What is Norwegian Woodcarving?
Wood and Decoration
A significant portion of Norway’s steep, rocky land is unsuitable for agriculture and is covered with trees. Naturally, many handcrafts in Norway involved wood and forest products. This brochure is meant to offer Vesterheim visitors and folk-art students an introduction to carved decoration on wood and some of the wooden objects used in Norway from the Viking Age (800-1066 C.E.) to the present. The period prior to and during the years of mass emigration from Norway to America were especially fruitful times for woodcarvers in Norway, and emigrants brought these skills to the New World. Then and now, Norwegian Americans and others can express their appreciation for the folk culture of Norway through wood and its decoration. Vesterheim’s collection includes decorated wooden objects that were brought from Norway and pieces made in America. Since 1967, Vesterheim has been offering folk-art classes, including woodworking and woodcarving.
Husflid, or fine handcraft, refers to a wide range of culturally significant items made by Norwegian people in their homes. When the tourist industry started to grow in the mid-1800s, there was a market for Norwegian home-crafted items such as weavings, rosemaling, and woodcarvings. Norwegians were able to produce items in their homes and earn money. Later, in the early 1900s, as the Industrial Revolution progressed, the Husflid movement worked to preserve and promote rural Norwegian handcraft culture through schools, classes, and exhibitions.
An ambar was used to carry porridge to a new mother, or for a wedding or funeral. This one was originally decorated with carving and burning. Colorful rosemaling was added later when rose painting became popular.
Vesterheim 2011.032.016—Gift of Lila Nelson.
From Viking Period Carvings to the Stave Church Period
Perhaps the most dramatic carvings from Norway are from the Viking period. The carvings found on the Oseberg and Gokstad ships from the late ninth century may depict the natural world, or may have been inspired by the spiritual world. The Viking Age ended in the mid-eleventh century, when Christianity arrived in Norway. The Catholic Church commissioned almost 2000 stave churches in Norway during the Middle Ages, from the eleventh to fourteenth centuries. Many of them were extensively decorated on the exterior and interior with deep relief carvings, first with predominantly animal motifs and later with plant forms incorporated into the patterns. Elements from the Viking Era such as characters of Norsk Mythology and dragon heads often appear in the same churches adorned with Christian symbols of the cross. This mix of iconography showcases a history where people didnâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;t want to entirely abandon their earlier religion for a newer religion. Norwegian carvers, as well as woodcarvers in America, have often turned to the carvings of the Viking and Stave Church periods for inspiration.
One of five carved animal head posts found on the buried Oseberg ship dating to 843 AD. The ship and its contents are preserved at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, Norway. 3
Svidekor, or Wood Burning
Svidekor is an age-old decorative technique used all over Norway, but was especially common on the west coast. Svidekor designs were made using iron stamps heated in a fire, much like branding irons for cattle. Often the designs were made with just two or three stamps. Some of the motifs created with svidekor and other carving techniques were believed to protect the contents of a container, or channel the goodness of the sun to the user. For example, equal-armed crosses were used on containers for dairy products. The cross would keep the milk from turning sour and the butter from turning rancid.
Spouted tankard, or tutekanne, from VĂĽgĂĽ, Gudbrandsdal, Norway, inscribed 1736. The motifs on the side of the tankard symbolize the sun, with the hopes of channeling the goodness of the sun to bring good luck to the owner. Vesterheim LC1533â&#x20AC;&#x201D;Gift of De Sandvigske Samlinger, Luther College Collection.
Spouted tankard, or tutekanne, from Toten, Norway, inscribed 1748. Both this vessel and the one on the opposite page were made with stave construction and were intended for serving beer at weddings, funerals, Christmas, and other special occasions. Vesterheim LC0925 â&#x20AC;&#x201C; Gift of Totens Museumslag, Luther College Collection.
Flatskurd, or Flat Carving
Flatskurd is a two-dimensional woodcarving style where the background is carved away to bring out the pattern. There may be different levels in the pattern, but there is little-to-no modeling or shaping of the individual elements. Compared to acanthus carving, flatskurd looks very flat. Several of the period styles were expressed in flatskurd, including dragon and acanthus. Tendrils, human figures, and animals are also seen. The flatskurd carving style was especially prevalent in regions of Telemark and Setesdal. 5
Karveskurd, or Chip Carving
Chip carving is the process of removing small pieces of wood from a surface to create designs. The piece that is removed can be two- or three-sided, and either straight or curved. Carvers use specialized knives. They make two or three plunge cuts at various exact angles meeting at the bottom. If the cuts are clean and exact, a chip of wood floats to the surface. Designs are often geometric and can be composed with a compass and straight edge. Chip carved objects have been found in Viking graves. A wide variety of objects have been decorated with chip carving, from door portals, beds, and trunks, to boxes for storing food and bowls for drinking ale. Chip carving was most popular in rural communities on Norwayâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s west coast, in the north, and in Setesdal and Telemark in the southern part of the country.
A mangle board, or mangletre, was used to smooth cloth and was often given as an engagement gift. The horse for a handle symbolized a wish for fertility for the new couple, their livestock, and their crops. Inscribed 1771. Vesterheim LC1409â&#x20AC;&#x201D;Gift of Mrs. AH Lovaas, Luther College Collection.
This is a double tine, or bentwood box with locking lids. Probably from Trøndelag, Norway. Vesterheim 1983.061.001—Gift of Kaja Melander.
Kroting is a decorative technique used primarily in the rural areas of the west coast of Norway and in Trøndelag County. The surface of the wood is first painted with a color that is darker than the wood. Originally earth-based pigments mixed with sour milk were often used. A design is then carved into the wood, leaving a distinct contrast between the painted surface and the lighter wood underneath. This technique was often used to decorate boxes. Common motifs were eightpetal flowers, knots, sun circles, and tulips. 7
Acanthus and Baroque
The thistle-like acanthus plant grows naturally in the regions of the Mediterranean. It first inspired architectural ornamentation in ancient Greece and then again during the Roman period. The acanthus motif resurfaced during the Baroque period. The Baroque-style acanthus leaf motif became established on the coast of Norway around 1700 and soon spread inland and found fertile ground in rural farming regions. Woodcarvers, as well as painters, fell in love with the acanthus leaf. Between 1700 and 1850 there were many carvers who became masters of acanthus. These rural carpenters studied under competent carvers and then developed their own style of acanthus carving. Much of the carving on smaller objects was done on a hobby basis. In Gudbrandsdal and surrounding regions, acanthus style ornamentation was especially popular. Over time, the look of the acanthus leaf has changed, becoming broader and more rounded. The carving technique, too, has changed to become more exacting. The Hjerleid School in Dovre, Gudbrandsdal, was established in 1886. It is known for training Norwayâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s best acanthus carvers.
Log chair, or kubbestol, made from the trunk of a birch tree by Halvor Lie, from Telemark, Norway. Vesterheim 1968.044.001â&#x20AC;&#x201D;Gift of Olaf Lie.
Kolsrosing is one of the many wood carving classes offered at Vesterheimâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s folk art school.
Many spoons of this type were made in the mid-1800s by the Skattum family in Toten. They were then sold in towns throughout eastern Norway. Vesterheim 1968.037.003â&#x20AC;&#x201D;Gift of Leonard Egeland in memory of Anna Egeland.
Kolrosing is a descriptive Norwegian word for a delicate incising technique done on light-colored wood, such as birch, pine or basswood. Kol refers to a dark pigment. Rosing is a common word [vernacular] describing decorating. A fine line is cut into wood by the point of a sharp knife and then is filled with a naturally dark substance, such as ground bark, wood ash, or even finely ground coffee. The pigment is sealed with oil or wax. Today artists are expanding kolrosing by using different colored pigments and incising tools other than the sharp point of a knife. 9
Drakestil, or Dragon Style
The national romantic period developed toward the end of the 1800s and beginning of the 1900s. Woodcarvers in Norway looked back in time for inspiration to the Viking Era, stave churches, and rural folk art. Woodcarved folk art during this period incorporated the long and lazy line of the period referred to in English as Norwegian Arts and Crafts, Jugendstil in German, and Art Nouveau in French. Lars Kinsarvik from Hardanger and Ole Moene from Oppdal were the two great masters of this carving style in Norway. Kinsarvik often used vines or tendrils with Romanesque-inspired leafage and dragon heads. He incorporated elfin nisse characters from Norwegian folklore and powerful Viking warriors with helmets, swords, and axes. Ole Moene developed an extremely clean, exacting and tight acanthus carving style as an expression of the Norwegian Arts and Crafts movement through his small format carvings including boxes, cigar holders and beer tankards. At this time there was a large market for smaller carvings in the growing tourist trade. Hotels and restaurants were decorated with drakestil ornamentation.
Ceremonial drinking horn carved by Lars Kinsarvik of Hardanger, Norway, in 1890, for the Worldâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, 1893. Vesterheim 2001.037.001â&#x20AC;&#x201D;Given by Dr. and Mrs. Eugene J. Nordby in honor of Darrell D. Henning. 10
Vesterheim’s Folk Art School
If you want to give woodcarving a try, Vesterheim offers many classes each year! The classes vary in the styles offered, and in experience levels, from beginner to advanced. They are taught by nationally-known instructors from the United States and Norway. Students have the opportunity to connect with a community of artists and study historical and modern pieces from the museum’s amazing collection. For more information, check vesterheim.org or contact the Folk Art Education Department at (563)382-9681.
In addition to classes, you can find many of the supplies you will need for woodcarving and woodworking at Vesterheim in the Museum Store, located in the Westby-Torgerson Education Center, the building where you’ll also find the Folk Art School’s comfortable studio-style classrooms. Many supplies are also available in the museum’s online store at vesterheim.org.
Connect with Others
There are many woodworking and woodcarving groups and organizations throughout the country. A search on the internet can help in finding them. If you are on Facebook, search “Norwegian woodworking” or “woodcarving” to find a group and then join in the discussion and enjoy the photos that are always being posted. 11
About the Author
Phil Odden is a professional woodcarver and Vesterheim Gold Medalist. He trained at the Hjerleid School in Dovre, Norway, and he and his wife, Else Bigton, have a workshop near Barronett, Wisconsin. Together, they authored the books Treskjaerer Kunsten (The Art of Woodcarving) and Laerebok i Treskjaering (Textbook in Woodcarving).
The National Norwegian-American Museum & Heritage Center 523 W. Water Street, PO Box 379, Decorah, IA 52101-0379 (563) 382-9681 vesterheim.org