Canadian Woodworking

Kolrosing a Wooden Spoon with a Classic Basket Weave

Author: Carlos Eric
Published: August September 2020

Kolrosing is a wood decorating technique from the Viking age of Scandinavia, and very likely earlier. It involves using the tip of a knife to separate wood fibres, scoring a design onto the wood’s surface and then rubbing a pigment into the cuts to highlight the design.

I make spoons using greenwood and hand tools. Although I will be showing you how to kolrose one with a basket weave design, pretty much any shape or pattern can be made with this technique.

In order to kolrose, you only need some basic tools and sup­plies, all of which you probably already have in your shop or home. Traditionally, coal dust or tree bark dust was used to highlight the cuts in the wood. Today, it’s more common to use finely crushed coffee or cinnamon powder.

Even With the Edge
Drawing lines parallel with an edge can be easy. Hold the pencil normally, and press your fourth fingertip against the edge of the workpiece. Run your ring finger down the edge of the spoon while marking the line.

Keep Things Even
A ruler will go a long way toward drawing straight lines, and keep those lines evenly spaced. Here, Eric marks the length of the spoon handle so the angled lines will be marked evenly.

First Set of Lines
 Working with all the marks left in the previous step, add angled pencil lines to the handle. These lines should be about 45° to the center line of the spoon.

Bonus Points for Precision
 When you’re creating a geometric pattern, do your best to keep the lines parallel. Precision at this stage will translate into a stronger visual down the road.

Add Details
In order to keep all of the squares organized and end up with the proper pattern, Eric adds dots to certain squares. In this case, the dotted squares indicate the negative space between the basket weave pattern. It’s critical that the pattern be correct at this stage, as an even, repeating pattern like this basket weave could be potentially ruined by one mistake.

Even More Details
 With all the dots complete, Eric then adds lines in both directions to further clarify the pattern. The lines indicate where the basket weave pattern will be, and what parts of the pattern will overlap other parts.

Similar to a Pencil
 Eric holds the knife at a 90° angle to the surface of the workpiece, and grasps the knife similar to a pencil.

Make Cuts in One Direction
With the double line of perimeter cuts made, Eric turns his attention to making the many cuts that make up the basket weave pattern. He makes all the cuts in one direction first, paying close attention to where the cuts need to stop and start.

Perpendicular Cuts
With the first half of the angled basket weave cuts made, Eric adjusts the position of the spoon, and starts to make the perpendicular cuts. Raking light will prove to be very helpful at this stage.

Add Depth
Once the basket weave pattern is complete, Eric adds many small details to help bring the design to life. In this case, he adds two small cuts and a slightly larger cut to imply the “strips” are going above and below each other. These small cuts mimic a shadow and texture that would be on a real basket weave.

Oil the Spoon
 Now that the kolrosing design has been cut into the handle of the spoon and any pencil marks have been erased, the spoon can be oiled.

Coffee Time
Finely ground coffee is the most commonly used substance for adding pigment to a kolrosed design. The finer the better, so a mortar and pestle is great to use after the beans go through a coffee grinder.

Bring it to Life
 Use your finger to rub the coffee grounds into the cuts in the wood. This is when the design will really start to come alive.

Burnish the Design
After another light application of oil over the design, use a smooth stone or another smooth, hard object to burnish the kolrosed surface. This helps to close the gaps in the wood fibres, and locks the coffee pigment into place.

Tools and equipment

To get started with kolrosing, I recommend using the following tools and equipment:

  • Kolrosing knife: There are dedicated blades for this, but you can use any fine-tipped wood carving knife. Heavily tape the bulk of the blade so you can hold it like a pen.
  • Burnisher: I use a smooth stone, but you can also use a smooth piece of dense wood, deer antler, a marble, etc.
  • Fine-tipped pencil: Mechanical pencils work well.
  • Pliable ruler: This helps to keep lines straight when drawing your designs, if that’s the design you’ve chosen.
  • Eraser: This is used to fix any design flaws and to erase pencil marks after you have finished kolrosing.
  • Hand towel: Placing the spoon on a towel while kolrosing it keeps it clean and free of scuffs while applying your designs.
  • Kolrosing pigment: I recommend crushed coffee or cinnamon powder, as these are common kitchen items and food-safe. Cinnamon has a red tint, which can be attractive, but if you want a crisp dark design, it’s best to use coffee. Use a coffee grinder, blender or a mortar and pestle to crush your coffee beans as finely as possible.
  • Oil: This is used to seal the spoon and to help the pigment get into the kolrosing designs. There are many to choose from, and it depends on availability and preference. If you want something that polymerizes, I recommend a food-safe linseed or tung oil.
  • Paper towel: To wipe the excess oil off your spoon. Be sure to safely dispose of any oiled paper towels as these can be highly flammable.

Wood recommendations

Most kinds of wood can be kolrosed, but some are more ideal than others. Generally speaking, if a wood is light in colour and not extremely porous, it will work. If it’s too dark, the design won’t be as visible. If it’s too porous, the pigment will stain the spoon all over.

Our great country has a wide selection of woods to choose from, and I’m sure they all have their pros and cons when it comes to spoon making, as well as kolrosing. I’m familiar with the tree spe­cies in eastern Canada, and this is what I use:

  • Sugar maple
  • White birch
  • Manitoba maple
  • Cherry
  • Poplar
  • Apple
  • Walnut

Burnish and clean 

Burnish the entire surface of your finished spoon. This makes the surface smooth and easier to work on, allowing you to erase the pencil marks more easily when you are done. Make sure your working area and hands are clean so you don’t dirty your spoon.

Kolrosing design considerations

The designs you make can be as simple or as complex as you want. Sometimes it’s good to just draw without planning in order to practice your knife strokes and see how far your skills will take you. You will eventually figure out how close you’re able to locate cuts, how tight you can cut an arc and the differences between the differ­ent woods. This all comes with time, and is the main reason why you should practice on some scrap wood before kolrosing your next completed project.

Abstract or geometric designs are a great way to begin, as they can be as simple as a few lines with a few dots. Even this will add a lovely extra quality to your handmade item.
For the purpose of the rest of this article, I’m going to show you how to create a classic basket weave pattern on the upper face of a spoon handle.

Basket weave design

You can trace your spoon shape on a piece of paper to try out some different designs first, or you can take a look at the shape of your spoon and make your decision based upon that. Be sure to draw your design lightly so it’s easier to erase later on.

To draw borders around your spoon handle, hold your pencil firmly in your hand and use your fingers as an edge guide to keep an equal distance around the border.

Once you have your border drawn, draw the center line to help keep your basket weave symmetrical. Mark the center by eye on top and bottom within your border to be a guide for your ruler. You can also place marks along the center line to keep your crisscross marks even.

Next, use the ruler to draw the first two lines at the top. Using these first lines as guides, keep your next lines as parallel to these as possible as you go. Once you have your lines drawn down one side, do the same for the other. Make sure the lines cross exactly where the center line meets so that your boxes stay symmetrical.
With all of your boxes drawn, begin to map out the actual weave. The way I do this is to mark out the boxes which act as the spacers in between the actual weave.

Draw guidelines through the boxes in between to show the direc­tion of the weave. These will be three boxes long, and will meet each other to form “T”s. Do your best to keep it ordered properly or mistakes might be easily visible.

Some notes on technique

Try to hold your kolrosing knife at a 90° angle to the wood, straight up and down, as much as possible when making your cuts. This will allow you to glide through the wood more easily, as well as make turns in the wood.

With your non-dominant hand, hold the wood steady on your folded hand towel with your index or middle finger above where you want to begin cutting your designs. With your dominant hand, hold the knife at a 90° angle and begin cutting your designs in the wood. Use both hands to follow the pencil marks and make your cuts little by little.

Try not to press too hard, and avoid double cuts within the same lines. One cut through the wood grain is all you typically need. Making multiple cuts within the same line increases the chance of slipping out and making the design look messy. If you do need to make a double cut within the same line to widen it, just be as careful as possible. Having a kolrosing knife is an advan­tage as they are designed with a fine tip and a fat body, making it easier to separate the wooden fibres wider apart, reducing the need for any double cuts.

If you do slip outside of your design, try not to worry about it too much. Design slips are very common, espe­cially when you’re starting out. It will usually only be you who notices these minor mistakes. You will naturally make fewer mistakes the more you practice. The human hand isn’t perfect, and some imperfection will tell the user it was done by hand. Computers or machines are far more accurate, but something made by hand has those human imperfections which make it all the more special.

It’s also best to work in sunlight or under a bright lamp for maximum visibil­ity. Being able to clearly view your work, and the cuts you’re making, is critical.

Making the kolrosing cuts

It’s time to begin your actual knife work. Keep in mind, since you’re using pencil and holding the spoon tight, there is a good chance a lot of your design will wipe off as you go. You should still be able to see it, but if it fades too much, just pencil it in again as needed.

Begin with the border edges. Brace your knife cuts against the fingers of your non-dominant hand as you go in order to reduce chances of any slipping. Proceed little by little until you reach the end, trying not to remove the knife until you’ve reached the end of a particular line in your design. Holding it up in the light will allow you to see the cuts, rather than the pencil, so you can easily check for symmetry.

Once you’ve finished your border, you can begin kolrosing the weave within. What I like to do is draw each line (down the three squares on each side) one way, and then the other to complete the boxes. Everyone has their own approach, though. Keep holding it up to the light to see if you have missed any spots.

This in itself is already a proper basket weave, however if you add little details, it will look just a bit more elaborate, and add to the depth of the visual. This can be done with little knife marks or dots with the knife tip. Just get creative and have fun.

Oiling and applying pigment

It is now time to oil the spoon. You usually only need enough oil to fill your spoon bowl, and you can use this amount to spread around your spoon until it is nice and slick. Don’t wipe off the excess with a paper towel just yet.

With the oil still slick on the spoon, sprinkle some of your pig­ment over the cuts. You will not need much, and can place more as needed. Next, rub the pigment into the cuts until you can see it has set in properly. Feel free to do a second, or even a third, rub until you’re happy with how visible the design is. If it’s just not com­ing out as you’d like, your cuts might not be deep or wide enough. Some experimentation might be in order.

Now you can wipe off all excess oil and pigment, and give it one last final burnishing over the kolrosing design. This is an important step, as it closes the wood fibres over the pigment and locks it in permanently. Let the finish cure adequately before using it.

You now have a handmade design on a hand-carved spoon made completely with simple hand tools. It has the imperfect qualities that make handmade items unique and special. Now, make another spoon, this time with a slightly different handle, and try your hand at a different design. And don’t be afraid to use this technique on a spoon bowl, or even the back of a handle. You can never have too many spoons, and they make wonderful gifts. Especially when they include kolrosing.

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