Crafting One-Of-A-Kind Pieces From Timber

Crafting One-Of-A-Kind Pieces From Timber

Unlocking the Beauty of Birch Burl

So what is a kuksa and what’s so special about it? It is a wooden cup that has almost sacred status among traditional hikers, bushcrafters, fell-goers, and so on. Many claim that it actually originates here from Finland, but I think it would be safer to say that it has Nordic origins. The saying goes something like this: every self-respecting outdoorsman should craft their kuksa by themselves, and that the only acceptable material for a kuksa would be birch burl.

During my earliest outdoor years, I slowly grew to kind of embrace this legend about self-crafted kuksas, but this doesn’t mean that I position myself above others as some kind of real outdoorsman. I don’t mean to disrespect anyone who decides to go with their plastic cup, an enamel mug, a ready-made kuksa, or whatnot. I see this more like my own personal maturity rite as an outdoor adventurer and less like the only real way of enjoying the outdoors. There just isn’t one right way of doing outdoorsy things, and it also applies to kuksa – no matter what that old bearded outdoor crank or some internet warrior tells you about the only right way of blah blah.

The Elusive Birch Burl

But this text isn’t about the deepest depths of the philosophy of kuksa or the outdoors itself. Instead, this is a short story of how a not-so-handcraftsman like me made his first own kuksa to give his adventures a little more feel on a personal level.

As I mentioned, I grew to embrace the legend that every outdoorsman should make their own kuksa by themselves. This made me decide that if I someday got a chance to make my own birch burl kuksa, I would take that chance. I started my outdoor activities with those cheap-o timber-made mugs which I bought when I was in the army, but I never really liked them because a cheap wooden mug made of a random piece of timber is just that – unauthentic, heavy, and generally poor. Instead, a self-made kuksa would only be heavy and poor, but absolutely authentic. It’s a freaking self-made birch burl kuksa – think about it! It would have the right feel to it, and so it would be a justified weight in my backpack.

But until I would come across such a noble, precious, and rare material as birch burl, I decided I wouldn’t carry a wooden kuksa with me, so I threw those timber mugs to the corner and took a lightweight but oh-so-soulless plastic cup with me whenever I ventured the great outdoors. Then I just waited for the day I would possibly find a birch burl to make my own kuksa.

The Kuksa-Making Journey Begins

Even though I’ve always known that there isn’t one right way of, for example, crafting a kuksa, I wanted to track down the most agreed-on authentic and traditional way of crafting one. Unfortunately, the definition of a “real” kuksa is a bit vague, as there are about as many definitions for it as there are people who own a kuksa.

However, if we put aside this freedom of choice in kuksa making, which basically gives you the freedom to define your own kuksa carved of a dried-up elephant turd as being as authentic as any other, many kuksa enthusiasts agree about the only acceptable material for making a real kuksa – the birch burl. Many also agree that when someone is about to manufacture a real kuksa by themselves, they should forget about using pieces of randomly selected board wood, modern power tools, and their common sense. These kuksa-making basics considered as somewhat traditional are the guidelines that I felt good enough with, so my aim was clear.

The only problem here was that the birch burl suitable for making a kuksa is about as rare as hen’s teeth – suitable meaning a burl about the size and shape of a kuksa, including the handle. And should you anyhow happen to encounter a birch burl, one or more of these apply: it’s cracked, it’s too small, it’s too big, or it’s too this or that.

A Stroke of Luck

Anyway, I managed to avoid all of these great filters, ending up hitting a jackpot when in the summer of 2015, a friend of mine said that they’ve had this one birch burl at his parents’ garage for almost 30 years. Damn, that’s longer than I’ve even existed at this point! Anyway, his father had found it three decades ago, but neither my friend nor his father had any actual interest in making a kuksa out of it, so they generously donated the burl to me.

How convenient that the lump was somewhat the size of a kuksa, and though it was dry, it didn’t have even one slight crack in it. It was this real stroke of materialistic luck that gave me a possibility to try what kind of kuksa would I find inside of a real birch burl.

As soon as I got to a better space for woodcrafts than a block of flats, I started gathering the tools needed for the job. As my idea was to keep the process as traditional as I could, I wasn’t going to use drill presses or modern power tools. Here’s the weaponry I used in 99% of the battle against the hard wood:

Tool Description
Carpenters Saw For cutting the excess branch off the burl
Gouge For hollowing out the interior
Chisels For chiseling the dry burl
Spoon Carving Knife For smoothing the interior
Precision Knife For finishing the exterior
Piece of Sandpaper on a Board For flattening the bottom
Another Dull Piece of Wood For sealing and polishing the surface

Conquering the Mighty Burl

The first step of the actual work was to cut the excess branch off the burl. For this, I used the carpenters saw. It had been a long time since I last used a gouge for real, so the first hour or two went by just relearning to use the tool effectively. I had little problems as the burl itself had a different opinion in turning into a kuksa. This forced me to go all medieval on it, but even though the burl had a protective bark on its surface, I still wasn’t feeling too sure about having to use so brutal amounts of force.

Unfortunately, there just wasn’t any other way. A dry birch burl can be as tough as Clint Eastwood’s face, so I really had to chisel the shit out of it – the burl, not Clint’s face. Chiseling was the only way to work with the dry burl because the so-called “organic pliers” requiring rip-and-tear method that your dentist uses on you only works in kuksa-making if the fibers of the burl are fresh and moist. This organic ripping method is an exception to the rule that the processed burl should be dry.

Hollowing Out the Kuksa

After a few first centimeters of hollowing, a doubt crossed my mind. The chiseling of the interior part is made in respect to the outer surface of the burl. Okay, this is pretty clear for anyone with more brain than a protozoan, but the thing that wasn’t clear was the actual form of the wood surface beneath the bark. The bark was protecting the surface of the kuksa-to-come during the hard work, but at this point, it would be more useful to remove the bark to see the exact form of the burl underneath it. This would help me to estimate the correct thickness of the wall so that I wouldn’t accidentally make my kuksa into a fancy wooden sieve.

So a few puukko-swings later, it came clear that the wooden surface under the bark was actually quite where it ought to be. Once I got started, I was pulled deeply into the project. It was in a way actually quite fascinating to make my own kuksa at last, so I easily spent most hours of the first weekend crafting. Or actually, I had to spend because I only seldomly would have access to that kind of workspace. The finishing of the kuksa could be delayed weeks – even months – if I didn’t chisel the burl like a rabid beaver.

Stabilizing the Kuksa

Getting the kuksa to a point where it was hollow enough to test my Mora spoon carving knife turned out to be more tricky than one would expect. The only safe way for using this knife to achieve a smooth carving surface was to actually use the knife like an ice cream scoop. I was carving with a twist, I’d say. The movement was only about the twisting of the wrist to have the force and the range of motion under control, so that in case of the blade slipping out of the kuksa, I wouldn’t have all the arm’s force involved, resulting in a huge swing of a blade and possibly an acute accidental blood donation.

Anyhow, the key to a smooth interior was to carve cross the fibers of the wood, but as the fibers themselves didn’t seem to always know where they’re pointing, the result wasn’t spotless. The parts where I didn’t have any other choice but to carve in the direction of the grains ensured that the fibers get torn off instead of cut off, even with the sharpest of knives.

During the quick experiment with the finishing knives, I noticed that the soft-as-iron-touch of the vise hadn’t actually made a single noticeable scratch in the surface of the burl. The burl was so tough that I wouldn’t be surprised if it had damaged the vise. Anyhow, even if there were some imperfections that my eye didn’t catch, those would be gone after I’d finish the surface.

Completing the Exterior

Back home, I worked on the kuksa as much as my other activities and limited workspace made possible. This means that when I got back into the actual workspace, the kuksa hadn’t taken a single step forward. Damn it! After finishing the interior part and some concave parts of the exterior with the spoon knife, I finished the outer surface with the precision knife. In this point, the strangely deformed handle part got its fair share of beauty that Marttiini couldn’t deliver with its longer and more dull blade.

Even though I’m a fan of huge phallic symbols (survival knives), and I usually carry a Kizlyar DV-2 on my hikes as it is a tool that can handle almost anything you can imagine throwing at it, I still recognize that the small-bladed knives also have earned their reputation. During the finishing phase, I thought that it would be best to follow the curves and shapes that nature had chosen for this burl, so all I practically did was just the removal of the bark. The strange handleish part also originated from the shape Mother Nature had earlier given to it.

A Natural Finish

In some point, I had visions about holes in the handle and some reindeer bone inlay details (at least I wasn’t visioning about mammoth bone, although you can buy everything online nowadays), but in the end, I realized it would be fitting and even symbolic somehow if my first kuksa didn’t have anything complicated in it. So for the sake of lack of skill, simplicity, I decided to make it as natural as possible at this point. This would fit nicely into the line of my traditional ideology that also didn’t include any kind of oiling finish that many use nowadays for their kuksas.

So no bone details or holes on the handle, or even the leather lanyard, as I’ve never felt good with hanging my kuksa outside my backpack or on my belt. This was my way of honoring the rare material. The steel-requiring part of the finishing is about done.

The Final Touches

In many cases, kuksa makers recommend to boil the carved kuksa or the burl right after removing the bark in salted water. Boiling in salt water allegedly removes some inner tensions that together with constant changes in humidity would somehow result in cracking. I don’t consider these claims entirely plausible because it’s yet to be explained clearly how exactly boiling and/or salt remove mechanical tension.

Instead of this, I find it much more believable that the salt introduced in the wood would stabilize the changes in humidity and thus prevent cracking. Due to the hygroscopic nature of salt, it should prevent the wood of a kuksa from drying up too much in between moistening effect humidity peaks of the beverages being consumed from it. I have no scientific research behind my claims whatsoever, so we’re not about to make any kind of factual statements here about why a boiling water salt bath might be or might not be good for your kuksa. This was just a sidenote.

In the lack of a proper explanation, “seems to work isn’t one” for the salt water bath, so I decided to leave it out of the equation. I also didn’t want the first one or two or hundred cups of coffee to taste salty, and besides that, my kuksa was already dry as ever and still didn’t have any kind of cracks.

As far as I know, cracking would most likely occur if the kuksa wasn’t made of a round, cup-shaped burl. Timber or board wood, or even a non-suitable burl that has its grains going straight through the cup instead of following the cup’s form in a curved fashion, is not as solid as a proper cup-shaped burl is. Although there wasn’t any absolute certainty for my kuksa not to explode into tiny pieces the second I poured some coffee in it, I was pretty sure that I’d be getting somewhere with this.

Polishing and Seasoning

When searching for information regarding ways of crafting a kuksa, I found out that some of ye olde makers have been favoring massaging the knife-finished surface with dull pieces of hard wood instead of finishing it with sandpaper. Hard wood would allegedly close the fiber ends for a more moisture-resistant result, whereas sandpaper would just make the fibers ends more fine, leaving the surface as open to moisture as it originally was.

This argument was enough to make me rub my kuksa with another piece of birch, and as I was expecting, this also polished the kuksa nicely. Although it only took a few sentences to describe this polishing phase, it took me two to three hours to go the kuksa somewhat through, and still, the results would’ve been better if I’ve had the energy to continue to rub for an hour or two more. You see, the burl was harder than the basic birch, so it was more of the burl polishing the polishing pieces than the other way around.

Perfect polishing also requires a somewhat smooth surface to begin with, and my kuksa was all but smooth, as I finished it with a knife. In the internet, many kuksa purists also remember to CAPSLOCK that one shouldn’t impregnate the kuksa with any kind of oil or whatever poison they’d choose. Many commercially manufactured kuksas actually have some kind of oil finishing, which is perfectly fine if you aren’t a friend of principles, but I didn’t feel like dipping my precious creation into anything other than coffee or whatever beverage I’d be consuming from it.

Initiating the Kuksa

Speaking of which, after surface finishing, there would still be a kind of impregnation before the actual introduction. Here, “introduction” means some kind of initiation or breaking the kuksa into use, or baptizing it in a way. In my humble opinion, the most traditional way of introducing the kuksa into use requires using both coffee and a distilled beverage, of which the former is needed in the actual impregnation and the latter in the introduction ritual – you could also call a vainglorious desire to baptize the kuksa using scotch.

I brewed some filtered coffee to celebrate my newborn kuksa. After drinking the coffee (not from the kuksa though), I took some moist used ground coffee from the paper filter to use them to impregnate the kuksa. I rubbed the interior of the kuksa with something like a teaspoon worth of ground coffee until the coffee felt somewhat dry in my fingers. According to the legend and to common sense too, this makes the little amounts of fat in coffee to impregnate the surface of the wood, making the wood more moisture resistant. I repeated this step a two or three times, always with a fresh moist spoonful of used ground coffee.

The next morning, I decided to go it yet through a few times and also to rub the exterior too, to give it a nice colorful touch and a little bit of moisture resistivity. This way, the exterior wouldn’t have such a perverted contrast with the interior, as they were now basically the same color. The kuksa was now all done to be introduced for use.

The Formal Introduction Ritual

The actual introduction ritual is the part that requires the long-awaited alcoholic beverage. They usually favor quality cognac with kuksas, but because I like alcoholic beverages distilled of grapes about as much as I like my nails being pulled off, I chose whiskey. Due to the summer’s lack of rain, darkness, and other overall autumnish sadness, my stash of whiskey only had one bottle – Ardbeg Uigeadail, which I cannot pronounce aloud because I’m not a drunken Scottish gnome.

Anyway, choosing one out of one bottles was pretty easy even for me. The ritual was described in a Finnish Wikipedia article for kuksa, but there is no way of checking the originality, traditionality, or any other nuances regarding the act itself. The most important part, however, is that we at least have an excuse to use whiskey here because it was mentioned in the article:

  1. A sip of beverage was to be poured in the kuksa.
  2. The kuksa was to be moved clockwise in a circular motion so that the beverage makes a small whirlpool and rises towards the edges of the kuksa.
  3. Then the sip was to be well s

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