If you’re Norwegian, Finnish or Swedish you may call it a Guksi, Kuksa or Kåsa otherwise you may simply call it a cup. Whatever the name, the Scandinavian-style wooden drinking cup has become one of the must-have bushcraft accessories.
They are nice things to own and nice things to use. Carving a kuksa is a great test of your wood carving skills and whatever you fill it with will taste even better when the kuksa is made with your own hand!
The traditional wood for carving a kuksa is birch, often a burr – the knobbly growth where the wood has been deformed to produce a lump. However, these can be difficult to find, especially large enough for a kuksa, so a round length of birch more than 20cm or so (8 inches) in diameter will do.
Carving a kuksa isn’t that difficult but does require some solid knife skills. If you don’t have much experience with wood carving tools then I’d suggest getting a few smaller wood carving projects under your belt before trying this.
As with all wood carving projects, think safety! Number one rule – have a first aid kit nearby. Number two – always think about where the pointy bit will end up and make sure it’s not in you or someone else!
Here’s my article on wood carving tools to give you an idea of the sort of tools that are easily carried and suitable for carving a kuksa.
The first job is to split the round into two lengthways. When you cut the piece of birch in the first place try to get the ends square to make splitting much more stable and less dangerous.
The next step is to trim the flat face of the half you decide to use. Trim off enough to get rid of the darker heartwood. When wood dries the heartwood and sapwood dry at different rates. If both are present, the tension created as the wood dries will most likely cause splitting.
Once you’ve done this, draw on the flat face the plan view of your kuksa. When carving a kuksa, or any other wood carving project, it’s far easier to think in one plane at a time so we’ll work first at getting the cup shape as seen from above.
Carefully trim the wood lengthwise down to the edges of the kuksa.
Next trim away the excess wood around the handle of the kuksa. Be careful not to chop off half the bowl. To do this use stop cuts. Stop cuts are a useful technique for most wood carving projects. Make a saw cut each side of the handle so when you split the wood, the split stops at the cut.
Split away the wood. It doesn’t have to be precise at this stage. There will be plenty of time to tidy up before it’s finished.
Start to remove the corners and any other excess wood. At this point, I’m still using the axe. The knife could be used but the axe is a quicker option (but be careful – one slip and you’re likely to only have half a kuksa – a kuk?). Once tidied, remove the ends (with the saw is easy if you’re using one).
Remember I said it was easier to work in one plane at a time? Now we start working in the other plane – the “side view”. Think about the shape as seen from the side. Again, draw it on then start to work on this design.
This should leave you with a rough solid kuksa as demonstrated by my assistant.
Now get to work with the knife to take off those rough edges.
Use a crook knife to hollow out the bowl. Use your fingers to feel whether the thickness is even. If you’re confident enough, it’s possible to make it thin enough that you can hold it up and see daylight through the wood (a great tip for the more weight-conscious readers!).
The hollowing and tidying continue until we end up with an almost-finished kuksa. As with all green wood carving projects, if you can’t manage all the carving in one go put the kuksa in a sealed plastic bag in a cool place to stop it from drying out.
Once you’re happy with the kuksa, dry it thoroughly before sanding. Be careful with this and don’t rush it. The more you rush the drying the more likely the kuksa is to split.
Again, this advice applies to all green wood carving projects: Leave it in a cool place for a few days then gradually move it somewhere warmer such as in the house. A good way of knowing if it’s dry is to hold it against your lip – if the wood still holds moisture it’ll feel cool. As the wood dires it will feel less cool to the touch.
Once dry, the kuksa can be sanded as smoothly as you wish. Sometimes it’s nice to leave some of the tool marks, it’s all down to your preference. After this the kuksa can be oiled – an edible oil such as olive or grapeseed is ideal.
I find tipping a bit in a ziplock bag, popping the cup inside and giving it a good rub around then leaving it to soak for a good while does the job well.
So there you are, you have a kuksa! I heard a traditional way of christening the kuksa is by drinking whiskey and black coffee from it alternately. Not sure how you know when to stop this though – which will give up first? You or the kuksa?
A great book for this sort of green wood carving is ‘Carving and Whittling: The Swedish Style by Gert Ljungberg’. It seems to be out of print and a bit pricey on Amazon but you may find it cheaper elsewhere. It has some beautiful examples of Scandinavian woodcraft.