Diana Clock/Daily Journal
Tualau Tauheluhelu works on a handmade tiki idol outside the soon-to-be-opened downtown Tiki Lounge Bar & Grill at 144 B St. in San Mateo. The tropic-themed bar plans to display several of Tauheluhelu's handmade carvings.
Tualau Tauheluhelu would be hard-pressed to tell you when, in his more than 40 years of wood sculpting, that a mallet and chisel felt like foreign objects to his well-toned, chapped and calloused hands. The extensive wood carving collection of this soft-spoken 56-year-old from the South Pacific island of Tonga tells of a lifetime focusing on perfecting his craft.
"I’ll carve anything, you name it,” chuckles Tauheluhelu between tapping his mallet and ferule on his current project. He’s making a series of Tiki idols to adorn the walls and banisters for a soon-to-open bar and grill on B Street in downtown San Mateo.
Examples of his work, which he makes from his workshop and sells at street corners or art fairs, include traditional big-headed, small-bodied Tiki idols, as well as ornamental shark-toothed clubs and animals.
Tauheluhelu markets himself as a custom Tiki carver. For a negotiated price, he’ll carve a Tiki version of his customers.
"I’ll give you a man’s or lady’s body,” he said, "but I’ll give you a big face.”
"This one time, I even carved a man wearing a tuxedo,” Tauheluhelu recalled with a wry smile.
Tauheluhelu taught himself to carve when he was a bored schoolboy in Tonga. He’d carve small dolls between classes and his skill with tools ultimately led to a number of carpentry jobs.
"I began selling the dolls in 1977 but my trade was as a builder,” he said.
He left Tonga for the United States when he was 18 years old and worked a series of odd jobs and carpentry projects to get by.
Ultimately, he settled in San Mateo, and soon decided to make carving his full-time profession, with the occasional carpentry project. That was nearly 30 years ago.
In taking his carving from hobby to profession, he’s learned that carving begins well before he reaches for his tools. When he studies an untouched piece of wood, it’s its dimensions that dictate what carving it should reveal.
"I’ll look at a log and think, ‘this is a whale,’ or ‘this is a dolphin,’” he said. "All my carvings look like what the wood looks like.”
He does insist, though, on using hardwoods. "I prefer exotic woods, like rosewood,” he said.
Rosewood typically is a strong, heavy brown wood that takes well to stains and polishes.
Tauheluhelu also tries to avoid using power tools on his carvings, he said, instead relying on his collection of mallets, chisels, ferules and gouges. Though he has, on occasion, used a chain saw to cut large pieces, and sometimes a power sander.
A myriad of Tauheluhelu’s carvings, mostly Tikis, stare or greet passersby from the window at what will be the Downtown Tiki Lounge Bar & Grill at 144 B St.
Dennis Romero, a lifelong resident of San Mateo, decided to open a Tiki-themed bar with his friend soon after Romero’s courier job with DHL Express disappeared. The company ceased operations in the United States in November 2008 because of the economic downturn. Romero hopes to open the lounge by the end of this month pending the approval of a liquor license.
"I’d always wanted to open a bar,” Romero said, "and one day my friend says we should open a Tiki bar.”
The two pooled their resources and began refurbishing the B Street location to resemble a traditional tropical lounge, with bamboo shoots, palm tree canopies and a red-lit bar counter that resembles a lava flow.
And, of course, plenty of Tauheluhelu’s Tikis.
"I’d seen this guy selling his Tikis on Shoreview (Avenue),” Romero said, "and it just made sense to hire him.”