Making household items by hand is a rewarding process. It allows you to gain new skills while creating something functional and useful.
Plus, each time you use the item, you can take pride in your efforts. This is just one reason to make your own kuksa.
If you’re not familiar with the term, a kuksa is a carved wood cup traditionally made from birch burls. A kuksa is also known as a guksi or a kåsa, depending on where it’s from.
Kuksas are associated with the Sami people in Finland, but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive origin for the craft. They are popular throughout Scandinavia and Nordic regions.
Kuksas represent a rustic, outdoorsy element. The craft, and the final product, hark back to a simpler time. Natural materials, traditional carving techniques, and a basic design all speak to an era when whittling was a common pastime.
As a modern hobby, making kuksa allows you to connect with your kitchenware from start to finish and throughout its useful life. It also allows you to put your own creative spin on the piece.
Much of the shape will depend on the natural composition of the wood, so no two kuksas turn out the same.
The size, shape, depth, and handle will all take shape as you work, so don’t try to map out too many details before you get started. Let the project take on a life of its own.
Step 1 - Source Birch Burls
If you already have a downed birch tree, you’ll have the access you need. If not, run an internet search for someone else who may have some available. Mail order might be an option too. Check with craft supplies stores locally and online.
If you’re traveling to an area of native birch trees, source your wood pieces and bring them home with you.
You can also harvest a burl from olive trees. Other woods can be used, but you’ll need to do some research to avoid the risk of splitting while you work or as the kuksa ages.
Note that the burl is actually a growth on the outside of the tree.
It can be cut off of the tree without the tree being cut down. However, harvest responsibly with a sharp handsaw, the proper cutting technique, and the application of pine tar to act as a salve on the wound.
You’ll want to select a birch burl that’s aged a bit but that isn’t completely dried out and cracking.
Birch burls are strong, making them challenging to carve out. That’s part of the satisfaction once you complete the task.
When picking out your birch burl, just make sure it’s large enough to peel away layers and still have enough for your completed Kuksa.
Step 2 - Cut the Birch Burl
Start by cutting a chunk to work with. Depending on how dense your burl is, you may need to use an ax, a hatchet, or a saw. You can use a power saw for rough cuts and a handsaw for finer cuts.
Allow a few inches around each side of the final size you have in mind, so you have plenty of flexibility as you remove layers.
Step 3 - Begin Forming the Shape
Using your tools of choice, shave or cut the block into the proper length, thinking about the cup/bowl from the outer edge to the end of the handle.
Next, make the bottom flat. Since the burl is swirly, it may not sit flat with your initial cup. You may need to make some adaptations.
One note here. The decision to use power tools is a personal one. If you want to stay in alignment with traditional woodworking methods, stick with manual tools.
However, if the finished result is more important than the methods used to get there, fire up the bandsaw, table saw, or circular saw.
To get the desired result manually, experiment with a hatchet, chisel, splitting wedge and sledgehammer, ax, and anything else you find in your tool cache.
However you get there, at the end of this step, you should have a flat bottom and a general outline of the length of your kuksa.
Step 4 - Sketch It Out
Your kuksa will have a thick edge. That means you’ll need to figure out both the outer edge and the inside edge.
Keep the thickness of the kuksa edge at about ½”. To give yourself a visual to work from, grab a pencil. You can use a compass or freehand the design.
Either way, mark a circle that represents the outer edge of the cup. Inside of that about ½” mark another circle for the inside of the cup. Much of this thickness will be removed during the next steps, so it won't be your final width.
Step 5 - Design Your Handle
Now that your kuksa has taken a rough shape, you can decide on the type of handle you want. Let the wood influence your decision.
There is no right size and shape for a handle. You can make it any thickness and have it curve upwards or go straight out.
Many people like to carve out finger holes, so consider whether that’s part of your design or whether you’ll keep the handle solid.
You can also create a handle more like a traditional ceramic coffee mug with a curved design and carved out area between the handle and kuksa.
Always keep your handle part of the bowl a bit thicker. In the advanced stages you can slightly shave or sand it down further.
You can always make it a bit thinner but you can’t add thickness back in, so be conservative as you remove layers.
Step 6 - Carve It Out
With a rough outline in place, it’s time to start carving the wood. Chip away at the material with your choice of tool, slowly bringing the shape of the cup into focus.
Obviously you’ll need to carve out both the outside and the inside of your cup. Peel, scrape, and chisel away layers. Use a sharp carving knife as the work gets finer in detail.
For the inside of the cup, start by cutting away some big chunks. You can make cuts or gouges in the wood and use a chisel to release them. Then move to a knife for the detailed work.
If your kuksa moves around too much, wedge it into place between two solid pieces of heavy wood or place it in a clamp.
On the outside, remember to shape your handle as you whittle away the layers. Also remember to leave a thick lip on the outside of the kuksa. You don’t want any part to get too thin, or it can crack or break off.
If you’re inclined to shape your kuksa with the aid of power tools, a Dremel does the job well.
Step 7 - Complete the Finishing Touches
As you get closer to completion, the cuts become even smaller and more precise. Remember to watch the thickness as you shape and contour.
If you decided to add finger holes, now’s the time to carve or drill them out. You can also add a small hole for hanging your kuksa. This is particularly helpful if you want to attach it to a backpack or want to hang it in your kitchen.
Feed a thin rope made of natural materials such as jute through the hole and tie a knot.
Step 8 - Sand the Kuksa
With the burl taking shape, the next step is to sand down the finish. Start with a coarse sandpaper to remove most of the bumpy edges. Then move to a finer grit sandpaper to create the smooth final texture.
For an artist’s touch, carve or wood burn your initials, name, mark, or design on the kuksa.
Step 9 - Polish the Kuksa
Use beeswax to polish your kuksa. This is where the colors and grains are enhanced. Melt some beeswax in a bowl. Use a cloth to apply the melted beeswax to all the kuksa surfaces.
This polishing technique will leave your kuksa shiny, glowing, and ready for use.
You can also submerge your kuksa in linseed oil so it can drink up as much oil as it needs.
Step 10 - Care for Your Kuksa
If you have other wooden kitchenware such as salad bowls, spoons, and cutting boards, you know they require a bit of care. Wood will dry out and crack if depleted of too much moisture.
Ironically, water and other liquids dry out wood. With this in mind, don’t leave liquids in your kuksa after use. Also don’t scrub your kuksa when washing. Never submerge it in water for any length of time either.
After enjoying your coffee, tea, soup, or distilled spirits, simply give your kuksa a rinse in warm water. Dry it with a towel and allow it to further air dry. Avoid using detergents or dish soap. Do not put your kuksa in a dishwasher.
Depending on how often you use your kuksa, you’ll need to oil it for additional protection. Grab some food-grade mineral oil to keep on hand. It may be called cutting board oil or butcher block oil. You can also use walnut or linseed oil.
Be sure to apply oil when the kuksa is completely dry, so you don’t seal in moisture. Lightly sand the surface before application. Then generously apply the oil.
If you use your kuksa daily, you may need to add oil once each week or so. If you use it less frequently, apply oil when you see the wood looking thirsty or dry. Occasionally add extra protection with another layer of beeswax.
Step 11 - Choose What to Put in Your Kuksa
Perhaps more importantly is what not to put in your kuksa. With good protection, you can eat and drink a variety of food and drinks using your kuksa.
However, since soap use is discouraged, stay away from foods and drinks that can introduce bacteria, such as milk. In fact, it’s best to skip the dairy in your kuksa.
Obviously never put raw meat in your kuksa either. Basically treat it as a wood you can’t wash. Keep that in mind when deciding its use.
However, that doesn’t mean a lot of limitations. Enjoy your kuksa for hot or cold drinks, from coffee to ice water. Also use it for brothy soups and dry foods.
Step 12 - Enjoy Your Kuksa
A kuksa is a unique and time-honored natural serving dish. Be present with your creation every time you use it. Part of the joy of handmade items is reveling in the satisfaction of your success.
With each use, really look at the wood grains and the design of the bowl. Appreciate the handle and the contours you created.
Allow your kuksa to be your connection with the land it came from.
Kuksas make great gifts so once you’ve mastered the art, make more for family, friends, or your Etsy shop.
A Note About the Kuksa-Making Process
With a craft that goes back as far as traditional kuksa making, there are bound to be some theories about the ‘right’ way to go about it.
While some people may still stand by these theories, others have dismissed them, or even proven them to be false.
For example, you’ll often hear boiling your shaped kuksa in salt water will prevent splitting later on. Not only is it generally believed to be an unreliable preventative, the salt flavor can linger in the cup.
Others have claimed an uneven thickness around the lip of your cup can cause cracking, but this also has been proven untrue.
An inconsistent edge adds a rustic appeal. If you like it that way, contour the edges however you want without concern about an increased risk of splitting.
Also note that if your kuksa beads a lot of water on the outside, it may be because the walls are thin. Try applying additional oil to further seal the cup. This should keep it from sweating.
Splits can occur later if there are stress points on the cup. When working on your project, use care not to hit the surface too firmly with sharp tools. The indent can lead to a fracture down the road.
If you need some additional uses for birch, check out our article on Tips for Staining Birch Plywood and Staining Birch Cabinets.