All pictures on this page are of Judy Ritger’s work, or her hands at work.
by Judy Ritger and Del Stubbs
Kolrosing (pronounced “coal-rose-ing”) is a very old method of giving fine line surface decoration to wood. It started centuries ago with simply using the tip of ones’ belt knife to make fine decorative cuts – and then rubbing coal dust into it to bring out the pattern. The inner bark of various trees is also traditionally used (barkrosing). Kolrosing is an old Scandinavian tradition, dating back to Viking times and was most often used to decorate utilitarian objects, such as spoons, small bowls or boxes, cups, etc. This is why very few of the old pieces have survived – they were meant to be used.
In Viking times, the designs were more geometric or “Celtic” in origin. These types of designs are very effective and popular today. In the Telemark area of Norway, we find designs which show the influence of rosemaling which use the flower, leaf, and vine forms. Contemporary kolrosing is not limited to traditional patterns – any design which can be drawn with a pencil can be done with a kolrosing knife, from simple borders to animal forms. Use your imagination! Try your local library for books on Celtic and rosemaling patterns and any kind of line drawing.
1.) Wood choice:
- Look for a smooth surface, without strong or “course” grain, with few imperfections. Basswood and birch are the two most common woods for kolrosing – aspen also works well.
- Light-colored wood gives good contrast.
- Small, flat plates are nice, as are boxes and breadboards.
Judy Ritgers’ favorite is spoons, but she feels that unless you learn to make your own spoons, you won’t find many commercially available spoons that are suitable for kolrosing.
2.) Preparing the wood:
- Sand the piece very smoothly before you begin.
- Seal any soft woods, and pieces that will have concave or convex surfaces – such as spoons and bowls. Most any sanding sealer, shellac, etc. may be used as the protector coat before kolrosing. Judy Ritger uses JoSonja’s Sealer, mixed half and half with flow medium or water. (If you don’t seal the piece, the darkening compound may stain the whole surface and tend to obliterate your design).
- Sand again after sealing, using 400 grit sandpaper.
- Draw your design on the piece with a sharp pencil (or transfer a design using graphite paper).
Note: A simple geometric design is the easiest to start with and can be elaborated upon as you become more proficient. The most difficult line to do with your knife is a tight turn or curve.
3.) Incising Techniques:
- Unlike woodcarving this technique does not remove wood; rather, a tiny groove is made by making a single shallow cut just deep enough to score the wood. This is where the fine coffee powder will fill in.
- There are 2 methods of “cutting” or incising the wood – pushing or pulling.
- For simpler, geometric designs: it works to draw or pull the blade toward you, holding the knife like a pencil.
- For patterns that have tight turns: such as rosemaling, the kolrosing knife is held like a pencil, but with the sharp edge pointing away. Your right hand serves to hold the knife in the wood, while the left thumb is used to push the blade along (opposite for left handers). The left thumb is placed against the back of the round knife blade, with the pushing pressure coming at the left corner of your thumbnail. This gives you much better control than trying to draw the blade toward you. It is impossible to make a turn or nice curving line if you draw the blade. In order to incise a rosemaling design, you must use the technique of pushing the knife away from you, with your left thumb as the pushing guide. Sometimes, the piece itself is being turned as the pattern is being cut. Go very slowly, so as not to slip and create design elements you don’t want. You can try putting a tiny bit of Elmer’s glue into a mistaken cut – that will help to keep the coffee out and make the slip less noticeable.
4.) Coloring and Finishing:
- After you have incised the design, you will rub in a darkening compound. Traditionally one uses sawdust from walnut or pine bark. However, fine dry coffee grounds work beautifully – the dry coffee will probably need to be re-ground extra fine.
- Rub the coffee powder in well and wipe off any excess. Next, you must sand the piece once again to smooth any raised cuts. Use 400 or 600 grit sandpaper, and don’t worry about sanding out your design – it’s deep enough to withstand the sanding.
- The final step is to apply some type of oil or beeswax finish to set the coffee and give a nice feel to the piece. Just rub it in with your fingers. Judy Ritgers’ preference is a creamy natural beeswax made by Yield House. It has no petroleum solvents in it and is very safe to use. Judy applies one or two more coats after letting the first one dry a couple of hours. Walnut, flax seed, or vegetable oil also works well.
*note about the Yield House beeswax Here is a quote from Judy:
“Thought I’d better let you know that the Yield House Beeswax is no longer available and I’m now recommending walnut oil as my kolrosing finish. I’ve decided I like it better anyway – it gives a harder finish, I think – as long as you don’t put an excess amount of oil on. I tell people to generously coat the surface, let it set just a bit and then wipe off the excess, and let dry for a few days before a final buffing. It can be purchased at most artists’ supply stores, or through Vesterheim.” It also can be found it at health food stores
- The knives are made of hard high-speed steel and will hold their sharp edge very well. They will rarely need stropping on a leather or wood strop, using a buffing compound to maintain the sharp edge.
- For buffing compound don’t use soft jewelers rouge, use steel polishing compound like Zam, Fabuluster, Dico Stainless etc. Do not use power equipment.
- Take care not to drop the knife or break the tip in any way.