Wrangell adzers use both ancient and modern techniques for making bentwood boxes
November 23, 2011
(SitNews) Wrangell, Alaska - Steam pours from a steam box supported by a partially adzed plank as local adzers Susie Kasinger, Linda Churchill and Tammi Meissner prepare to insert cedar boards. Master carver Wayne Price quickly closes the lid and they let the boards absorb the steam for 10 minutes.
Under the gentle direction of Wayne Price, the adzers had carefully placed cross cut and carved dovetail shaped dados evenly spaced along the length of the boards the previous day. They then bundled the boards, tied them together using lengths of rubber and weighted them with rocks. Finally, they sunk the board bundle to the bottom of the harbor below the low tideline and left them for 24 hours.
“They didn’t sink on the first try,” said Tammi Meissner. “We didn’t have a big enough rock and when we threw the boards in the water, they floated the rock!” She laughs and then says “Wayne said to us ‘Always a work in progress.’ So, we added another rock and now it’s nice and heavy.”
A pressure cooker sitting on a propane camp stove heats the water and produces the steam for the steam box. The steam travels through a tube attached to the pressure valve on the top of the cooker to the wooden steam box. Inside the box, cleats hold the boards and allow the steam to reach the most surface area. The box can be opened at either end with a removable lid and wood chips or other materials are stuffed in any cracks where steam escapes.
When the boards are ready, the bending goes fast and it suddenly seems noisy in the shed with two boards being bent by two groups of two people each while the radio plays local station KSTK loudly in the background.
“Are you ready?” Wayne Price asks adzer Linda Churchill. Then, “nice and easy” he comments as she begins to bend her board.
“You want me to hold that?” Susie Kasinger asks Tammi Meissner and comes over to help as Tammi also attempts to bend her board. Once Linda gets her board bent all the way around, she holds it in place while Wayne wraps strips of rubber tightly two times around then ties the strip off to itself. In the meantime, Tammi can’t get her board to make the last bend so she unbends it and puts it back in the steamer for a few more minutes.
The bentwood boxes sit overnight in the carving shed and are then moved into a nearby heated building for further drying. Boxes with adzed surfaces are slated for project fundraising. Once the boxes are dry, they will be glued closed and, again under Wayne’s tutelage, the adzers will learn to make bottoms and lids.
While the less experienced local adzers have been making bentwood boxes, the more experienced adzers from out of town have been working on various projects including making paddles, flutes, and making, repairing and sharpening carving tools.
The local Wrangell adzers are learning these additional carving skills during a lull in adzing due to a wood supply disruption. Wayne Price recently traveled to nearby Etolin Island and selected new cedar logs, which were being milled into fresh planks in October -- and the rhythmic thunk of multiple adzes hitting wood will resume.
Shakes Island is located in the harbor at Wrangell, Alaska and contains the Chief Shakes Historic Site, a National Register site that receives over 10,000+ visitors a year. The island stands as one of the few lasting reminders of Southeast Alaska Natives and their unique totemic art. The site’s main feature is a replica of a 19th century Tlingit tribal house which is set on the authentic location historically occupied by Chief Shake’s lineage. Not only is the site important to the national chronology of Native-white contact, it is still used today for Tlingit ceremonies and contains the prized clan artwork - at.óow - of the Stikine Tlingits. Shakes Island is owned and operated by the WCA.
The Wrangell Cooperative Association (WCA) is the federally recognized tribe of the Stikine River region. WCA’s charter was approved by the Department of the Interior in 1942. WCA provides social services, employment and educational opportunities to both the tribe and the Wrangell community. Of the 2,000 residents of Wrangell, approximately 800 are tribal members.
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