to rot.  If the cap covers the end grain fully and allows for runoff, you won’t trap moisture underneath.          

Lead caps protect exposed endgrain.


Sheet lead works the best, since it can be cut and conformed to the surface easily with pressure from the hands and the careful use of a hammer or rubber mallet to gently trace over the three-dimensional carved shapes.  Copper sheeting can also be used, but must be cut and lapped, so it is not as easy to form to the complex shapes of the carved surface.  Thinner lead is better.  Ron Sheetz has been using 1/16” lead or less…the thinner the better.  1/32 would be ideal, but it can be hard to find thin lead.  Ideally, you would roll it down in a roller (such as at a machine shop,) but you can’t always find one in the community where you’re working.  The lead turns a nice gray within a couple of days and really blends well with the weathered color of the pole.  It becomes nearly invisible.         

Copper cap on top of Auk Pole, Juneau-Douglas City Museum collection 81.01.033


Copper eventually darkens to an unobstrusive color, too, but it takes much longer, and there is always the concern of greenish or grayish copper stain streaks.           

Ron Sheetz replacing loose nails that were too short with longer ones.


Stainless steel, copper, or galvanized nails should be used to attach the caps.  Length of nail depends on the quality of the wood.  Need to go deep enough to bite into solid wood and not work loose.  If nails work loose, don’t just tap them back in.  There’s a reason they have pulled out, perhaps were not long enough.  Select longer nails, perhaps with rough edges like textured stainless steel nails, and they will have a better bite.           


Totem poles directly in the ground can suffer from rot and insect infestation


Poles mounted directly in the ground or in concrete inevitably develop rot at the base in the wet climate of Southeast Alaska.  Putting a pole directly in the ground was the traditional way to display a pole, but when those poles deteriorated, the tradition was to have them re-carved or replaced.  There is often a desire today to preserve poles in the outdoor environment as outdoor sculptures by known artists, objects in museum collections, or significant municipal investments in public art.  Many of these poles today are mounted on a metal support attached to a concrete base.         

Mount for Hasrnessing the Atom pole, Juneau Douglas City Museum collection 84.18.001


The metal support is engineered to extend up approximately 1/3 of the total pole height.  This distance could be greater if good solid wood is not available within that length of the pole.  Holes are drilled through the front of the pole, bolts extend into the metal support and the bolt holes are recessed and plugged.         

Shelf below elevates pole above soil and helps support its weight


 The weight of the pole should also be supported at the base by a small shelf of metal attached to the strong back.  Bolts go up into the bottom of the pole through that shelf.  This prevents the bolts in back from holding the entire weight of the pole.  Elevating the pole’s base several inches above ground level will keep the pole out of the soil and prevent water seeping up into the base.  The metal support mechanism up the back of the pole must have strong underground footings and is usually itself mounted in concrete underground.  Examples of poles mounted with metal support poles are at the governor’s mansion in Juneau, Totem Bight in Ketchikan, inside Juneau-Douglas High School, and the Juneau-Douglas City Museum.          

  • The pole will look a little darker and the colors more saturated for a few weeks following application of borates and water repellent.  The grain pattern will also be more visible for a while.  This is particularly true while the oil-based water repellent is drying.  In a few weeks, these temporary changes will fade and the pole will be back to its natural look.  
  • Inspect annually for damage, double check condition against your notes and photos  
  • When water no longer beads up, re-apply Bora-Care (will need about a gallon and a half) and the water repellent (1-2 gallons)  
  • If you need more advanced treatments (re-carving or painting, epoxy work, new mounting etc) start thinking about fundraising and identifying companies or volunteers to donate time and services.  
  • Performing preservation treatment will definitely help prolong the life of a totem, but to really preserve a totem, it will have to be placed indoors.



Some totem pole maintenance supplies on hand at the Alaska State Museum


Lift Electric is nice because noise is tedious      

Safety Harness  If not for preserving your life than for avoiding a personal fine      

Ice pick or awl for probing wood to find areas of rot and estimate degree of deterioration      

Ivory Soap   or other mild soap without dyes or fragrances    

Warm water for mixing and cleaning up Bora-Care      

Hose for washing (hose bib to open valve)     

 Long-handled brushes  Palmyra gong plant fiber bristles are nice     

 Short-handled nylon bristle brushes (dish and toothbrush sized)     

 2-gallon garden sprayer hand pump sprayer (to apply Bora-care and X-100)     

 Plastic putty knives to scrape off thick biological growth       

Popsicle sticks  to scrape off thick biological growth      

Bamboo skewers  to scrape off thick biological growth      

6” wire Strainer  to pour mixed Bora-Care into the sprayer and avoid clogs     

 Buckets  two clean 5 gallon buckets for mixing, wash water etc     

 1 gallon buckets.  The kind with measurements on the side are nice.     

 Tarps to protect surrounding foliage and ground      

Gloves latex or nitrile, keep hands clean, rubber gloves can be nice, but less dexterity     

 Paper towels Wipe up overspill of borates and water repellent     

 Bora-Care Biocide containing disodium octaborate tetrahydrate and ethylene glycol, made by Nisus corporation.  Approximately $100 per gallon now, available from Wood Care Systems.     

 Impel Rods, box of 12 (1” x ½” for laying in open cavities to release borates slowly as needed)      

 X-100 Natural Seal Wood Preservative.  Paraffin oil-based water repellent.

20 Responses to Totem Pole Maintenance

  1. Elaine says:

    Hi: Thank you for your excellent, thorough, interesting site about the maintenance of totem poles.
    I have a 6-foot tall authentic Alaska totem pole that
    has been outside my parents’ house in the Southern California desert for 35 years now. It’s in good shape, except that the colors are fading. An acquaintance says there’s something I can coat it with so that the colors do not further fade, but he cannot remember the name of the product. Do you have any ideas? Thank you so much in advance for any help you can provide.

  2. ellencarrlee says:

    I’m guessing that your friend means applying a coating that has an ingredient to filter ultraviolet light. I think the ingredient probably does more to prolong the life of the coating than to protect your paint from further light fading. Applying a coating (such as a clear water repellent) may saturate the surface and make the colors look a little more vivid, at least until the coating weathers a bit. But the UV filtering won’t do much to prevent fading of colors. I created a posting for you in order to illustrate this point: (Hope that link works) Chances are, most of the fading that is going to happen has already happened.

  3. Ron R. says:

    Ellencarrlee, you do great work!!!!! Those totems are pretty tall. I need your help!

    I had a 6 1/2′ tiki carved out of a palm tree about 10 years ago. I painted the outside with acrylic paints and set it next to my pool right on the ground (not a good idea). The acrylic paints have held well and protected the tiki.

    We’ve experienced a few bad hurricanes and during the last one I decided to set it down to avoid it from toppling over and becoming damaged. The tiki had adhered itself to the ground and was rooted. I pulled it out and set it on dry ground. The base is now hollow along the inside about 12″ up from the bottom. I don’t want to cut the lower 12″ of the tiki because it has feet and a nice base on the outside. I know if I stand it up it will fall over.

    I was thinking about filling the bottom with wood filler, plaster of paris. cement or some other hard material. The hollow area is pretty big so I thought adding some sealer type foam in the upper 4″ to 5″ might be okay. I would set the tiki upside-down and fill it in slowly allowing gravity to get the filler material deep into the tiki’s cavity. I would do about 1″-3″ every few days to allow the filler to dry. I want to fill the cavity with a material that won’t expand too much.

    After repairing the base I would like to set it on a concrete base in an area that can keep it dry and off the wet, humid ground.

    How can I save my tiki? I need your expert help please.

    Best regards,

    Ron R.
    Houston, TX

  4. ellencarrlee says:

    Hard to tell what is the right solution for you without seeing an image or two. You could email them to me if you like: juneauellen (at gmail dot com). You are right to be cautious in putting a filler inside, especially something like concrete. Without seeing your sculpture, I think perhaps you might consider a strongback. That is, something like a metal or wooden post of some kind that would be mounted in the ground and give support for the sculpture, which could be bolted to it. I’m intending to write a posting soon on mounting methods for totem poles, as the questions comes up frequently here in Alaska.

  5. Elaine says:

    Ellen–awesome visual demonstration you posted Nov. 5 on fading from
    UV exposure. Thank you. Back to my Nov. 4 question–since you believe
    most of the fading has already occurred, and since rain and moisture are not
    a problem for my totem in the desert, would you suggest simply leaving
    the totem alone and not applying any kind of protective coating? Thanks again!

  6. Elaine says:

    One more quick question–what about applying Thompson’s Water Seal on
    my totem? Thanks

  7. ellencarrlee says:

    If you are in the southern California desert, I am not sure what putting a water repellent on the wood would gain you. Here in the Tongass Rainforest, a water repellent is a crucial part of maintenance. I don’t think it would do much to lengthen the life of a pole in the desert. My inclination is to not treat the wood if you don’t have to.

  8. Elaine says:

    Okay, Carlee. Based on your expert advice, I’m going to leave my beautiful totem pole the way its been its
    entire life–au naturel. It faces East, and receives
    primarily indirect light and virtually no moisture, so I’m going to trust that it will be survive several more years and continue to remind me every day of my five glorious years living in Alaska. Thank you for providing an invaluable service with your work and website.

  9. Heather morrison says:


    Our Scout Group in Banchory Scotland have had a Totem carved & will soon be putting it in situ – we would value some advice on the best method – it is 6meters high

    Thank you in anticipation

  10. ellencarrlee says:

    For most totem poles, using a supplementary strongback is the method with the most longevity. Putting the pole directly in the ground, which is the traditional method in its sultural context, results in problems around the base over time. Likewise mounting it in concrete. I’m working on a posting regarding ways poles have been erected, with images of various mounts. Let me know if you need me to send you some images sooner.

  11. Kelly McHugh says:

    This is so great Ellen. Thanks for your excellent work!!

  12. Tim says:

    Hi Ellen, I am also with a scout troop in Pa and we are in the planning stages of designing a 20′ totem. How long do you have to wait to paint and waterproof the tree? We will be cutting the tree down in April. Thanks!

  13. ellencarrlee says:

    My area of expertise is the care of artifacts that already exist, and not the manufacture of new objects. There are folks out there whose expertise is the carving of new totem poles, such as the following Native folks:
    There is quite a lively conversation among folks from many walks of life regarding cultural appropriation, and here’s a link to a blog posting for a recent book about totem poles and how they are thought about today

  14. Julie Hickman says:

    Hi Ellen – Thank goodness for your site……it has been most helpful already. I have about a hundred questions for you. I have a pole that my Dad carved about 12 years ago. The pole is 13’9″ high. My Dad passed away 2 years ago and I now have this pole in my possession. It was moved last week……that was quite a feat!

    Anyway – now I can attempt to restore it. I have about 10 different pictures of the pole in regards to the questions I would like to ask you.

    My first question is where can I email the pictures to?
    My main concern is remounting the pole……your site is most helpful and I like the idea of mounting it to a brace ….. kind of suspended rather than another way because I hate to cut it or loose any of the carvings. It had originally been mounted with a 1” steel pipe that went up into the center of the pole 2 feet. It had been mounted on concrete so it drew moisture……now as you can see in the three pictures of the bottom of the pole it has rotted some. The center where the pipe is looks like it is still intact and your ice pic test proves pretty well for about 1/4 of the diameter and about 8” in the core center. The entire base is 18” in diameter. So – question #2….what can I do about the bottom? What do you recommend?
    The pole is carved all the way around. Rather than loose any carvings I would rather cover some of the carving up with steel beams or whatever kind of supports you are recommending for this method. What kind of beams?
    Are the beams mounted in concrete?
    Is the pole drilled all the way through?
    This particular pole has an offering hole 4’ up from the bottom. Is there a way to utilize this to help stand it up or brace it?
    What do I fill the bottom with that is rotted out?
    Should we still use a metal pipe along with new bracing?
    Regarding checking – Now that I have read your blog I am not sure what to do……There are a couple of place that look like “serious” checking……I used to live in a log home so I have an understanding of this. I see no need to fill a check unless it is more than something natural. The image titled “Hickman water groove” is an example of this……From the visual it looks like a check but it goes a couple of inches deep……the normal checks are not that deep. I can see with this example why you have notched some of the carvings in your restoration……and that would be great except that I do not have the ability to do this. So what would be the rule of thumb on filling checks vs a crack and how do I know the difference?
    As you can see in the pictures it has been attacked by wood borers. It was kind of like locusts one year…… anyway – the wood borer holes are about 1” deep. I am of the opinion that these holes should be filled with epoxy/sawdust. Do you agree? and if so what kind of epoxy should I use.
    I would like to touch up the paint but I dont know what to use. As you can see there has never been much paint on it to start with and in the beginning when the paint was fresh it was very muted and washed out. I would like to liven it up a bit but still want the same washed out effect. I only want to repaint previously painted areas. What do I use to do this with?

    Well – to start with that is my list of questions. I am happy to call you and talk on the phone rather than you typing everything if it would be better for you. If you have a private email you prefer to use then please email me any contact information and we can talk that way. I am happy to pay you for your advice.

    Thank you for your time.
    Julie Hickman

  15. Ed Bergen says:

    I have a totem in the round, it is weathering and am told I should set it in linseed oil allowing the totem to draw up the oil. I am concerned this will discolor the pole or at least cause uneven coloring so ? #1 Is lineseed oil safe to use #2 if so should I brush, spray or allow it to be absorbed

  16. ellencarrlee says:

    I would not recommend soaking in oil. Oils tend to yellow, yet rancid, and deteriorate over time. They are also notorious for getting sticky, and then they attract surface soiling

  17. Kamil Beski says:

    Dear Ellen!
    Thank you for all the knowledge that you have been sharing here. I had a chance to mount the Hunt Totem pole in California desert few years ago. I was pulling a lot of information from your generous posts on the web while working on it. If you are interested I would love to email you some photos of the mount, installation and the final result. I feel like you were a part of that project!

  18. Sheryll says:

    Hello, I have a tiki that’s been in our family for 50 years. My grandmother gave it away and I was lucky to track it down and get it back after 18 years. The previous owner traveled 300 miles to return it to our family. The tiki was kept outside in harsh weather conditions and no longer has the beautiful shiny brownish finish that I remember from my childhood. Now, the tiki is kept indoors, though it looks like gray fire wood. Can you suggest how I can return out tiki to it’s former glory?

  19. ellencarrlee says:

    Hi! I’m not sure what you mean by tiki, which to my understanding is a kind of sculpture of a supernatural being from the South Pacific. The kinds of wood used and finishes applied in that region of the world are not at all in my realm of expertise. Wood kept outside until it becomes grey like firewood has undergone weathering and surface deterioration that has obliterated the shiny brown finish you remember. If you want to treat this item like a museum piece and it has high value to you, you can find a conservator to try to create a new, high quality (but reversible if necessary) finish that may replicate the look of the old one as well as documentation on what was used and why. You can find a conservator in your area on the website for the American Institute for Conservation If you are less concerned with the longevity and ethical aspects (and potential market or historical value), you could try to find a woodworker in your area, perhaps someone who is a furniture maker, who could replicate an appealing finish without the scholarly and cultural concerns about the authenticity and value of the item. Finally, if it is simply sentimental value (such as for a tourist item) and you just want it to look the way you remember at minimal cost, you could go to the best high-end paint store in your area and talk to someone experienced on the staff there for do-it-yourself solutions to the surface appearance. Good luck!

  20. Eddie says:

    Looking for someone who can do totem pole restoration. Location is Sherman Oaks California. Please contact me at

    Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: