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Can you handle it? New online store & handled bowl designs

Posted November 27, 2015

I’m excited to announce that after my yearlong apprenticeship with Jim Sannerud I’m officially ready to sell my bowls! My friend Mikey Hoy created an online store and you can check it out here.

Towards the end of my project I became interested in making handled ale bowls based off of traditional Swedish and Norwegian designs. I was particularly inspired after visiting the archives of Vesterheim, the national Norwegian-American Museum in Decorah, Iowa. Below are photos I took of some of my favorite bowls they have in storage. This winter I plan to make more handled bowls and am excited to explore new shapes and designs. 

Lillehammer, Gudbrandsdalen, Norway. 1800. 4-1/2" diameter, birch. 
Norway. c. 1800.  6" diameter. 
This is thought to have been an individual dipper for serving ale. 4" diameter. Date unknown. 


Experiments in Paint

Posted October 27, 2015

Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to meet with the traditional craftsperson-extraordinaire, Jarrod StoneDahl, and receive feedback regarding the designs and painting techniques of my wooden bowls. He shared great insights about traditional Swedish wooden bowls and one that I’d like to share is about color.

Traditional Swedish bowls were painted with a variety of colors, but a commonly used color unique to Sweden is falun red. This iron oxide-based pigment was historically derived from various copper mines in Sweden and named after the famous mines of Falun, in Dalarna, Sweden. It’s the same striking color that decorates many Swedish cottages and barns alike.

Before meeting with Jarrod I had only used premixed milk paint on my bowls. Milk paint is an incredibly durable and non-toxic mixture of pigment, lime and the milk protein, casein. The casein makes the paint absorb into porous surfaces like wood, and the lime makes it soluble in water. It’s excellent for woodenware because it is completely food safe. One of the drawbacks however is that the lime in traditional milk paint creates a relatively opaque and dull hue, limiting most of the color pallet to pastels and inhibiting efforts to highlight the wood’s grain.

I wanted to get closer to traditional colors and create paints that were also semi-transparent. I purchased falun red pigment from Earth Pigments and experimented by creating egg tempera paint as well as boiled linseed oil paint. Although egg tempera was not typically used on bowls in Sweden, it is a traditional method used for painting wooden surfaces. Linseed oil and pigment was commonly used to treat woodenware in Sweden. I was curious to compare the two techniques. Below are the results!


#1: Egg Tempera 

  • 1 Egg yoke : 1 Tablespoon of water (shaken in a closed container)
  • 2 Tspn falun red pigment 

This mixture dried quickly and was relatively opaque. 


#2: Egg Tempera – slightly diluted with water

  • 1 Egg yoke : 1 Tbsp of water (shaken in a closed container)
  • 2 Tspn of falun red pigment
  • 1 Tbsp of water mixed in after the emulsion was made

This mixture was easier to paint onto the wood but not any more transparent.


#3: Boiled Linseed Oil – with primer

Layer 1:

  • Allback boiled organic linseed oil

Layer 2:

  • 2 Tbsp of Allback boiled organic linseed oil
  • 1 Tspn of falun red pigment

For the first layer I painted on a primer coat of just boiled linseed oil. For the second coat, I painted on a mixture of boiled linseed oil and falun red pigment. This was one of my favorite results because it is the most transparent and the wood grain really shines through.  




#4: Boiled Linseed Oil – without primer

  • 2 Tbsp of Allback boiled organic linseed oil
  • 1 Tspn of falun red pigment

I painted on just one layer that was a mixture of boiled linseed oil and falun red pigment. The result is darker and slightly more opaque than the bowl with primer.


Scandinavian Ale Bowls

Posted October 17, 2015

This Sunday, October 18th, I'll be doing a bowl turning demonstration and talking about wooden Scandinavian ale bowls at the American Assocination of Woodturners Gallery of Wood Art in St. Paul! If you're in the area, please stop on by and try drinking from the bowls and painting with traditional milk paint! If you're interested, learn more below:

Come and see fresh wood shavings fly as blocks of birch are turned on a power lathe into Scandinavian ale bowls. From celebrations to funerals, ale bowls were at the center of many social events in Scandinavian culture. I'll share information on their place in Nordic culture as well as demonstrate the unique ways in which the bowls were created on the lathe. There will be a discussion of the history, design and finishing techniques of these unique wooden vessels. Visitors are invited to participate in an interactive painting activity and to try out the functionality of these time-tested forms. 

Contemplating & Carving Curves

Posted August 24, 2015

One of the reasons I am drawn to bowl turning, spoon carving and boat building is because of the beautiful sculptural and feminine curves that are inherent in so many designs. The concave and convex lines of traditional Scandinavian wooden ale bowls are particularly appealing to me. The characteristic concave curve near the rim of the bowl serves multiple functions: it makes it easier to place one’s lips on the edge of the bowl for drinking, it minimizes spilling, and it’s simply beautiful. 

I really enjoy the lines on these two bowls that I made earlier this summer. Birch, 6” diameter, 2015. 



This 18th century ale bowl struck me because it not only has the concave curve at the rim, it also has multiple concave curves that are divided by lines down its convex side. Image from Gjærder​, Per. Norske drikkekar av tre. Universitetsforlaget, 1975.


This is my attempt to turn similar lines on an ale bowl.
Birch, 7” diameter, 2015.
This activity was made possible in part by a grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board, through an appropriation by the Minnesota State Legislature and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. 


Turning Scandinavian Bowls

Posted July 24, 2015

Over the past two weeks my summer has been abuzz with spinning bowls and flying wood shavings.

As part of my Minnesota State Arts Board Folk and Traditional Arts Grant, I have been doing Scandinavian wooden bowl turning demonstrations to spread the word about traditional bowl designs and their history!

Turning at North House Folk School's campus. 

Although moving the majority of my workshop to a temporary location is no easy feat, it’s been well worth it. I turned for four days at North House Folk School in Grand Marais, MN, and this past weekend at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis during the Great Makers Exchange. While I was turning some of my favorite comments came from the youngest visitors. “I like the color of that wood,” and “Why are you doing that?” asked a 5-year old. I had never been asked that before and it got the reflective wheels in my head turning.

I turn wooden bowls because I find the process meditative. I loose track of time while all of my attention is on using the tools to create an inspiring shape. I turn Scandinavian ale bowls because the beauty of the shapes and designs tickle my brain. Not only do they serve an aesthetic function, but they also serve a social function, for their tradition lies in gathering and ceremony.

They were used at weddings, funerals and religious ceremonies. Often they would be passed around and everyone would take a sip from the communal wooden bowl.

Images of traditional Scandinavian ale bowls, from the book, Träsvarvning efter gamla förebilder, by Hans Mårtensson.

These bowls are a part of the cultural landscape of Minnesota. During the mass emigration of Norwegian and Swedish populations in the mid to late 19th century, many people brought their utensils and woodenware to the United States because they were necessary for survival. Norwegian and Swedish folk art traditions were still vibrant at the time of emigration, so those skills were brought over. Although industrialization in urban centers removed the need for wooden crafts, there was an active folk arts tradition in rural regions of Minnesota, particularly in the southeast. These crafts often became symbols of the immigrants’ identity and heritage, passed from one generation to the next. In contemporary culture, Scandinavian handmade wooden bowls are still used as a way to commemorate significant life events like birthdays and weddings.

Two of my favorite ale bowl shapes, from the book, Vackert Svarvat: skönt målat by Svening Svenningson, 2011. 

While I studied for 10 months as an intern at North House Folk School, I was exposed to a contemporary wood culture. Woodworking instructors would often eat their meals from Scandinavian wooden bowls with wooden spoons, and at night share beer and stories while drinking from handmade treenware. Although I do not have Scandinavian heritage, I was drawn to this wood culture because of the sense of community and connection to place that this tradition seems to naturally inspire. I am excited to teach others about these designs and techniques, and hope that people continue to find beauty and connectedness through their everyday use.

Woodenware and traditional crafts enthusiast, Mary Anderson, with some of my birch ale bowls!

A Living Tradition

Posted May 26, 2015

From ax to chainsaw, ryoba saw to circular saw, Murakami-san quickly switches between old and new. He doesn’t hesitate to go over a plank with an electric plane and then finish it up with a wooden kanna (Japanese plane). His pragmatism and efficiency are evidence of a living tradition: techniques that have evolved with the available technology and demands of the market.  

Murakami's Japanese handsaws and chisels.

When he first started building boats with his father over 50 years ago, he only used hand tools. However in the mid-1960s, with the introduction of electricity to his neck of the woods (Hirota-hanto), he slowly started acquiring power tools. Where they had once meticulously joined plank edges with specialized handmade ripsaws (a technique known as suriawase), they saved hours by instead using circular saws and glue. Although not as technical of a feat, it’s still watertight. Since they are making working boats for local fisherman, functionality and affordability were key determinants in their process and design. 

Murakami using a chainsaw to rough out the stem. Note the footwear.

Once fiberglass boats hit the scene in the 1970s, it was particularly crucial that Murakami-san kept his boats at a competitive price. Remarkably, he currently sells his 19’ inshore boats for only $5,000, while the fiberglass equivalents go for over $7,000.

That said, design and aesthetics were not left behind at the sliding door. He uses beautiful and clever traditional joints for installing the beams tightly in place, and today carved a sculptural stem while balancing on the bow with an adze in hand. Although it is clear that he’s a little self-conscious about his non-traditional techniques, (he’ll say “you can stop taking pictures now” when he starts spreading glue or picks up a circular saw), his speed, accuracy and improvisational abilities also reveal the deep commitment and pride he has for this adaptive and rooted tradition.

Carving the stem with a chouna.


Dodging Swallows

Posted May 21, 2015

It’s been five days so far in the boat shop, and although I haven’t personally done any serious woodworking, I’ve gotten good at sweeping the dirt floor, deciphering the boatbuilders thick Iwate accent, observing, and dodging the barn swallows that dive in and out of the workshop throughout the day.

I came to this project with few expectations regarding how much I would actually get to touch the boat. After all, I am the deshi no deshi (the apprentice’s apprentice). I mostly take notes and photos, and help translate when topics diverge from the technicalities of boatbuilding.

Murakami-san working on the boat, with me observing. Photo credit: Douglas Brooks
Murakami-san working on the boat, with me observing. Photo credit: Douglas Brooks.
It’s been incredible getting to spend time in the builder’s workshop and neighborhood. Two sides of the shop look out onto rice paddies, so I get to watch spring arrive one row of rice at a time. Today red tractors crawled through the deep mud, dropping bright green blades of grass into the soil. The little rice plants finally arrived at their destination, after being zipped around the windy roads of Tohoku with the wind in their hair, like wide-eyed children on the back of a pickup. 

During break time, his wife always serves us green tea and snacks. We have been served mochi balls seasoned with the leaves of a wild plant (yomogi), snails caught in the nearby harbor, and today conbu  (kelp), which had washed up on the shore. I can imagine all of the American localvores drooling at the site of their lifestyle. But for them, it’s not a political movement or a conscious effort to push back against modern consumerism, it’s just how they’ve always lived.   

Murakami Toshiko cleaning konbu. Photo credit: Douglas Brooks.

Two barn swallows share a nest in the workshop, and there are three former nests built on the sides of ceiling timbers. They fly in and out throughout the day, surprising visitors, but not the boatbuilder, Murakami-san. He said he doesn’t do fire-bending (yakimage) in his workshop because he doesn’t want to smoke out the swallows. Although a sweet gesture, they still have to put up with the regular scream of the circular saw. They don't seem to mind though, and Murakami didn't get fussy today when he found swallow droppings on his sumitsubo (inkpot for making straight lines). Their liveliness and dramatic exits and entrances are enough to make them a welcome presence in the shop. 

End of the day with Murakami-san chatting with a friend outside the workshop.