23 Aug 2022
In pre-1800, New Zealand jade was crafted by Māori into tools, weapons, and items of adornment. The stone was shaped into adze to use as a wood-cutting tool, mere to strike opponents in battle, and suspended from flax cord as hei tiki and worn as a connection to ancestors.
Yet, as New Zealand jade (also known as pounamu to Māori) was a hard and durable stone, how did they manage to shape it? What traditional Māori carving techniques were used to craft the jade necklaces they wore and the weapons and tools they wielded? And how do these techniques differ from modern-day ones?
In this blog, you'll get a new appreciation for the craft as we learn how labour-intensive traditional Māori carving techniques were.
Abrasion was the most valuable Māori jade carving technique. This is where a harder material is rubbed against a piece of jade with an applied abrasive substance so that it’s slowly worn down to the desired shape. It's a very labour-intensive process and carving one jade necklace could take weeks or months. It was used in every step of the carving process.
With a large wooden hammer Māori would hit smaller fragments of jade from the larger mass down pre-cut grooves. To make sure the fragments broke from the larger mass in the desired direction, large grooves were cut into the jade by rubbing sections with an abrasive quartz rich mica schist. Quartz is harder than jade (Quartz 7, Jade 6.5) therefore rubbing slowly wore grooves into the piece of jade. Māori would rasp grooves on opposing sides of the boulder using the abrasive method. When the grooves were close to meeting in the middle, one side of the boulder would be hit and it would snap down the groove.
Having snapped off a fragment of jade along the cut groove, Māori craftsmen then had to smooth its surface by rubbing it on a piece of sandstone. Through extremely long periods of rubbing a smooth finish would be achieved.
Using the Māori stick sand and water hand drill was the most time consuming part of the Māori carving process. In some instances Māori drills were tipped with stone and used to create the first impression in the piece of jade. In other instances two cuts were made at right angles. Where they met, there was a small depression where the drilling of the hole would begin. Flax rope was almost always wound around the shaft and pulled back and forth to create a fast reciprocal drilling motion.
Today, we use diamond-impregnated tools to carve jade. It's far more efficient. Like traditional Māori carving techniques and tools, they are all abrasive, however, ours are synthetic and machinated to run over 2500 times faster than hand carving techniques. We are also able to create abrasives with a much harder surface than naturally occurring stones such as quartz which pre-European Māori used. These synthetic diamond tools make modern carving faster and more precise.
Armed with this knowledge it’s easy to see why jade was such a taonga (treasure) to Māori. It was a labour of love.
Further reading: We recommend you purchase 'Pounamu' by Russel Beck if you're interested in learning more about New Zealand pounamu and Māori carving techniques. It's the most complete compendium on New Zealand pounamu to be published.
The header of the article shows a jade rock that was carved hundreds of years ago with traditional Maori tools. Grooves were rasped on either side of the boulder. When close to meeting, the side of the rock was hit to snap it in half. This is how Māori cut jade boulders.