Making Wild Spirit Drinking Vessels
I’ve just finished making a small batch of our wooden cups and thought I’d share what goes in to the making of our Wild Spirit Drinking Vessels and Polaris Coffee Cups. These are our own versions of the traditional drinking vessel of the far north, the kuksa, guksi or noggin depending on where you’re from. We first encountered cups like this on a trek in the far north of Sweden; seeing hikers use these to scoop up icy water from mountain streams was one of the things that inspired me to pick up my axe and start making things from wood, eventually creating Miscellaneous Adventures. This is not intended to be a comprehensive how-to guide to making your own, but it might be helpful if you’re thinking of having a go.
As with everything we make, it all starts with a tree. Woodcarving has taken me on a wonderful journey into the world of trees and forests, and I’ve discovered more about the interconnectivity of nature through working with natural materials than anything else. Making a cup, or anything in fact, from freshly felled wood gives you a very strong and immediate connection to the material; the wood is still cool to the touch and heavy with water and the simple hand tools used in green woodworking demand sympathy with the grain structure to flow smoothly and produce good results.
This latest batch are made from silver birch which I felled whilst volunteering at one of our local nature reserves. Where ever we get our wood from, we always do the felling work ourselves and we only take trees that are due to be felled as part of a woodland management plan. We typically use birch or wild cherry but other close-grained species will work too. Traditionally burls would of been used for drinking cups; round growths that form on a tree due to stress or disease. The grain structure of burls is twisted and gnarly which makes for a very durable and split resistant material. Burls are scarce however, and difficult to carve, so we use logs from the butt ends of any trees we fell, here the fibres are tightly packed, wavy and interlocked as a result of the tree swaying in the wind, making for a good second best to burls.
Having selected a log about 30cms long from the tree, the first step is to split the log at least in half. Right in the centre of the tree lays the pith, or medullar; wood is a complex and fascinating material and I could write for hours about the inner workings of a tree (and maybe I will one day) but for now all you need to know is that I want my cup as far away from the pith as possible to help prevent the cup from splitting as it dries.
Now, I flatten what will be the top surface of the cup and also the sides with the axe so I can clamp or secure the wood firmly. Using a curved gouge, the long process of hollowing out the cup begins. I use a mallet in conjunction with the gouge until the hollow is deep enough to use the gouge on its own, at which point the sharp tool slices through the soft, fresh wood in a very pleasing way. Alternatively, you can use a crook knife for hollowing out the cup, but for deep bowls this takes a long time and requires strong hands. I typically use one for tidying up the inside of the bowl, removing any marks made by the gouge.
Next, it’s over to the chopping block where I work on matching the outside of the cup to the hollow. I use a Gransfors Bruks small forest axe and hew the waste material away with heavy blows to begin with, often making cuts almost at 90 degrees across the grain and then splitting out larger chunks where safe to do so. The axe is a wonderfully efficient woodworking tool, especially when used on green wood, enabling quick removal of waste material with minimum effort, provided of course the axe is super sharp. The aim is to do as much work with the axe as possible before moving on, using the weight of the axe head to drive the tool through the material, letting gravity do the hard work for me.
Once I’ve roughed out the cup I move on to the straight knife. There are loads of different wood carving specific knives but I like to keep it simple and use the same knife I use for camping and other general outdoor work. The one is these photos is a Mora Classic No.2 which is great, cheap all rounder. One of the things that appealed to me about green wood working was its simplicity and the fact that I could make useful and beautiful things out in the wild with the tools I already had with me. I use multiple knife grips, often using my chest to support the cup whilst carving. With my knife I’ll smooth out all the rough marks made by the axe, and work on refining the shape, symmetry and balance. Although I work to a template, the cups can vary a fair bit as I tend to simply carve until each one feels right in the hand.
Next I work a little more on the inside of the bowl with a crook knife, tidying up any stray fibres or unwanted marks and put the cup away to dry out. Up until now the wood has been green but for the final carving and sanding the wood needs to be thoroughly dry and stable. The cups go into a cardboard box to help slow down the drying process. If the wood dries too fast, cracks can easily devleop so this is a very important step. It can take 3 weeks to a month for the cup to dry and the temptation to start carving too soon is strong. A good way to check is to weigh the cup several times over course of a few days; the cup will get lighter as it dries, once the weight stops decreasing you know the cup has dried. I tend to rely on how the wood feels, sounds and other less measurable, occasionally mystical methods.
Once the cup is dry, further knife work gets underway to take the cup to its near finished state. With the wood dry or ’seasoned’ the knife now leaves behind shiny smooth facets on the outer surface of the cup as I carve. Depending on the project and the piece of wood, I sometimes leave the facets and tool marks; this finish can be beautiful and takes skill to get right. In truth though, I prefer the polished smooth finish which allows the figuring and character of the wood to take centre stage. If leaving the facets I go straight to oiling the cup with linseed oil. Otherwise it’s on to the laborious, dusty, task of sanding away the knife and tool marks with progressively finer grades of abrasive paper until the wood is velvety smooth. Finally, Each cup is soaked overnight in Swedish organic linseed oil and left to dry before final polishing.
My own wooden cup, which I made from wild cherry six years ago, accompanies me on every adventure and hiking trip and is now an essential item. Not only is has developed a deep rich patina after years of being used for black coffee and the occasional whiskey, it’s also soaked up some of the spirit of the places I’ve been and reminds me of past adventures every time I use it. My hope is that whoever buys our cups will develop a similar relationship with theirs, treasured for many years to come.
Hopefully this post has been helpful and if you decide to give making a kuksa yourself, feel free to ask any questions and make sure you share the results with us, we’d love to see. Similarly, if you’ve bought one of our Polaris Cups over the years, where have you taken it? Let us know and we can share in a follow up post!