Carolinian Canoes, or proas, may be the most singular, striking, and technologically complex artifact of Micronesia. Today, these Micronesian canoes remain both a useful and sustainable form of transportation, as well as a defining symbol of the people and the region.
Essential to the fabrication of proas is the adze, a handled cutting tool for shaping, squaring, and most importantly, hollowing, wood.
The Micronesian adze needed for hollowing canoe hulls is a unique and refined type – very different from the adzes used in the US and Europe. Initially carvers in Micronesia mounted stone, and later shell, blades.
Contact with the West introduced sharper, longer lasting metal blades, which were individually fabricated by smiths aboard ships to replace shells blades with little change to the design and traditional use of the adzes.
There are strong efforts within the Federated States of Micronesia to sustain and expand the production of canoes, but today’s Micronesian carvers lack blades that neatly match the specifics of their tools and techniques. Attempts to improvise blades –such as the mounting of handled chisels and the grinding down of truck springs– require sacrifices to quality, safety, and traditional techniques.
Since 2006, the nonprofit Habele has worked to equip traditional carvers in Micronesia with high quality, culturally consistent tools. The nonprofit was initially established by former Peace Corps Volunteers and also supports students and schools across the FSM through tuition scholarships, book donations, and a high school-based robotics league.
Starting this fall, Habele is working to develop, forge, and distribute adze blades on a larger scale.
In partnership with the Office of Insular Affairs, Habele aims to design adze blades that precisely meet the needs of Carolinian canoe carvers, and the specifics of their traditional tool design and usage practices. Next, working with master metal smiths, Habele will fabricate a range of these blades and distribute them to local carver groups active in the preservation and or revival of canoe manufacture. Finally, Habele will publicize and distribute the technical specifics of each model to allow others to replicate the blades.
While Habele has gathered feedback and insights from carvers over the last decade, a new survey has been launched to collect even more detailed information.
The “Habele Adze Blade Survey” is a simple, two sheet form with eight sets of pictures. Carvers simply go line-by-line and circle the blade with the characteristics they think are best for traditional carving.
The survey includes details of how and where the blades are attached to the haft, as well as the size, shape, and sweep of the cutting edge.
“There are centuries of knowledge in the minds and hands of wood carvers across the Caroline Islands,” explained Neil Mellen, Habele’s founder. “We hope individuals and communities across Micronesia will help carvers get, complete and return these surveys so we can craft and provide them blades that are safe, effective, and consistent with their expertise.”
Adze Blade Surveys can be found online at www.habele.org/survey, or by mail at Habele, 701 Gervais Street, Suite 150-244, Columbia SC 29201.