If you are a fan of camping or bushcraft, it is impossible not to hear about the Kuksa Wooden Cup or the Guksi, or the Scandinavian Cup.
These Kuksa wooden cups make us fall in love with it at first sight and always want to own such a cup for ourselves, so you already know where this Kuksa wooden cup comes from, how is it made, how to use and preserve them?
Don’t worry, everything you need to know about the Kuksa wooden cup is in this article, so make yourself a cup of coffee and learn about it.
- 1 What is a Kuksa Wooden Cup?
- 2 What is the Kuksa wooden cup used for?
- 3 How to make a carving Kuksa wooden cup?
- 3.1 Step 1: Get your tools
- 3.2 Step 2: Choose the type of wood to make Kuksa cup and separating burl from the tree
- 3.3 What kind of wood is best for making Kuksa cups?
- 3.4 Step 3: Find your design
- 3.5 Step 4: Craft
- 3.6 Step 5: Refine
- 3.7 Step 7: Finalizing your Kuksa wooden cup
- 4 How do Kuksa wooden cup care tips?
- 5 Why do I love to use a Kuksa cup?
What is a Kuksa Wooden Cup?
A Kuksa cup is a wooden cup made of a birch burl. These mugs are made with true craftsmanship following the ancient tradition of the indigenous Sámi people of Lapland. The Sámi lifestyle was dominated by reindeer herding, foraging, hunting, fishing, and trading. It has an almost sacred status among traditional hikers, bushcrafters, foragers, and so on. The ‘Kuksa’ name derives from Finnish and can be also called Guksi (Sámi) or Kåsa (Swedish).
Who is the Sami?
The Sami are an indigenous people of northern Europe inhabiting Sami, which today encompasses parts of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia.
The traditional Sami lifestyle, dominated by hunting, fishing, and trading, was preserved until the Late Middle Ages when the modern structures of the Nordic countries were established.
The Sami traditional livelihoods and clothing are based on the utilization of natural resources. Because nature provided a livelihood, it could be consumed sparingly and extreme harmony was sought.
What is the Kuksa wooden cup used for?
History of the Kuksa wooden cup?
Originally, Kuksa cups was widely used in Arctic areas as a personal drinking cup, so it had to be durable. The Kuksas come from the Duodji: a handicraft of the Sami people. The duodji is functional and utilitarian, and sometimes concerns artistic elements but essentially are everyday objects (knives, bowls, etc.) This art form splits into two categories because of the materials used – all of the natural: female objects, most often made of skins, and male objects made of wood, horn, or bone. They are linked to the nomadic way of life: they had to be practical while remaining easy to adapt to the constraints linked to the environment.
Kuksa made of burl holds cold or warm drinks and can be used for collecting berries. Birch burl can withstand big temperature differences, and because of this, it’s no problem to pour boiling water while the air temperature is freezing -15°C. The material does not crack when dropped on the ground. The name Guksi or Kuksa means ladle, a cup, or a scoop, as that is what it was used for.
Modern use of Kuksa wooden cups
Kuksa has always been popular in Scandinavia and Nordic countries amongst foragers, hikers, nature lovers and it is gaining more popularity again as it is light (for backpackers and bushcraft), environmentally sustainable, a good size, comfy in the hand, and of course so pretty!
A Kuksa is a perfect companion for nature walks, camping, foraging, or gardening and it’s such a delight to sip your favorite tea from a wooden cup. Like it somehow tastes even better!
After a couple of years of use, the cup adapts to the liquid taste.
It is very safe to use Kuksa wooden cups to drink water, coffee, or tea but don’t put milk in Kuksa cups. It is recommended to use it only for coffee or tea, but not necessarily for both. It is an object which bears traces of its use and is therefore unique. The first thing you smell is the aroma of birch and by the time it might capture the smells of perhaps campfires and all the places you have been venturing and that will instantly take you back to those precious memories.
Wooden cups are attractive additions to a rustic set of drinking and eating utensils. For outdoor lovers in the north, it is the ideal vessel that can endure extreme temperatures. It has a very pleasant grip and is surprisingly lightweight.
The Kuksa wooden cup is also a decoration, and especially a very meaningful wooden mug gift for him who loves bushcraft, or backpacking or likes to drink coffee, tea and likes to use eco-friendly handmade products.
Besides, the making of a Kuksa cup is also a relaxing process, so let’s find out how Kuksa cups are made.
How to make a carving Kuksa wooden cup?
The Kuksa embodies the duodji’s importance in Sami identity: a handmade object which bears a culture, a symbol of their way of life.
Long-standing Scandinavian tradition has it that the Kuksa cup is part of the male object group. It was traditionally handmade, requiring both time and dexterity in the cutting of the wood. In most cases, a Sámi would make his own Kuksa. It was also meant to be a gift sometimes.
Here’s the step-by-step process of making a traditional Kuksa cup.
Step 1: Get your tools
Following a more bushcraft approach here, we are going to use a small hand axe and a hand saw for the rough work and the basic carving. For the more accurate work, you will need a carving knife and at least one chisel with a curved ending or preferably a spoon gouge (around 1 inch or even less). Ideally, you’ll get a hold on a hooked or crooked knife in addition but for a basic approach, it is not necessary. Got it all? Great, so let’s get you the right piece of wood for your needs.
Step 2: Choose the type of wood to make Kuksa cup and separating burl from the tree
What kind of wood is best for making Kuksa cups?
If you want to make your own Kuksa wooden cup, we recommend making Kuksa Cup from a burl birch.
So what is a Burl?
A burl is a tree growth in which the grain has grown in a deformed manner. It is commonly found in the form of a rounded outgrowth on a tree trunk or branch that is filled with small knots from dormant buds. Burl formation is typically a result of some form of stress such as an injury or a viral or fungal infection.
Burls yield a very peculiar and highly figured wood sought after in woodworking. The burl is contoured to a rough shape, carefully dried to prevent the wood from cracking, then formed in accordance with the local traditions. Birch burl Kuksas last longer than plain birch Kuksas and is historically the most common wood used for this purpose. The ultimate Kuksa wood is a birch burl but other woods can be used as well.
Although the burl is an extremely hard material, its machining is facilitated by the fact that the causes of the wood rotate in a circle, allowing it to be sawn from any direction without the wood cracking. In birch, for example, the causes of the wood run vertically, in which case the direction of sawing must be planned accordingly. The twists, undulations, and contortions of the birch burl’s growth give each mug a unique grain pattern and color – like a snowflake falling in winter, no two Kuksas will ever be exactly the same.
Is it possible to make a Kuksa wooden cup from other woods than burl?
Of course, the best and most traditional wood for making Kuksa Cup from a burl birch, but if you can’t find it, you can use another hardwood burl. If burl is not available, you can use any hardwood to make a Kuksa Cup. Here’s the step-by-step process of making a traditional Kuksa.
There are some points to be taken in order to separate the burl from the tree so as not to damage the tree. If you want to separate burl from a tree, you should do this manually with a hand saw. Carefully cut the burl and cover the leftover wound with pine oil or other insulating material to heal the wound sooner. There are a few other things that must be considered when cutting burl from the trunk:
- When cutting burl, consider the Kuksa handle.
- Try harvesting burl from the tree in summer or fall. Because the sap flow in the winter is slow and the wound heals much slower.
Step 3: Find your design
Congratulations, you got your personal piece of wood and are basically ready to chop the hell out of it. Well almost. Before you start you should have a pretty good idea of what your final product should look like. To get some inspiration and ideas we would recommend a simple image search in the search engine of your trust. Just look at the pictures to get an idea of what is possible and what suits your taste.
Original Kuksa designs had their widest opening around one quarter from the rim to prevent liquid from spilling. This is best achieved with a crooked knife. Unlike their modern adaptions, there are also no historical examples for finger holes, which were supposedly introduced solely for the touristic market in the 1980s. Still, our recommendation is to follow your personal taste on this and don’t bend to historical boundaries if you do not want to.
Got your basic idea of a look? Draw it before starting to carve or at least have a very very good idea of what you want in mind. Especially if you took the effort to get a hold of a burl you don’t want to screw up your project by design flaws and unsatisfying shapes. So take your time on this.
Step 4: Craft
Let’s get to work! As a first step, we will rough out our project very rudimentary with a saw to get a handy chunk we can work with. You can start to do some rough carving using your axe to define the basic shape of your cup.
Now it was just too close in on the shape.
In both directions.
Then rough out the sides, to an even thickness, leaving them quite thick. In this way, it has some mass to prevent it from deforming too much, while drying, yet enough removed, to prevent cracking from tension.
Work with green wood since it is much easier to carve and process. Keep in mind that wood tends to crack in the drying process because in the process the outside dries faster than the inside. Considering this you should start the actual carving process with the inside of your cup to make sure that the wood can dry from inside and outside at the same rate. If you have to leave your project for a long time put it in a plastic bag and close it. If you leave it for several days you have to open and check the bag from time to time to avoid mold.
So if you have roughed out the edges of your project follow the outlines (you have drawn some right?) and hollow the cup to your preferred shape, size and depth. If you use only a chisel you might want to be working very carefully towards the bottom in order to not destroy the grain too much and ending up with deep furrows. In any case, working only with a chisel will mean that you have to do work way harder with the sandpaper afterward. A crooked knife can do wonders here but it’s one tool more you have to buy and eventually also carry if you are somewhere in the wild. The best compromise here is a spoon-gouge, that as the name suggests is slightly spoon-shaped towards the end gives you at least a little bit of curve. The smother your carving job is, the less you have to worry about the sanding process in the end.
If you work with normal birch wood you should avoid the center of the tree by any means since this is the part that is most likely to crack and split. Keep that in mind when looking for your piece of wood and cut your block away from the center of the tree if possible.
Step 5: Refine
If you have the basic shape of your cup roughed out start refining it with your carving knife until you arrive at the final shape you want.
But the cup held up fine!
So I started on the final shaping, using power tools.
Here roughing the outside with a super sander, is quick and intuitive.
Then I used different spoon knives for shaping the inside and removing the rasp marks. Finally using a scraper to make the finish inside.
Step 7: Finalizing your Kuksa wooden cup
If you came this far – Congratulations! You have carved your very first Kuksa and you have done a marvelous job.
You are not quite finished though. There are some final considerations for the last stage.
For the finish, you have to treat your Kuksa with oil, linseed oil, and beeswax. This adds to the cup’s durability and makes it easy to clean. (Some might feel more at peace with walnut oil or olive oil since you need to eat and drink from it).
First plenty of oil, leave it to soak for some days are best, I did only a few hours here, but will give it more after the first uses. Just be patient, it will melt.
With a buffer on the drill press, a thick layer of beeswax is polished into the wood. This to waterproof and to make it smooth. On the outside, first polish. Amazing how much life spalting can bring to wood.
Then wax, to bring out the beauty of the wood.
Unlike their modern versions, traditional Kuksas had almost always some sort of engraving on the top of the handle. In the most classic way, this is usually a piece of polished reindeer antler inlay with carvings on the surface.
Adding such embellishment is up to your taste of course but if you want to stick to an original design and have already used your own burl you might want to go the extra mile and consider this. Be advised though that especially for making an inlay of an antler the basic toolset will probably not suffice here.
Many original Kuksas also had a small hole with an attached cord in the handle. This way the Kuksa could be worn on a belt. Study some original designs feel free to carve or (drill) a hole. You can even produce your own cordage from natural materials if you have or adapt some bushcraft skills.
Because Kuksa cups are made of wood, using or not using them for a while can affect the quality and beauty of the cup, so let’s learn how to use the cup safely and how to take care of the Kuksa cup to keep it like new?
How do Kuksa wooden cup care tips?
Kuksa wooden cup was traditionally only rinsed with clean water and dried with a cloth after use. No detergents are used since many people believe that they will damage a Kuksa.
Like any natural wood product, if you treat your Kuksa right, it’ll serve you well on many adventures.
Here’s how to keep your Kuksa cup serving up those tasty cups of campfire coffee:
Step 1: Be careful when using the Kuksa wooden cup.
No extreme temperatures: Give your boiling liquids a few minutes to cool down before pouring them into your Kuksa. Also, avoid microwaves and dishwashers.
Step 2: Wash and dry.
Yep, it’s that easy. We just recommend using a mild soap and not allowing the wooden cup to soak for a prolonged period of time.
Recommended Soaps: Ivory, Dawn, Mrs. Meyers, Seventh Generation, Dish-mate, or ECover.
Step 3: Occasionally oil with a food-grade oil for Kuksa wooden cup
Try to oil your Kuksa once a week if you’re using it regularly, or a couple of times a month with less frequent use. You want this beautiful piece to last for years, so that means keeping it clean. The oil will help prevent it from absorbing too much liquid and give it a gorgeous shine. Now and then, feel free to polish it up with some more beeswax, inside and out, just for some extra lovin’, this will prevent cracking or splitting, always use Food-Grade Oil.
Recommended Food-Grade Oils: Mineral Oil, Beeswax, Olive Oil, Coconut Oil (Refractionated), or Raw Linseed Oil.
Step 4: Remove food, dirt from the Kuksa wooden cup after use
Have some camping memories stuck to your Kuksa cup? No worries!
Lightly scrub with a mixture of mild dish soap and baking soda, then rinse with warm water. Repeat as needed.
Step 5: Sit back and enjoy your Kuksa wooden cup
That’s it! Now simply sit back and enjoy your Kuksa cup with coffee or tea. Cheers!
With that, we’ve learned all there is to know about the traditional Kuksa wooden mug, a signature cup for bushcraft.
Why do I love to use a Kuksa cup?
The Kuksa cup provides a much more authentic experience when outdoors. You are literally holding and drinking from a cup that used to be a tree. The connection you feel with nature when using a Kuksa is hard to explain until you do it for yourself.
I think it’s just part of the more romantic side of camping/ the outdoors. Can’t you just see and feel in your head the warmth of a fire and sipping coffee out of a warm wooden mug in the cool crisp air overlooking the beauty of nature? Romanticism is a powerful drug.
For me, one of the most beautiful design aspects of the Kuksa is the patina it will get. Coffee and tea leave their mark. I love objects which bear traces of their use and are therefore unique. The natural object has a very pleasant grip and is surprisingly light weighted. It can be a piece of art when handmade.
How about you?