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The Mystery of the Hawaiian Fern Wood Tiki
Sabu The Coconut Boy
Tiki Socialite

Joined: Aug 20, 2002
Posts: 2804
From: Carson, California
Posted: 2010-03-03 01:22 am   Permalink

In "Sippin' Safari", Jeff Berry makes the good case that it was largely Ed Brownlee, working for Donn Beach and Wimberly & Cook who revived the art of carving tikis in Hawaii. Using source material from the Bishop Museum, he begins carving tikis for the hotels in the early 1950s. A 1956 article in the Honolulu Advertiser states "There's a new craze going strong in Waikiki! Or should we say there's been a rebirth of an earlier craze? Whichever you prefer, the man behind the current Waikiki woodcarvings is youthful and handsome Edward Malcom Brownlee."

But if you look at enough Hawaiian brochures, postcards, photos, and magazines from the same time period, you'll catch a persistent, repeating image; one that is very disturbing if you know anything about ancient Hawaiian history.

Fern-Wood Tikis of high quality are being carved in Hawaii in the mid 50s!

Why is this so shocking? First, there is no tradition of Fern Wood carving in Hawaii. All the authoritative texts on ancient Hawaiian sculpture list the various hardwoods used, such as ohi'a-lehua and kauila but not tree-fern wood. No Hawaiian artifact made of fern-wood has ever been found in a burial cave or turned up in a museum. Old texts on native Hawaiian plants from the Bishop Museum list the many uses ancient Hawaiians had for the Tree Fern, including dyes, food, and fiber for embalming bodies, but never carving.

Tree Fern Roots were indeed being carved in the South Seas, but only in a few places - way over in Melanesia on Ambrym Island of Vanuatu and in New Zealand. The Grade Society carvings below from Vanuatu were traditionally carved of fern wood and plastered over with mud.

The Hawaiian art of carving temple images (what we now call tikis) had been dead since the 1820s. They had never been done in Fern Wood. Why were Tree Fern tikis suddenly being carved in Hawaii in the early to mid-50s?

July 1955 - Honolulu Harry imports a carving of the Goddess "Hina" from Hawaii for his restaurant in Chicago. The high style and quality of the carving seems to indicate an art that's been around for a few years.

A Hawaiian travel brochure dated 1955 shows this nice fern-wood tiki. This is probably on the grounds of some hotel. The hut in the background is reminiscent of the Ulu Mau Village, but that wouldn't be built for several years to come.

This one shows up at a tourist hotel in Tahiti. The copyright date of the book is 1959, so photo probably taken in 1958, possibly earlier. Style is definitely Hawaiian.
(Correction: Based on this thread:
http://www.tikiroom.com/tikicentral/bb/viewtopic.php?topic=35744&forum=1&4 we now know that this picture was taken at Don The Beachcomber's in Honolulu, also circa 1955.)

The market in fern wood tikis seems to be in full swing by the time this Stewarts' Hawaii Inc. catalog dated 1959 is published.

Ed Brownlee might have possibly inspired these tikis, but he wasn't carving them. He was carving hardwood tikis and tikis out of old pilings. Who were these other carvers? And why fern-wood?

One explanation might be the orchid craze of the 1940s & 50s. Hawaiian tree ferns were being harvested in large numbers, the fibrous wood being ground-up for orchid-planting media, (sold as "hapu'u" or "osmunda fiber") The orchid craze coincides (and pre-dates by a decade or two) the tourist-carving of fern tikis. Perhaps this ready source of fern-root logs was the cheapest, most accessable media for the tourist carvers to begin working on. Were these first carvers New Zealanders living in Hawaii? Or just local Hawaiians skilled at carving other things like bowls and drums, now being called upon by hotel builders and gardening shops to carve tikis?

Or were the first carvers Japanese? The Japanese had been carving their native fern wood for ages. A large block of tree-fern wood would be carved into the rugged shape of a mountain which would provide the perfect medium for growing miniature gardens of bonzai trees and other tiny plants. A newspaper article from 1939 states that fern wood for this purpose could no longer be imported from Japan, so was being imported from Hawaii instead. Did the Japanese-Hawaiians turn their fernwood carving skills into producing tikis?

The harvesting of tree ferns for orchid media eventually threatened all four Hawaiian tree-fern species. They are are protected now, which is why you don't see Hawaiian fern-wood tikis being produced anymore.

By the early 1960s, we know for sure that native Hawaiians were carving Fern-Wood tikis. Several gigantic ones were shipped over for the Seattle World's Fair in 1962. They were done by a carver named Kalani.

Here's another at Tiki Gardens in Florida, circa 1964.

Another curiosity is that the tree-fern tiki seems to have developed into a style all its own. They look like they were originally based on classic Hawaiian Ku designs, but they also share characteristics that have nothing in common with classic Hawaiian tikis. For instance, many of them have their hands in this puppy-dog-begging pose...

... while original carvings of Hawaiian gods had their hands at their sides or on hips in the classic wrestler's pose. Where did the fern-wood style come from?

I hope that some of you will post some of your own pictures of fern-wood tikis (the earlier the better).

I'm also anxious to hear your own theories as to how this very-early style of mid-century tiki carving developed in Hawaii.


[ This Message was edited by: Sabu The Coconut Boy 2010-03-06 00:10 ]

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Bongo Bungalow
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Joined: Aug 20, 2007
Posts: 1295
From: Indiana
Posted: 2010-03-03 03:03 am   Permalink

Well done Sabu. Thanks.

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Tiki Socialite

Joined: Oct 20, 2003
Posts: 296
From: Sunset Cliffs , CA
Posted: 2010-03-03 07:31 am   Permalink

Another great informative and thought provoking thread Sabu.

Between this thread and your crypto mugs thread, you are on a roll, thanks for reminding why I stated lurking here years ago. The wealth of info, images, and resources on TC is staggering.

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Tiki Socialite

Joined: Oct 17, 2004
Posts: 331
Posted: 2010-03-03 10:22 am   Permalink

Hey Sabu, great post, I saw your reference to the fern wood carving a couple of weeks ago and wanted to chime in but I was busy, as you can see below I have some opinion about the subject, my post is way too long.
You make some great points and I think your timeline is right on but also some questions arise. A couple of things I am wondering what makes you believe that most of the (mass produced) fern wood Tikis were actually being made in Hawaii and second do they have ferns that are as large as the (biggest) carvings shown? (Iím sure a quick search could answer the second)
Iíve seen a great many fern wood pieces here in California over the years leading me to the conclusion they were fairly mass produced, a few years ago I came upon the Pally/s Los Angeles ad below, which confirmed that belief.

The fern woods are there along with all the other very cheap state side Luau crap, meaning they must have been relatively inexpensive to procure and have shipped to LA. Then as now Hawaii was not a big center for production of Tikis just think about how many places there feature O.A.ís work. I suspect a lot more was being shipped TO Hawaii you wouldnít believe how many times Iíve heard that a Witco is a hard wood piece bought and carved in ďHawaiiĒ. We (tourists) love more than anything to have this connection to anything ďauthenticallyĒ carved by Hawaiian natives or locals (on the Islands), Iím sure there is a whole psychological explanation for this. There have always been and still are a great may people there just happy support this idea and take your cash, you donít have to look further than ads on Tiki Central to confirm this. The work is obviously produced in Tonga, Indonesia (you name it) the seller swears (or greatly implies) he masterfully made the work in Hawaii. Most people have no idea what a well carved Tiki should look like and they are all too happy to take this B.S. hook line and sinker, I covered this in last years talk at Oasis (you where there Sabu). This is a pet peeve of mind so let me get back to the subject.
Most of the larger sized examples you posted are probably by the same guy I think he may have also carved the Trader Halls Tiki below.

I have a way bigger photo of this carving (itís so big it looks fake) someplace, I would swear the texture looks to be fern, probably not itís gigantic, but I know they get pretty big in some parts of the Pacific on the other hand if not what kind of wood is it? All this guys work have a very ridged overly accurate faces that seem to be skwooshed feel to them. These look to be done by the same carver, probably in Hawaii in the mid 50ís, they were obviously show pieces (not usually for a home bar) and they donít look anything like the small simple ones. On the other hand you can see Kalani who came around a short time later (early 60ís) has a much more of a grasp of form, I love this guys work it is beautiful, but if you also think about it his work looks to have been influenced by the simplicity of the small (late 50ís) fern wood Tikis.

Sorry for the size of the next Ulu Mau Village photo heís are a few more examples of his work, he really took this style to the next level.

Who came up with the mass produced fern designs I have no idea but I can take a guess why the pieces are so bold, it is a crappy material to work in, forms had to be bold because it wonít hold any detail and a few seasons out in the weather will round out any rough shapes making them look even more deliberate. They are quite obviously supposed to be Hawaiian style but when simplified some look amazingly modern others a little clunky. Why fern? Itís an awful material but easy to carve and light weight compared to palm or hard wood.

I could go on and on but if you want to read this sometime soon Iíll cut it short, again great job Sabu.

My very best Alohas,


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Sabu The Coconut Boy
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Joined: Aug 20, 2002
Posts: 2804
From: Carson, California
Posted: 2010-03-03 3:52 pm   Permalink

Bongo & sirginn - Much appreciated. Thanks.

Bosko - Thanks so much for chiming in. I know you've had a strong interest in tree fern tikis for much longer than I have and I hoped you would lend your opinions and expertise.

I don't necessarily have any firm belief that those mass-produced fern wood tikis were made in Hawaii. I just kind of fell for the old "if it's in the ad, it must be true" trap. But if they were manufactured cheaply elsewhere and shipped to Hawaii, that would also help explain why the style is culturally similar yet different - like the current Balinese tikis that Trader Vic's sometimes uses with their Buddha-like bellies. That Stewart's ad that I posted uses the word "Hapu'u" for "Tree Fern" which applies to 2 species of fern found only in Hawaii. So if they aren't carved in Hawaii, they would be technically be lying. But again they also could have just wanted a Hawaiian word to describe any generic Tree Fern they might be selling.

I've got a different ad from Pally's, from their 1961 yearly Hawaiian Sale, and it proves that they were really mass-producing these guys for cheap:

As far as the Trader Hall's tiki - I'm convinced it's Tree Fern as well. Only fern wood has that dark, rough, fibrous look that doesn't reflect light in photos. If that carver also carved the two 1955 examples in my earlier post, as well as your Ulu Mau examples, then he would seem to be Hawaiian, or at least had access to the Bishop Museum. The classic, crouching wrestler stance from the ancient Hawaiian images is spot-on. The "Hina" tiki looks like it's a mix of a large temple image (knees, feet and head) and one of the smaller Aumakua female carvings (breasts & arms) from the museum's collection. And I love how the Trader Hall tiki takes a large Ku figure and adds a King Kamehameha-style feather headdress on top instead of the standard ladder-like crest or falling braids. If this is indeed the same carver doing these, then he's very creative and talented. But again, this begs the question - why did he decide to use Tree Fern instead of the traditional hardwoods?

To your second question - I did some research on the size of the local Hapu'u Hawaiian Tree Ferns (Cibotium spp.) that were used for carving. The trunks can be very tall. One source said up to 8 meters and the other said 25 feet, so they both seem to agree. That would be the carve-able trunk itself. There would be another 6 to 12 feet of fronds attached to the top. The width of the trunk on an old specimen can be 3 feet in diameter. That's plenty big for the large tikis by your carver. It looks like the root also was carved, so that would give the big-head effect that root-ball tikis also have. The back of my "Hina" photo states that she was carved from the root.

Someone on TC just posted these snapshots of the Trader Hall tiki and I don't think he's really that huge. It's just the hut he's standing next to is very small:

I think the local Hawaiian Tree Ferns could have accommodated him, as well as the giant World's Fair tikis that Kalani seems to have carved. What do you think?

Thanks again for posting on this.



[ This Message was edited by: Sabu The Coconut Boy 2010-03-03 16:19 ]

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Tiki Socialite

Joined: Jan 12, 2010
Posts: 140
From: Venice, California
Posted: 2010-03-03 7:19 pm   Permalink

&forum&hiliteThank you so much, Sabu!
Another excellent thread!

Here are just a few quick reference links to previous fernwood threads and some other visual examples.
Many of the image links are broken--maybe a re-interest in the old threads will inspire them to be fixed?

TNTikiís post about the Green Garden on Kauai


ZuluMagoo posted some excellent interior postcards of the South Seas, Boston, here...


Tiki Matt brought up a discussion of fernwood Tikis here, unfortunately, all the image links are broken...


Again, another discussion begun by DawnTiki here (with broken links)...


Another discussion by tikiriffic...


Another discussion by Choptop...


...featuring the gorgeous fernwood carved by cheekytiki for the Mahiki

Hereís a Vanuatu fernwood figure that sold at auction in 2005 for $24,000

Tiki Kiliki has one of the most beautiful fernwood Tikis Iíve ever seen from the Kon-Tiki Ports in Chicago...

(photo: tiki kiliki)

Matt Reeseís spectacular home bar, the Lava Flow Inn, also has a beautiful fernwood specimen...

(photo from Mattís Lava Flow Inn Home-Bar Thread)

Hereís a vintage vacation photo from the Ulu Mau Village...

(photo: Dick & Graciela)

A couple of fernwoods in the collection of gtykal...

A specimen stated to be from Trader Vicís in Honolulu...

And a 6 foot-plus specimen stated to be from the Dole Hawaiian Pavillion at the '62 worldís fair...

Fugu's got a great personal story behind another fernwood specimen in tikiyaki's "Your First/Favorite Tikis" thread...


[ This Message was edited by: JONPAUL 2010-03-03 19:41 ]

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Lake Surfer
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Joined: Oct 21, 2002
Posts: 3414
From: Milwaukee, WI
Posted: 2010-03-03 11:32 pm   Permalink

Threads like this are why I love this website.

Thanks for starting this great thread Sabu, and thanks for continuing it with great contributions, Bosko and Jonpaul.

Good stuff! I love the Fern Wood tikis.

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Tiki Socialite

Joined: Sep 27, 2004
Posts: 2408
From: So FL
Posted: 2010-03-04 07:47 am   Permalink

There are 3 in the entrance to the Mai Kai. Currently they are in very sad shape.

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Tiki Socialite

Joined: Jul 11, 2006
Posts: 833
From: SoCal
Posted: 2010-03-04 10:11 am   Permalink

Enjoying this thread! Thanks.

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Tiki Socialite

Joined: Mar 25, 2002
Posts: 11605
From: Tiki Island, above the Silverlake
Posted: 2010-03-04 11:21 pm   Permalink

Indeed, excellence! Shows how there are always untapped facets to Tiki culture yet unexplored. Wish I was with my archive to post some great decrepit fern Tikis. These fibrous beauties dissolved themselves quickly when left to the elements, that's why so few are still around.

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Site Administrator

Joined: Aug 10, 2004
Posts: 3452
From: Redondo Beach, CA
Posted: 2010-03-05 10:49 am   Permalink

Here's another photo of the Trader Hall Fern Wood Tiki.

This photo comes from a removable booklet enclosed in the 1960 vinyl lp "Ports of Paradise" by Alfred Newman and Ken Darby.

Album Cover:

Booklet Page:

While I'm at it, here's a Fern Wood Tiki from the International Market Place.

This photo comes from the foldout booklet in the vinyl lp "The Magic Islands Revisited" by Axel Stordahl.

Album Cover:

Booklet Page:


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Tiki Socialite

Joined: Aug 20, 2004
Posts: 1784
From: Orlando
Posted: 2010-03-05 2:20 pm   Permalink


On 2010-03-04 07:47, AlohaStation wrote:
There are 3 in the entrance to the Mai Kai. Currently they are in very sad shape.

I don't think I have a picture of them today, but here they are when they were young studs.

Photos courtesy of
my all time favorite thread. Hmmmm... that would make an interesting thread in itself: nominate your all-time favorite Tiki Central thread!

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Tiki Socialite

Joined: Mar 27, 2002
Posts: 1506
From: Honolulu Lounge,Lewes, DE
Posted: 2010-03-05 5:38 pm   Permalink


Someone on TC just posted these snapshots of the Trader Hall tiki and I don't think he's really that huge.


Actually, it's me and I am massive.

Where do you get those Hawaiian thing-a-ma-jigs? You know, those hula do-dads.

[ This Message was edited by: Kailuageoff 2010-03-05 17:40 ]

[ This Message was edited by: Kailuageoff 2010-03-05 17:41 ]

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Tiki Socialite

Joined: Mar 25, 2002
Posts: 11605
From: Tiki Island, above the Silverlake
Posted: 2010-03-05 10:28 pm   Permalink

This photo...

...brings up the interesting problem of FERN TIKI FOTOGRAPHY !

Because of these puppies not only being black, but also because of their fibrous, furry texture, they virtually "suck up" the light, and until you had hard sun light hit them in the right angle, their furry features (which also are less defined, more soft, because of the fern wood to begin with), are hard to make out. It pains me to thing that the above is the best photo of these we ever get to see. Because as I mentioned above, they also fall apart much more quickly than their brothers made from palm or other woods. But this only makes them more ethereal and mysterious..

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Tiki Socialite

Joined: Nov 12, 2002
Posts: 7928
From: Huntikington Beach
Posted: 2010-03-08 8:35 pm   Permalink

Here's a picture of my brother at Eli's, Island Trade Store in Midway City, ca.

Fernwood Tiki??

late 60's my guess.

Great post SABU!


Bamboo Ben
Tiki Bars I've designed/built. Zombie Village SF, TikiCat, Royal Hawaiian, Kona Club, Frankie's Tiki Room, Pacific Seas, Don the Beachcomber,Forbidden Island, Kon Tiki Tucson, Ti

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