Māori carvings in wood, bone, or stone have unique designs and special meanings.

Rather than purely being decorative, whakairo (Māori carvings) each give a unique narrative. The stories passed down through generations explain cultural traditions and tribal history.

Traditionally Māori carvers were men; their craft included working on weapons, tools, musical instruments, canoes and decorative panels and posts for the various buildings within the village.

A novice carver could expect to spend up to 20 years mastering the art of wood carving. 

Symbols and patterns

Māori carvings are rich in symbolism and use common patterns, though styles differ between tribes.

Symbols include the tiki, which represents the human figure, and the manaia, a creature with a bird-like head and serpent-like body, associated with guardianship.

Traditional patterns used in carving were often inspired by the natural environment, including spider webs (pungawerewere), fish scales (unaunahi) and the unfurling fronds of the fern (koru).

At Te Puia in Rotorua, you can watch Māori carvers at work.

The materials

Māori carvers applied their craft to different materials. 


Wood carving has played an important and respected role in Maori culture since before the first people arrived in New Zealand aboard their fleet of ocean-going waka (canoes).

The art of wood carving is called whakairo rakau and focuses on using a range of native timbers, particularly wood from the majestic giants of the forest, the kauri and totara.

The trees used for wood carving represent Tāne, the god of the forest, and some required special rituals for felling them.

Each carving tells a story and records a piece of history. 

Elaborate wood carvings featured in daily Maori life, from decorations on the prow of a waka and main posts of wharenui (meeting houses) to the shape of taiaha (weapons). 

These objects are functional works of art. 

Pounamu (greenstone)

Maori wood-carvers used tools made from greenstone, which was prized for its strength. 

Pounamu from the South Island was also precious for its beauty, so became a popular material for carving adornments.

Precious adornments were (and are still) worn as a sign of prestige; they included ear pendants, breast pendants and carved combs worn in the hair.

Pounamu is still a popular choice for jewellery today.


As well as pounamu, carvers also shaped adornments from whale ivory and whale bone. 

Bone was also carved into fish hooks. 

For many New Zealanders Pounamu, also known as NZ Jade or greenstone, is more than a souvenir - it has a treasured spiritual significance.

Whakairo today

Traditional carving continues to thrive today. Just as tā moko or traditional Māori tattoos, have seen a renaissance, wood carving continues to have major spiritual and cultural significance, and is still widely used for whare whakairo (communal meeting houses). 

Learn more about Māori culture