Greenstone Carving in Hokitika

Today we are stepping out of the box and doing something a bit different.

Greenstone carving.

The Te Reo name for Greenstone is Pounamu. It’s a beautiful stone, found in the South Island. It is highly valued in New Zealand and carvings made from Pounamu play an important part in Maori culture.

I am really looking forward to carving my own stone today which I can take home with me.

We arrive at Bonz ‘n’ Stonz and I take a quick look around the shop at the pendants on display for some last minute inspiration. I have been thinking about this for a while and know I would like to keep it simple and make a drop pendant, but even then, there are so many options it’s a bit overwhelming. Daniel hasn’t given any thought to what shape he will make.

We are introduced to Steve and Niko who are our tutors for the day. The first task is to draw out our shape and choose our stone. These two tasks kind of work simultaneously. The other guy in our class has a picture of what he wants to make. We are not so organised. Both Daniel and I begin flicking through google images to try and decide what we are going to make – it’s a big decision!

I settle on a tapped, rectangular shape which I later am told is called Toki and symbolises strength, determination and courage. (Pretty awesome!) Daniel decides to carve his pendant into the head of a spanner.

There are a couple of containers filled with bits of pounamu so I start looking through it, picking out stones I like the look of and finding the ones that speak to me. It’s quite different to what I am use to seeing. The finished products are always so vibrant and glossy, in it’s natural form it is quite dull and unassuming. There are quite a range of shades, from light green through to very deep, green. There are even some in various shades of brown. It’s hard to choose when they are looking so dull, but if you wipe it with a damp cloth, you get a good indication of what it will look like when it’s polished.

I find a beautiful dark green piece with dark, almost black lines running though it with some lighter highlights. This will make a nice feature. Daniel selects one of the brown stones.

I draw my shape out on paper – a few times. I want to make sure it is symetrical, but also testing out different sizes. I draw it out on the stone in pencil and once I am happy with it, I commit and draw in the line with a marker. One of the tutors then roughly cuts it out, chipping away the stone closer to our drawn line.

Then it’s tool time. We are given aprons and ear muffs and given a quick demonstration on how to use the first tool. It’s like a belt and we have to use it to cut away the stone to the shape we want to make. Some of mine chips away (I am told the stone I picked is very hard) but it doesn’t matter, these will get smoothed away later in the process. Once we have the basic shape, it’s time to contour it. It’s challenging to get it all even, but after some time and perseverance (and some help from Niko) I get it looking pretty good.

The next task is to drill in a hole and make some indentations in the top to make room for the twine to sit. A new tool is required to do this with (a bit like a drill) so again, I am back to learning how to use it. Starting very slow and getting a bit faster as my confidence grows. There is lots of chiseling to do, bit by bit, slowly taking away bits of stone. It’s intricate work but slowly it starts to take shape.

Next it’s time to start sanding. At the start, our tutor told us that he probably spends just as long sanding as he does carving. When I see the 7 sanding blocks in front of me with their various grains, I know I am going to be here a while! I work my way down the blocks slowly so I can get a beautiful finish. Daniel is still carving his spanner – I know we will be here for a while longer so I am in no rush. I think I actually spend more time sanding than I did carving. It’s a slow processes. The stone needs to be wet to sand it, but the scratches and imperfections are easier to see when it is dry, so it’s a repetitive process of wetting, sanding, drying, inspecting then repeat. It’s a mindless task, but I am enjoying seeing the colours and lines start to appear more vividly in my pounamu. It’s getting smoother and smoother beneath my fingers and is starting to look quite stunning. Daniel and I both have trade backgrounds. He was a welder, now mechanic and I was a pattern maker and seamstress. I am really enjoying working with my hands again.

At one stage during the sanding process, a small part chips off. Steve is quick to the rescue and with his masterful skills and 20 years experience, he is able to fix it for me.

After 2 hours of sanding, I decide it’s time for waxing. I move onto the next machine that buffs the stone with wax. I thought it was looking pretty good after the sanding but wowzers! The wax transforms it again. It’s a pretty exciting process to watch.

The next task is to give it a gentle scrub with a toothbrush and some detergent to remove any wax build up and then it gets a quick dip in some baby oil. The twine is added next. It’s a very intricate and complicated processes, wrapping it, weaving it. It needs to be wound tightly and accurately so Niko does this part.

Then, Voilà!

My gorgeous toki pounamu pendant is completed. What a special souvenir to be able to take back home with me. I love the colours in it, and the best part is that I created it. From start to finish, a labour of love. Daniel has done an excellent job with his spanner, shaping it and contouring it, it wasn’t an easy project.

This has been such an amazing and memorable experience. It has taken us 5 hours, but 5 hours well spent I say. If you are ever in Hokitika, make sure you book in a carving workshop with Bonz ‘n’ Stonz. It’s been a real highlight of the trip!