Chewing and spitting out salmon eggs wasn’t what Jun Lee and Vinicius Lube thought they’d be doing to complete a project in their wood finishing class at the University of British Columbia.
The project: Reproduce traditional wood finishes used by First Nations people in B.C., long before Europeans arrived with commercial products, like paints and oils, in the late 19th century.
With help from the Museum of Anthropology (MOA) at UBC, Lee and Lube, graduate students in chemical engineering and wood science, collected a number of natural pigments that First Nations people along the coast of the Pacific Northwest would have used to paint totem poles or other decorative wooden objects. These pigments included bone black, green earth and red ochre, among others.
In order for a pigment to stain wood, a binder must be used. Shellacs and varnishes are often used today, but traditional First Nations finishes would have commonly used salmon eggs, or roe, as a binder. Salmon eggs contain a lot of protein, which makes for a strong adhesive.
But initially Lee and Lube couldn’t get the salmon eggs to work. They tried grinding the eggs together with the pigment, mixing it with water, or melting the eggs. None of these methods to dilute the roe achieved the right consistency and colour when compared to the authentic finishes on some artifacts at the MOA.
Stumped, the pair turned to Bill McLennan, a curator at the MoA and author of The Transforming Image: Painted Arts of Northwest Coast First Nations, for help. He suggested chewing and spitting out the salmon eggs before mixing it with the pigment, confirming First Nations would have used a similar technique.
“Chewing the salmon eggs was squishy and salty,” said Lee. “Human saliva seemed to soften and break down the eggs. This helped to create a finish that adhered to the wood properly and matched most closely with the artifacts, on both red and yellow cedar.”
Lee and Lube used a spectrophotometer, a machine that essentially measures colour, to analyze the wood finishes they produced. And because the exact ratio of binder and pigment used in these finishes by First Nations is undocumented, Lee and Lube relied on trial and error to produce their own recipe.
“People often think of the spiritual or cultural aspects of totem poles, or of First Nations art in general, but not the technical skills involved to stain the wood, or how time consuming the process can be,” said Lube. “Traditional First Nations people were incredibly resourceful. Doing this project made us better appreciate their ingenuity.”
Lube said traditional finishes are grainy and have a short shelf life. He said the process and time needed to reproduce these finishes provides insight as to why traditional First Nations people may have adopted commercial products so quickly (for their ease, longevity and convenience) and why these traditional finishes were used so sparingly.
Lee and Lube’s detailed technical report on how to produce the finishes will be housed in the MOA’s archives, which is open to the public. They hope their findings could be potentially used by anyone who is interested in reproducing the traditional finishes themselves, including indigenous artists.