Kuksa Carving Class at the Northhouse Folk School

IMG_4049This September, Elaine and I took a unique-for-us trip to the northern part of Minnesota. The plan for the trip was two-fold. First, we wanted to learn how to carve Kuksa cups at the Northhouse Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. After the class, we hoped to take our packrafts on an adventure in the legendary Minnesota Boundary Waters Wilderness.  As odd as it was to load up the car and head away from the mountains, the trip rewarded us in ways different from the sheer athletic and adventure endeavors we normally tackle.

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The Focus, loaded up with axes, paddling gear and roller skis for the 1,200 mile drive to Grand Marais, Minnesota.

I first heard of the North House Folk School from my old boss, Gary Neptune, who visited the school to take a wooden ski building class. The idea of making something from scratch out of wood fascinated me because it’s so simple yet almost never taught in modern society.  When we heard that there was a three-day carving class in September at the school to learn how to make Sami kuksa cups, we decided to take the dive.

The drive to northern Minnesota was an epic, hot, two-day slog across Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and finally Minnesota, but we did enjoy passing thru the Black Hills and watching the Great Plains slowly drift into the hardwood forests that stretch from the Missouri River to the Atlantic Ocean. After two solid days of driving, we finally arrived in Grand Marais, road weary but excited.

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Sunset on the banks of the Missouri River in Chamberlain, South Dakota.

Conveniently, the North House Folk School is located directly adjacent to the campground we were staying at. It was an easy five minute walk from our tent to the school and classroom. The school consists of a half-dozen or so independent buildings surrounding a center plaza. It’s located directly on the banks of Lake Superior on the main road thru town. Grand Marais itself is a small, tourist destination with lots of fish restaurants and outfitters for visitors heading into the outdoors.

The class met the first morning in a long room with wooden floors, wooden skis on the wall and birch bark canoes hanging from the rafters. Our instructor was a gentleman named Alex Yerks. Alex has been making Kuksa cups for about a decade now, and produces some wonderful pieces. He is arguable the most prolific Kuksa cup maker in the United States, and we were fortunate to have him as our instructor. I enjoyed his teaching style and willingness to let us get to work: after a five minute general discussion on wood grain, it was time to get busy, carving axes wielded, hacking away at our selected pieces of fresh cut birch wood. I was a little amazed nobody chopped a finger off, but Alex was watching us carefully, giving instruction when needed. I suppose too, that human self-preservation ensures that the axe blades stay safely away from exposed fingers!

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These are Kuksa cups made by Alex. They are cut from greenwood of various types, birch, alder and maple being the most common wood selections. Alex lives in northern New York where a variety of wood is available. We’ll have to experiment with aspen here, as hardwoods are extremely limited in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. These are all hand carved and not sanded. It’s a point of pride with experienced carvers not to sand their work.

 

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Step one: pick out your piece of wood and cut it length wise to size. The next step is to split it to a general form of a cup. This is done with a carving axe and mallet.

Alex teaches techniques to build the entire Kuksa by hand. Before the class began, he headed into the Minnesota forest and chopped down an older birch tree. The wood we got was something called “spalted wood.” Spalted wood has been affected by fungi, and while it does lose a bit of strength in the decaying process, it also provide some unique color and design patterns that can be fun to work with. Strength, while important for making skis or furniture, isn’t particularly important for making a cup.

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After the wood has been cut and split to an appropriate size, the working piece is viced. In class we used hand made wooden stands and wooden wedges to hold things in place. Using first an adze and then a gouge, the cup inside is hollowed out. This is a the best time to remove wood, as the cup is held in place and it’s easy to get leverage. A skilled craft person could hollow out a cup in 10-15 minutes using this technique. It took us a bit longer!

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Gouges come in many shapes and sizes. This particular one that Elaine is using was built by Alex and is specifically designed to make Kuksas. The longer shaped handle and shallow cutting part makes it easy to use.

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Elaine’s 1st kuksa cup, gouged out. Ideally it’s good to have a little overhang to prevent liquid from spilling out when the cup is in use. Note the pencil drawn in handle on the outside of the cup. Which brings us to the next step…

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Using a carving axe, first the area around the bowl is chopped and rounded to size, being careful not to cut so deep that it puts a hole in the cup. Next, the handle is thinned. There is still a lot of knife work to do after this process. The point is to remove enough material so time isn’t wasted knife carving away lots of wood material. Skill and a good axe can help the process. We had neither, but we eventually got the job done.

After hewing out the cup with carving axes, we used straight blade carving knives and hook knives to complete the kuksas. We learned that the inside of the cup has a different grain pattern than the outside, which dramatically changes carving techniques. A general rule is it’s best to carve with the grain of the wood, as anything else can make knife handling choppy and hard to control. Our first finished cups looked nowhere near as good as those made by Alex, but that’s to be expected. If it were easy, everybody would do it.

One of the best parts of the class was the classroom setting and our fellow students. In addition to Elaine and I, there was a hockey player and a bicycle advocate from Minneapolis, an outdoor instructor from Ontario, a retired wolf-volunteer lady from Ely, a retired, cross-country skiing and canoeing enthusiast who had a cabin near the Canadian border, and an older, 70-something gentleman from southern Minnesota who surprised us all by telling us he planned to visit Burning Man next year! There was a diversity in skill and experience level, from Elaine and I who had barely carved to the Ontario instructor who has carved extensively and sells items on the internet. Despite this, everybody was friendly and helpful and there wasn’t much lag in the time it took to get work done.

I was surprised at the age range in the class. Real world craft skills like working with wood are gaining popularity with the younger generation in our technology based society. Working with wood is an opportunity to unplug and do something that harkens back to a time before computers, smart phones and video games. It’s good for the brain and soul.

The room had a kitchen where we could cook lunch and dinner. We did splurge on lunch a couple times at a nearby, informal fish restaurant on the water with the fresh catch of the day from Lake Superior. Before class Elaine and I would go for a roller ski around the campground to get our exercise in. All in all, it was a perfect environment for learning a new skill, getting away from it all and relaxing.

I found the whole thing much more inspiring than a traditional school setting. Students were engaged and there was a tangible product produced in the class. Too often in modern society we deal with theoretical ideas. We don’t really teach people to make things from start to finish. We’ve become a society of people who rely on others to make and fix things. Learning to make things, be it a kuksa cup, a tool, a garden or finely prepared meal is healthy for humans because it provides a sense of completion and pride.

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It was important that the wood didn’t dry out too much. As such, we would soak our kuksas in the sink for the night. Drying really impacts things and I’m already learning that our Colorado climate can dry wood to such an extent and so quickly that it cracks.

Alex taught us many interesting techniques to make the kuksas unique, including chip carving for designs and lettering and using milk paints to add color to the cups. Alex usually treats his cups with tung or linseed oil, but having the ability to put a non-toxic paint on the finished product is a nice tool in the arsenal. We also learned how to sharpen tools, including using a power grinder for sharpening axes and knives. Finally, we were taught knife techniques so we could carve safely and effectively.

There were other concurrent classes going on at the school that we got to visit. Just next door, the blacksmith class was teaching participants the basic techniques of forging, a skill Elaine very much wants to learn. Across the pavilion, a wooden furniture class was being taught by a legend in the woodworking world, Jogge Sundqvist from Sweden. Next door to him, there was a cooking class focused on making traditional Viking meals. We all benefited from that class as they served us an afternoon snack of sacrificial broth and bread…it tasted much better than it sounds!

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The school hosts a lot of classes. There is even one teaching how to build a birchbark canoe. I could easily spend a couple weeks after ski season doing that!

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For three days we learned and carved. Our hands were sore and splintered, but there were only a few sliced fingers and no serious injuries. These are our finished 1st kuksas. Alex taught us the technique of forming a pointed front end. It makes the cup stronger and gives them a slight Viking ship look. The spalted wood gives the cups and unique, natural feel. These cups were untreated and as such leaked, as the wood still was wet which allowed moisture to pass through. Finished cups that have been treated would not have this problem.

The final event for the class was a pizza dinner. This was no ordinary pizza dinner. The school has a wood burning pizza oven. Students would roll their own dough, select topping and then cook their pizza in the oven. While I’ve been fortunate to be exposed to this type of cooking, it was a first for many people in the classes. It all harkens back to the school’s mission of teaching people to do things and learn, not just providing.

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Pizza and libations in our handmade kuksa cups.

Overall, it was a great experience and learning opportunity in a beautiful and inspiring place. We’ll certainly be making more of these at home. I’m signed up to go back in January to learn to make wooden skis and Finnish ski poles. Elaine and I also talked about how the class was the first time since we got off the Continental Divide Trail that we were surrounded by a healthy, alternative thinking community of people with a shared goal and tangible accomplishments. It was remarkably similar to the CDT in that regard. A class at the Northhouse Folk School might be the perfect re-entry for a thru hiker who is just off the trail and is struggling to dive back into the craziness of the real world.

After one final, perfect Indian Summer night at the campground, it was time to leave Grand Marais and head due north to the Minnesota Boundary Waters for some hiking and packrafting…

One thought on “Kuksa Carving Class at the Northhouse Folk School

  1. Look forward to handling these cups. Reading a Man Booker Prize shortlisted novel, The Overstory. That and your essay makes me dizzy to say the least. The overstory, of course, are the more than sentient trees under whose canopy we inhabit. Wooden cups, handled with love fit right into the story.

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