Creative Outlets: The Kuksa

The ability to create is one of the big draws of writing. So it should come as no surprise that when I’m not writing, I like to make things. I think working with my hands is a great compliment to writing, and it often helps me address things like writer’s block or give me time to mentally flesh out new ideas and storylines. It’s also fun and challenging.

 

Here in the intermittent series of “Creative Outlet” posts, I hope to share some non-writing projects and adventures with you, and I hope they inspire your own.

 

For this project, I decided I wanted to make a Kuksa, which is a traditional wooden cup most associated with the Sami peoples of northern Scandinavia. Like all handmade things, they come in a wide array of styles and what’s considered ‘traditional’ varies by region.

This will mostly be a photo-essay on how I did mine. I enjoyed the process, and I love the final product (despite its many deviations from ‘tradition’, which I’ll address below).

Let’s check it out.

Traditional kuksas are made from birch burls or birch logs, but I didn’t have either of those on hand when the whim to do this hit me. What I did have was a well-seasoned slab of pecan left over from an earlier project (I built a live-edge outdoor bar-sink, which maybe I’ll post about another time).

You can find youtube videos of guys with hand-axes and hook knives knocking out a birch kuksa in less than an hour, and that’s initially how I expected to do it. But, as it turns out, green birch and seasoned pecan behave very very differently when you take a hatchet to them, and I had to abandon that plan, well… instantly.

After penciling my outlines onto the wood, I had to use a mallet and a set of carving gouges to start forming the bowl of the cup.

My workbench wasn’t heavy enough to withstand this kind of pounding, so I plopped down on the concrete floor with the slab between my knees.

This was great for the job, but terrible for my back. I could barely stand up straight for nearly two days afterward, but sometimes we suffer to get the job done.

I ended up carving out about a 10 oz. bowl, which is on the larger side of ‘medium’ for this kind of thing.

This chunk of pecan was extremely hard and dense, and the grain seemed to run in several directions. It gave me a better understanding of the phrase “chipping away at it” than I really wanted.

Fun fact: Pecan is a decent wood for smoking meat, cheese, and fish – so I saved all the chips this project generated so that I can use them on the grill later.

Now we’re getting somewhere. I decided to go with a two-hole handle, and after drilling out the holes, I penciled out the curves of the handle and carved them out with the mallet and gouges.

As you can tell, this is going to take an enormous amount of sanding… and I don’t own a bench sander. To get around that unfortunate fact, I locked down the triggers on my handheld belt-sander and put it upside down on the lawn so I could use it as an improvised bench sander. And that actually worked!

Behold, the wonder of power tools!

(Although, the inside of the bowl and most of the handle still took an enormous amount of hand-sanding. I put on an audiobook and worked it through increasingly fine papers until I got what I wanted.)

I love how the grain patterns on this piece came out looking like the lines on an old map. It provokes my sense of adventure and gives the kuksa an old world aesthetic that fits the cup’s origins.

Burned my initials into the bottom and some Anglo-Frisian runes into the top of the handle (we’ll talk about those later).

I whiskered the kuksa at least five times. Whiskering is the practice of sanding the piece as smooth as possible before wiping it with a damp clothe to raise the burrs of the grain, letting it dry, and sanding again with a finer grit paper. I’m a firm proponent of whiskering any handmade wooden object. Nothing else produces as smooth a finish before adding coatings.

A coat of food-grade white mineral oil made that grain pattern stand out beautifully, while providing protection to the wood.

One traditional way to finish a kuksa is by manually grinding used coffee grounds into the bowl until the natural oils in the grounds impregnate the wood. Obviously, that tradition developed after the introduction of coffee to Scandinavia, and I don’t know what the practice was prior to that.

Okay – this step was a mistake.

I had this idea that the cup would crack as soon as I put hot liquids in it. After all the hard work to carve this thing out, that really would have sucked. So I decided to soak the entire kuksa in mineral oil… for three whole days.

Now, when I did put hot water in it, it didn’t crack – but it did start weeping mineral oil like crazy. Oil in my coffee. Oil pooling on the countertop. I could literally see, and hear, the oil coming out of this thing.

To fix this, I had to fill the cup with hot water several times until enough oil seeped out that I could dry the piece and finish it with a beeswax coating instead.

For a finishing touch, I made a leather hang-strap with a mystery braid and toggled it together with an antler tip button.

The Anglo-Frisian runes on the handle are the transliterated runes for my initials – J.R.W – although they also have distinct representative meanings, as well. Part of my heritage on my mother’s side traces back to Frisia (now Friesland in Northern Holland), which was a trading hub between Europe and the Viking countries.

So there you have it – my handmade kuksa.

It’s not the traditional wood… or the traditional coating… and at nearly half-a-pound, it’s much heavier that tradition, as well.

But I dig it.

A hot cup of coffee on the deck at my folk’s place, while enjoying the view from a mountain that my family cleared by hand.

It doesn’t get much better.

 

Until next time,

                 J.R. White

                       Storyteller at Large

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