Building a Wooden Boat with Co-Founder of Oselvar Workshop

| Published: | Last Updated: May 13, 2022 | , , ,

Building a Wooden Boat, a Norwegian Tradition Dating 2,000 Years

Building a wooden boat is a tradition that has endured in Norway for almost 2,000 years. Åsmund Lien was a co-founder of Oselvarverkstaden, or the Oselvar workshop, where beautiful, hand-crafted Norwegian boats are built. The Oselvar workshop is located in the town of Os on the mouth of the Os River, for which the boat was named 250 years ago.

building a wooden boat
Åsmund Lien, manager of Norway’s Oselvar workshop. Photo: Meg Pier

The significance of building a wooden boat in Os is not surprising—the town is situated on the western coast of Norway in Hordaland county, which is split from southwest to northeast by the long, deep Hardangerfjorden, one of Norway’s main fjords.

Åsmund was the manager of the Oselvar workshop from its establishment in 1997 until 2016. His vision was to preserve the old artisan craft of boat-building that has been passed from generation to generation here since long before the Vikings. I, in turn, am delighted to pass on to you some of the Oselvar history that Åsmund shared with me when I visited the workshop.

Keeping Alive a 2,000-Year Old Boat-Building Tradition

Meg: Can you describe a little bit about the historical significance of the Oselvar boat building tradition?

Åsmund: The Oselvar boat has a very long history. The boat’s current appearance has evolved from older types of boats, and it’s history goes back as far as there has been people living along the Norwegian coast. The clinker technique, a method of boat building where the edges of hull planks overlap, was introduced in Norway in the 3rd or 4th century AD—the Vikings used this same technique when crossing the oceans some hundred years later. Small boats from the Viking era are similar to the Oselvar boat in many ways, though you will find significant differences too. I believe that the Oselvar boat has been built using the same measurements for the last five or six hundred years.

Os River, Norway
The Os River in Norway is a timeless place where ancient traditions are carried on. Photo: Meg Pier

The boat type got its name about 250 years ago, when two very skilled boat builders had their boat houses along the Os River. Oselvar means the boat built by Oselva. “Os” is an old Norwegian name meaning “river mouth.” Today Oselvarverkstaden is situated on the bank of Oselva, so the building of the Oselvar boats is located again at the origin of its name.

Oselvar Boat-Building 101

Meg: I know the device called a “Båtal” is essential to the boat’s construction—can you explain what the “Båtal” is?

Åsmund: All the measurements the boat builders need to build an Oselvar boat are marked with special symbols on this stick, which is called “båtal” – “boat ell.” {Ed. Note: an ell is an archaic measurement of length} This measurement stick is the complete plan for an Oselvar boat. I can give this stick to a boat builder and say: “Please, build this boat for me,” and he or she will be able to do that. I also need to know what type of usage is planned for each boat, in short, what characteristics I want for the boat.

building a wooden boat
A “Båtal” is essential to the construction of an Oselvar boat. Photo: Meg Pier

Boat builders still use the “ell” as the main unit of measurement, but they use an “alen” dating back at least to early 1500. An ell in the boat builder’s vocabulary is 21 Norwegian inches, or 55 cm.

The Oselvar boat can be built in many different sizes, and there is one “båtal” to each size. The measurements on the stick are standard measurements. To “tailor-make” a boat, the boat builder needs to know if it will be used in the fjords or on open sea, if it is going to be sailed or rowed, whether any special fishing equipment will be used, and so on. Then the boat builder knows how much the measurements have to differ from the ones on the stick. If a fisherman for example is using a long line or net in deep water, he needs a boat that is wide and is able to lift a heavy weight. When you are using a long line and taking it up with many fish it is very heavy. When going up and down on the waves a wide built Oselvar will lift the long line and do the heavy work for the fisherman.

The boards in the boat are fastened together with rivets. Between the overlapping boards there is placed a cotton thread dipped in pine tar or oil, to make the boat tight. No glue is used in the boat.

The boat builders do everything from picking out the trees to make the boat ready to be launched. They go into the woods with their chain saw and tractor, they slice the timber logs into boards and planks, then build the boat, treat it with pine tar or oil before eventually putting it on sea–ready to be rowed or sailed. Constructing the Oselvar boat is to be done by hand and by eye. The throat of the boat, the bottom planks fore and aft, have a twisted shape and are cut with an axe. The boat builder starts with a plank of three inches and ends with a twisted board of about half an inch thickness. Each boat takes about 350 hours to make.

Origins Of Oselvar Workshop & Economuseum Concept

Meg: I had never heard of the concept of “Economuseum” before visiting the Oselvar boat shop. Can you explain that concept and the origins of the Oselvar work shop?

Oselvar Workshop
The Oselvar workshop was founded in 1997 by Os Municipality, Hordaland County Council and Os Boat Builder Guild. Photo: Meg Pier

Åsmund: Oselvarverkstaden, (the Oselvar workshop), was founded in 1997 by Os Municipality, Hordaland County Council and Os Boat Builder Guild. The goal is to save the craft of building Oselvar boats and bring the skill to new generations of professional boat builders. The Oselvar boat is representative of the Norwegian clinker boat tradition, and of one that still is being built in the traditional way with the complete knowledge of building tradition alive.

When Oselvarverkstaden was established, the employees included two boat builders still earning a living from building Oselvar boats, together with two young, skilled wooden boat builders, who hadn’t built Oselvar boats before. The younger ones learned the Oselvar tradition by working together with the older ones. During the years since the work shop was founded, six apprentices have graduated, and three of them–two men and a woman–are now employed as skilled boat builders. One of these four original boat builders is still employed.

An Oselvar boat under construction.
An Oselvar boat under construction. Photo: Meg Pier

In 2008 Oselvarverkstaden joined the Economusee network. It is originally a Canadian network, based in Québec, and Oselvarverkstaden was the second company outside Canada to join the network. Now several enterprises in the North Atlantic area are members of the network. Economusees are handicraft enterprises producing traditional products of high quality with traditional tools and methods. The workshops have to be open for the public with an exhibition and access to see the artisans at work, and a shop where they can buy the products.

Meg: You were a co-founder of the Oselvar work shop—can you describe what motivated your involvement?

Åsmund: When Oselvarverkstaden was established I was in charge of the municipal office of cultural affairs. Os Municipality was one of the co-funders and was supposed to take care of the administration of the workshop, and thus I became the manager of the enterprise.

Åsmund Lien explains the history & construction of the Oselvar boat.
Åsmund Lien explains the history & construction of the Oselvar boat. Photo: Meg Pier

I have all my life been very interested in history in general and especially in local history, so I was glad to be given the opportunity to work on saving this very important craft, which is quite an important part of our national heritage.

The Sea is the Road, The Boat is The Vehicle

Meg: Who are the clients of the Oselvar work shop and what do they typically plan to use the boats for?

Åsmund: A hundred years ago the Oselvar boat was the main fishing boat along the cost of Hordaland and western Norway, and it was used for all sorts of transport of people, goods and even domestic animals.

Until World War II, most families at the Norwegian coast were both fishermen and farmers. The wives ran the farm and the men fished. This way they always had a means to survive. During the 19th century the Oselvar became the main boat used by fishermen, who came from the islands at the coast of Hordaland to Os to have their boats built.

building a wooden boat

Historically the sea was the road and the boat was the vehicle. For hundreds and hundreds of years most all transportation of people and goods along the Norwegian coast and in the fjords was by boat on sea. In comparison the car’s history is not much more than one hundred years old.

building a wooden boat

Today the boat is used for leisure, rowing, sailing and fishing. Most of our clients are used to rowing or sailing this type of boat. If you love rowing you need to have a wooden boat. A plastic boat is built for an inboard or outboard motor, and a really bad fit for rowing.

building a wooden boat

The local market has always been most important for the Oselvar builders, i.e. the county of Hordaland and first and foremost the Hordaland coast. From about 1580, boat builders from Os and Tysnes delivered boats to Shetland, Orkney and Scotland. For the Os boat builders this was an important market for a period of 100 years or so, for the Tysnes boat builders close to 300 years. Today the same local market is the most important, but the workshop delivers boats to the rest of the country too, and also has clients in Denmark, Germany and the U.S.

building a wooden boat

The Oselvar boat has been famous for its characteristics as a good sailboat and a light rowboat. Therefore the boat has been used for both sailing and rowing regattas. It is the oldest sail regatta class in Norway, and still there are arranged Norwegian championships in sailing Oselvar.

The Tradition of Rosemaling and Building a Wooden Boat

Meg: In researching the cultural traditions of Norway and Os in particular, I learned about rosemaling, a beautiful form of decorative painting on wood that uses stylized flower ornamentation and scrollwork. It was quite a serendipitous moment to see a boat embellished with rosemaling in the Oselvar work shop. Can you explain how that merging of these two traditions came about and whether or not the Oselvar boats are typically painted?

Norwegian rosemaling
Oselvar boat is decorated with rosemaling, another tradition being upheld in Western Norway

Åsmund: The rose painted boat in our reception area belongs to a musician called Orbo, who arranged a music festival last summer. When marketing the festival he wanted to combine the two strong and special craft traditions from this area, the Oselvar boat and the rose painting in the Os style. He bought this model of an Oselvar boat in scale 1:2 and asked one of the most prominent rose painters from Os to paint it. I have never seen a rose painted Oselvar boat before, but the painting itself is a very good representative of our rose painting tradition.

Interested in learning more about how “Norwegian Wood” is converted to Oselvar boats? Check out this YouTube video on the Oselvar workshop:

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2 thoughts on “Building a Wooden Boat with Co-Founder of Oselvar Workshop”

  1. I really like wooden boats and learn a lot about this type of boat. I know that Japan is home to long-standing traditional wooden boat-builders, but it’s surprising that Norway also has this traditional craft, moreover it’s still very old. I think the wooden boats built here are very beautiful


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