Yup’ik Bentwood Bowls

Among the many traditions of bowl carving is the Yup’ik method of bending a separate length of wood that attaches to the hollowed base and serves as a higher rim.  The interaction between material, hands, eyes — and teeth — to create the form and a tight connection is simply wonderful.  I stumbled onto the short video above that features Yup’ik traditional scholars sharing memories of how these objects were made.  The video also includes some close ups of the bowls.

I’m still pretty clueless, but one thing I notice is the thickening of the rims along the straighter portions of the bowl.  Seems to me that the wood has been made thinner where they want a tighter bend and vice versa.  This would facilitate controlling the curvature at various points along the rim while bending without a form.  Much to learn just from the short video and the accompanying information, drawings, and photos at this website through the Smithsonian Institution.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in bowls, historical reference, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

17 Responses to Yup’ik Bentwood Bowls

  1. wow! aren’t they beautiful!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave Old says:

    David
    I assume the base is held in place similar to the way the shrink pots are done, allowing the wet wood on the sides to dry and shrink around the base.
    I love it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave Fisher says:

      In some ways, I think that looks to be true. Like a shrink pot, there is a carved groove to catch the rim of the “bottom,” but this bentwood band shouldn’t shrink like a shrink pot does. The fibers of the wood run along the band of the bentwood bowl, and not much shrinkage at all occurs in that direction. I suppose the fit must rely much more on careful fitting and joining of the band.

      Like

  3. Sydney Smith says:

    Very cool. Thanks for posting. Roy Underhill did an episode many yrs ago where he paid a visit to Kestrel Tools on Lopez Island. They showed how a nw Native American style bentwood box is made, as I recall.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave Fisher says:

      Thanks for the reminder. He visited a mask cover as well. Incredible work.

      You saw that the Northwest Coast bentwood boxes are made with a very different technique from the Yup’ik bentwood bowls, with deep special kerfs cut at the corners and straight sides in between. A similar technique is used to make another type of “bentwood bowl” which is much like a bentwood box but without a lid and with shaped upper edges. https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/19161/lot/5196/ There is some great information about the Northwest Coast boxes, bowls, and much more in Hilary Stewart’s book “Cedar”. Fantastic book.

      Like

  4. John Breiby says:

    David, we have similar interests! About 10 years ago my wife, who is Yupik from Bristol Bay, and I visited the Smithsonian collections and made an appointment a month or so ahead of time to see bentwood bowls–Qantaq (2 are qantak, 3 or more= qantat). They gave us full access to drawer after drawer, and had sent us a long list of accession numbers for some pre-research. We spent about a day there photographing and measuring bowls, probably over 100 of them. As you might have been able to tell from some of the old photos, they have a great range in size, some with very tall sides, possibly 12″+ high and up to about 18″ x 12″ in horizontal dimension. These were most probably used for communal feasts or storage. The most beautifully made and seemingly more common in the collection were the individual eating bowls ranging in length from about 8″ to 10″, which had those beautiful and fanciful creatures painted in the bottom and lower rims. Those seemed to invariably have red ochre painted on the rim and usually black line painting for the decorative figures, though some of the figures may have been painted in red, too (I’ll need to dig out my photos to see for sure). The line diagram shown may be a little off in that the rim, as it is shown in cross-section, is drawn as mostly parallel. I recall that the upper part of the rim is thicker than the lower part, where the concave bottom is snapped into place. You’re right that the straighter part of the bowl is slightly thicker than the more curved portion, but not by much. What intrigues me is that the more curved section is SO thick, bending on a radius that would seem to be impossible without some steel backing, plus a whole lot of steam. Of course this was not the case; the carvers used their teeth as the backing, and I think they must have used boiling water ladled onto the wood before bending, though I’m not positive about this either. From looking at the finished bowls, one cannot tell that teeth we’re used, at least I didn’t see any teeth marks, but those could have been carved off when finishing. The short film you include shows a man using a steel plane for cleaning up a bowl rim. Of course this was a relatively modern addition to Yup’ik toolkits. Pre-contact, work would have been done with a stone adze, beaver-tooth crook knife and bone or ivory wedges. Here’s a link to an archaeological site that is washing away due to climate change. It’s called Nunalleq, meaning Old Village in Yup’ik (the double ll is pronounced with the tip of the tongue at the roof of the mouth and the sound coming out the sides of the tongue–hard to describe). I forget what the site is dated to, but it’s definitely pre-contact, maybe the 14th to 15th century. Organics are well preserved, and a Qantaq is shown towards the end of the series of photos: https://www.adn.com/rural-alaska/slideshow/photos-nunalleq-archaeological-site/2014/08/31/ In post-contact times, tools included crook knife, steel adzes, often made from old hatchet heads or plane blades. The scarf joints used to join the rim, either one joint or sometimes one on each side, are so beautifully carved that they are sometimes nearly invisible. The concave bottom was made of spruce root from driftwood, and I think the rim was also of spruce, but being painted it was hard to tell–they could also have been made of birch, also driftwood, but whatever the wood it was definitely very straight-grained. I have been intending to try my hand at making one of these for some time now, but lately I’ve been tied up making a BIG bowl (an 18′ sailboat). When (if?) I get done with that I might give one of these a go. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.
    PS: just a couple of weeks ago I was fortunate to get one of Jason Lonon’s bowl adzes. It works just as well as you advertised. It’s GREAT! I felt like I needed to hover over the computer when they came out because they’re snapped up so quickly.
    Thanks for a fascinating post.
    John

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave Fisher says:

      Wow, John! Thanks for sharing that information and context. I’ve got all sorts of questions brewing now, so thanks for the offer. Bands up to 12″ high! I’ll be back later.

      Like

  5. Jed Dillard says:

    Thanks for this!
    It’s always great to learn more about the multitude of ways people make and have made things of wood.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. John Breiby says:

    PPS: David, I forgot to add that I’ve never seen a modern day one of these bowls made the old way. A friend of mine, who taught in the Lower Yukon/Kuskoquim area bought one several years ago. The rim had been kerfed cross-wise multiple times around the edge to take the bend and looked nowhere near as nice as the old traditional bowls. I hope the knowledge to make these bowls has not been lost as I’ve never met a present day person who knows how to make one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave Fisher says:

      That’s really interesting. I’m interested to see who we may hear from if word gets around. Time to exercise my jaw and update my dental insurance.

      Like

      • John Breiby says:

        In photos it shows men bending around their knee. The wood was heated up and gradually bent, flexing it over and over, letting it gradually get used to the bend. When it got to the really tight bend at the ends, I think that’s when the teeth came into play. I’m not sure if I’d like to use my teeth either. Those old timers used their teeth for lots of things that would make my dentist cringe. White mans’ school is great for many things and knowledge, but the way the government forced people to toss out many of their old ways, such as the Qazgiq (mens’ house) with the teaching of the young by the older men, not verbally so much as by example, meant that a lot of old knowledge was lost, too. In addition to qantat, there were kayaks, hunting implements, ivory carving and stories. Kayak making has survived–barely, with one or two builders passing the skills down to younger fellow, usually using ballistic nylon for the skin. Ivory carving is alive and well, though with the use of Dremel tools. Hunting implements, such as harpoons, instead of being made with ivory and slate heads are now made of brass and steel with a steel rod for a fore shaft and polypropylene rope for a retrieval line instead of rawhide. Stories and dance is going strong, all this, in spite of much inundation of non-Native ideas–TV is probably one of the single most culturally erosive adaptations, not just for Yup’ik people, either.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Dave Fisher says:

    John, thanks again for sharing your rich experience and perspective. The skills of that gradual bending process you describe (I’ve heard it called “limbering”) are used by some today. It would be great if someone were work through the subtle details of the process and technique and revive the craft of making these — especially if it were someone with intimate knowledge of the depth of Yup’ik culture and symbols. If you get a chance to try it — once you’re done with that little project of the 18′ sailboat! — I’d love to hear about your experience.

    Like

  8. EMIL DAHL says:

    Put this to Polish Music. …you got a winner.

    Emil

    Like

  9. Dave says:

    I’m a little late to the game on this blogpost but it’s worth noting that the Nootka cypress they used for bentwood bowls is still used to make coopered water towers (like on city rooftops).

    I came across this very same video a few months back, after getting some Nootka cypress offcuts that my friend fished out of a cooper’s dumpster (with permission). When we’re talking ‘offcuts’ on water towers – the pieces are pretty big! It carves beautifully.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. John Breiby says:

    Dave, would the Nootka Cyprus also be known as Yellow Cedar? I’ve had the pleasure of working it a time or two, and it’s definitely harder than Western Red Cedar, but it takes detail beautifully and has a delicious aroma. There’s also Port Orford cedar, that I’ve never been able to try, but it was known to be a superb wood for planking the wooden salmon boats that were used up until the early ’60s until aluminum and fiberglass came along. I guess we need Latin binomials to make sure we’re talking about the same thing.

    To which video are you referring?
    Thanks, John

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dave says:

      Hi John,
      There is a video embedded at the top of Dave Fisher’s blog post here, titled ‘Yup’ik Traditions.’
      So yes, Cupressus nootkatensis is also called yellow cedar. It definitely has a unique aroma – I personally like it, although I’ve met others that find the peppery smell overwhelming.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Dave Fisher says:

        Dave and John, thanks for all of that information. That reminds me, I have a small board of yellow cedar that Peter Follansbee gave to me. He brought it back from Alaska with him. I’ve been meaning to get around to working with it. I had no idea that it was the same as Nootka Cyprus.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google 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