Waka, Episode 5: Derek Kawiti uses a 3D printer to bring an ancient Hawaiian wa’a to life. (Photo: Tawera Productions)

Derek Kawiti is making a waka, but there’s no log and no carving. He’s using a 3D-printer to create a life-size replica of an ancient Hawaiian wa’a. Derek shows us how in Episode 5 of WAKA, a six-part video series which traces the revival of waka building through four teams from across the Pacific.


On the banks of the Hōteo river, which runs beside the Hihiaua cultural centre in Whangārei, architect and design lecturer Derek Kawiti spades muddy silt into a bucket.

He’s making a waka for the Rāta carving symposium, but not in any way the canoe carvers inside the Hihiaua workshed would recognise. There’s no log, and no carving.

Derek’s challenge is to create a full-size replica of a 230-year-old Hawaiian outrigger canoe — wa’a in Hawaiian — using the latest in 3D-printing technology.

The real thing is sitting in the Smithsonian in Washington DC in the US, gifted by Queen Kapi’olani of Hawai’i in 1887, when it was already 100 years old. It’s the oldest Hawaiian wa’a in the world. Derek has never touched it. He’s working from a 3D scan sent by the Smithsonian.

So, while the waka carvers work on their logs — chainsawing, chipping with adzes, and sanding — Derek gathers their shavings and wood chips from the big blue bin where they’re tipped.

Later, he drives the shavings and silt down to Wellington. In his workrooms at Victoria University, he uses these ingredients to mix a polymer paste which almost explodes the injector of the large robot he’s using to 3D-print the wa’a.

That’s a fail, then. He goes back to the drawing board — in this case, his computer.

It’s a groundbreaking project that aims to explore what 3D-printing could mean for the future of waka carving and the ability to restore and make waka artifacts accessible to audiences and the Pacific communities they come from.

While 3D-printing and scanning has been in use by museums for some time — providing new ways for artifacts to be preserved, studied in the field, and displayed — this is the first project involving the lifesize replica of an ancient Pacific wa’a.

It raises some interesting questions.

“Quite obviously,” Derek says, “it might replace the role of the craftsperson in building waka or wa’a. So, what kind of significant traditional customary roles does it take away, and what does it replace it with?”

The idea for the project goes back to 2016 when the Smithsonian hosted the Māori exhibition, Tuku Iho.

James Eruera, the creative force behind Rātā, had taken part in the exhibition with his waka students from New Zealand’s national canoe school, Te Tapuwae o te Waka. They’d carved a tōtara waka as a gift for the museum.

Something twigged for Smithsonian curator Joshua Bell, and he took them to see Queen Kapi’olani’s wa’a.

James got so excited he ran outside to call Ray and Alika Bumatay, the father and son Hawaiian master carvers. He told them: “There’s this beautiful wa’a here, and I think it’s really worthy of a look.”

With the Smithsonian’s support, James and the Hawaiians were soon back at the museum to study and repair the wa’a.

The Smithsonian had already made a 3D scan of the wa’a, and tentative plans were made for them to print it.

Then, back in Aotearoa, James met Derek Kawiti, randomly, he says.

“Or maybe the wa’a just wanted us to meet,” says James. “Maybe the whole project just wanted to play itself out with all of us in tow.”

Derek (Ngāti Hine, Ngāpuhi, Tūhoe, Ngāti Porou) grew up in Patea, where he’d been surrounded, unexpectedly, by waka. “We used to find them just sticking out of the mud in paddocks. They used to come up through peat swamps.”

He teaches computational design at the school of architecture at Victoria University. He’d done his masters at the Architectural Association—Design Research Lab in London, and then spent more than a decade working in London, the Caribbean, and Italy, before returning to Aotearoa to teach. He was already using 3D-printing and other digital tools, like artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR).

And, as it happened, much of his research was around “understanding the implications of digital technologies in the convergence with Indigenous traditional knowledge”.

Seeing that Derek had unique credentials to deliver the project, James proposed it become part of the Rātā symposium, and the Smithsonian gave the go-ahead for the plan.

But it took a while to sort out a memorandum of understanding setting out the strict conditions under which the scan could be used. And it was only as Rātā was starting that Derek finally received the 3D-scan. That didn’t leave a lot of room for experimentation with materials.

The silt and shavings, for example, was a failed attempt to connect culturally contextual materials to the printed wa’a.

The difference between Derek’s process and the carvers’ is stark. The carvers are constantly in touch with the wood of their rākau. Derek, meanwhile, is programming printers, fixing technical problems, changing hardware.

Every time I see him, he’s multi-tasking at pace, with an air of flurried industriousness. Underlying that is the weight of dealing with an ancient treasure.

“I have fears that what I do will be really stink and won’t be good enough,” Derek says. “We don’t really want to degrade or lower the perception of the original.”

In the end, there’s no comparison.

The finished wa’a replica is long, curved and elegant. She’s made of a lightweight wood filament, a buttercream colour with an unusual layered texture.

At the Rātā waka launch in Kororāreka, Russell, Derek acknowledges “the travelling of this (wa’a), through time, to join us again.”

She’s not seaworthy — that wasn’t the aim this time round — but the next version could be.

So, while the other waka glide in the sea, bronzed and powerful, the replica wa’a remains on shore, looking separate and vulnerable — like a grandma who’s come to watch, or a much younger sibling too young to join in. And, in a way, it’s both.

“I think a good thing with this exercise is that people will see that 3D printing is not perfect by any means,” Derek says. “I always think it’s going to be secondary to the finer aspects of human-engaged craft.”

WAKA is a six-part online video series produced by Tawera Productions in collaboration with E-Tangata and the New Zealand Herald as part of Tuia 250. It was made with the support of NZ On Air. A version of this story was also published in the Herald.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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