Tools to make canoes in the Marshall Islands

Māāl — Carving Tools

The traditional types of carving and shaping tools used by the Marshallese are called māāl. These are only made today as hand-craft items although the old head parts of these tools are often found in the outer islands. The wood part of the māāls is made from lukwej, kōn̗n̗at, or kaar (types of trees). The head part or cutting part is made from kapwor (giant clam shell) and is attached to the handle with kkwal (coconut rope). Today, for hand-craft articles the cutting part of the māāl is usually made from mejānwōd or en̄ (large type of spider shell). These types of shells wouldn’t be used if the tools were actually made for carving, for only the kapwor is hard enough to resist breaking. Also the edges of the kapwor piece would be very smooth and sharp. The kapwor is prepared by hitting it with rocks to obtain the desired size and then shaping it with the use of the limlim (very hard coral rock). The tilaan (pumice) is then used to do the final smoothing and sharpening of the edges. There are four main types of māāls.

  1. Jaltok Likadkad
    This is used to hollow out canoes and for making the jābe (large bowl). The blade is curved from both side to side and from back to front. The edges are very sharp. This type varies from about one and one half feet long to three and one half feet long depending on its use. The piece of kapwor ranges from four inches long, to eight inches long.
  2. Likadkad
    This is a small version of the jaltok likadkad and is used for hollowing out the small places in a canoe. The kapwor piece is curved in the same way as in the jaltok and is also very sharp. The likadkad is about ten inches long and the kapwor piece is about three inches long.
  3. Ūlūl
    This is the largest type of māāl and is used for cutting down trees. It looks very much like an axe and is made with a large, thick piece of kapwor. The kapwor piece is not curved but flat with a sharp straight edge. The ūlūl is about three feet long.
  4. Jidūl
    The jidūl is a smaller version of the ūlūl and is used for finishing and smoothing the surface of wood. It is used like a scraper and has a flat, straight, very fine cutting edge. The jidūl is about ten inches long.

Ddāil — Drills

The traditional types of drills are now extinct although some older people do know how to make them. There were two basic types that were used by the Marshallese. These were used for drilling holes in pieces of wood, that were later tied together with kkwal (coconut rope) in making a canoe. Also the ddāil was used for drilling holes in the rajraj (warring spear) to attach the n̄iinpako (shark teeth) and in making other tools. Today more conventional types of drills are available.

The simpler type drill was made from one piece of wood about eight to ten inches long with the sides rounded and a small hole at one end. A small, very sharp n̄iinpako was attached with armwe (strong fibers). The n̄iinpako (tooth) was tied on so that only the top sharp point protruded from the wood. Sometimes an addin aorak (finger part of a spider shell) was used for the drill part. To drill a hole, a person placed the ddāil between his hands and moved them back and forth in opposite directions.

The second type was the same as the first only with an added circular piece of wood placed around the shaft of the drill to hold it steadier and with an attachment of kkwal and wood which was wrapped around the shaft and made the drill part spin. This type of ddāil was easier to control than the simple type.

Luj — Hammer

This is a hammer-like instrument made from kōn̄e (shrub, Pemphis acidula) which is a very hard wood. It was used for hammering wood pieces into very small spaces or cracks in a wa (canoe). The caulking for the canoes was made from liok (aerial roots of the pandanus tree) and was forced into the cracks by hammering with a luj. This type of instrument is not used as a work tool anymore, for more modern tools are available, but is made as a hand-craft product.

Kkwal — Sennit (Coconut Rope)

This is sennit made from fibers of the coconut husk. Sennit is very strong and can be made any length and almost any thickness. Since originally there were no nails in the islands kkwal was used in almost all construction (houses, boats, clothing) and for all tying purposes. Today kkwal is rarely made so the skills needed to make it are dying out.

Kkwal is made from the fibers of the husks of drinking coconuts. The fibers are called roro. They are placed in a pit, lined with coconut fronds, in the sand where the ocean water will wash over them. Large rocks are placed on top to hold them in place. The roro are left for one or two months. This process makes them pliable and separates the individual fibers. They are removed from the pit and washed and pounded until very soft, and then dried in the sun. When completely dried a man takes several individual fibers and places them on his thigh. The number of fibers used depends on the desired thickness of the rope. He rolls them back and forth with his hand until they are tightly intertwined. This is called idrab and each rolled together set of fibers is called an idrab. Next two idrab are rolled together and this process is called kkwal. Kkwal can be made any length by continually adding new idrabs and rolling them together.

Written by Carol Curtis