Examples of different Scandinavian shrink boxes

The basic wood carving techniques for making these Scandinavian-style shrink boxes, or “krympburkar,” date back to the days of the Vikings — but they’re just as fun for modern woodworkers.

Grand Marais, Minnesota, is one of those magical little towns that seem almost unreal. Driving through pea soup fog on the way to get there and on the way back made it seem even more as if I was actually being rocketed through some sort of portal to an amazing place on another planet. Once I arrived at the North House Folk School, the community and dedication to craft magnified the dreaminess of this breathtaking setting.

View over a lake in Grand Marais, Minnesota

My goal of this trip was to learn how to make Scandinavian Shrink Boxes, which are Viking technology! Thanks to instructors Jim Sannerud and Paul Linden (who made the boxes shown in the lead photo), that goal was easily attained.

Carving a butter paddle with a sloyd knife
Butter paddles served as carving practice.

These shrink boxes could be constructed using just a saw and a knife, but the steps laid out here make the process quick and easy. When you follow the steps correctly, the shrink box will become watertight for a drinking cup or airtight to store spices or tea.

Carving with a knife and a cutting protector
Changing cutting technique helps to avoid muscle fatigue.

Class started with practice and demonstrations of safe carving techniques. The preferred knife for this type of work is called a Sloyd knife, made by the company Mora of Sweden. We practiced by making butter paddles. The class had all levels of woodworking experience, and Paul discussed changing your technique and using different ways of cutting to help avoid muscle fatigue.

Green Wood, Traditional Tools

Drilling out box interior with cook's pattern auger bit
A traditional tool available at the school was a Cook’s pattern auger bit used to drill end grain.

The construction of these boxes is rather clever. Essentially, you are exploiting characteristics of green wood. The sides of these innovative canisters can be made using any closed grain hardwood such as birch, box elder, cherry, maple, aspen, etc. My class used birch branches that Paul had harvested the evening before class began. The bottom and lid of the box are made using dry wood that is easy to carve, such as basswood or pine.

Sawing length of log to make a shrink box with a bow saw
Here a bow saw and shave horse are used to cut to length. This can be accomplished in many ways.

There are a few different tools to use to achieve the following steps. At North House, they have several shave horses and all the hand tools to work in a more traditional way.

Using a carving knife to debark a box blank
The author's arm and wrist are stiff as she uses the weight of her body to cut the bark off.

Once you have your wood, drill a hole into the end grain deeper than the desired box height. You could use a drill, vise, and any style drill bit. Then cut off a length for the height of box that you’d like.

Peeling away uneven portions of shrink box with carving knife
A "potato peeling" cutting technique creates the chamfer on top and bottom.

Using a sacrificial surface to make downward cuts is a safe and effective way to remove the bark. After doing that, you chamfer the outside edge of the top and bottom just enough so that it won’t be sharp. This cut is made like you are peeling a potato.

When hollowing out the branch, if you tire of rolling the wood clockwise away from you with the knife pointing away, switch it around with the blade toward you (palm up) and roll the wood towards you, counterclockwise.

Hollowing out the inside of the branch is one of my favorite steps. Roll the wood on your thigh while holding the knife still. When the knife blade is pointed away from you, roll the wood away from you. If that gets tiring, you switch it around holding the blade towards you with your palm up and roll the wood towards you. Work from both ends of the box to achieve a consistent thickness. For a box in the 4" range, a wall thickness that’s between 1/4" and 3/8" is appropriate.

Cut and Fit the Bottom

Drawing out parts of a round shrink box on a blackboard
You can choose among several styles of grooves to fit the bottom of your box. The author preferred the style in the middle of the drawing above.

Now that the inside is hollowed, you will make a groove to capture the bottom. Using a marking gauge with the depth set to scribe about halfway deep into the side of your box, scribe a line about 1/2" up from the bottom.

Securing marking gauge in workbench vise for groove cutting
To make the groove for her box bottom, the author found it easiest to put the marking gauge in a vise.

Then use your carving knife to remove material below your scribed line, keeping the top of the groove flat and angling down over 1/4" for the bottom to pop into.

Using a marking tool to lay out the bottom groove of shrink box
Rotate the box around to scribe the line.

To make the bottom, start by tracing around the inside of the box onto a piece of wood that is about the same thickness as your box sides. Then cut out the circle approximately 1/16" larger than your traced line.

Carving the base of a Scandinavian shrink box
The author left a 1/8" flat on the side of the bottom piece and then carved an angle before fitting it into her groove.

Make alignment marks on the box and the bottom piece so that you can fit the bottom to the exact shape of the box. You will carve the bottom to mimic the shape of the groove you made, but more extreme.

Using a pencil to mark the interior portion of shrink box base
Next trace around the inside of the box onto a piece of basswood, an easy-to-carve choice for the box top and bottom.

The goal here is to get the bottom to barely pop into place. Patiently remove material around the edges until you get the perfect fit.

Dry fitting the base of the shrink box in place
Finally, use your palm to apply pressure and pop the box bottom into place. The alignment mark acts as a guide for the custom fit.

Once the bottom is in place, the wet wood will dry out and shrink around the already dry bottom. It is amazing how quickly this happens! It is best practice to wait at least three weeks before fitting the lid so the wood will be completely dry.

Creating the Lid

Using flour to mark out the size of the shrink box's top
Trace around the flour that is left after flipping a flour-filled box onto a dampened piece of wood that will serve as the box lid.

Jim and Paul made boxes without lids that would be dry for class so that we could go through the lid making process. There are several ways to make lids: Jim demonstrated one, and Paul showed us another. I chose the method to fit the lid into the opening by giving it a slight angle.

Cutting out shrink box lid with an angled band saw
With the band saw tilted to 67˚, be sure you are cutting on the side of the line that will make the lid larger, rather than smaller.

Start by establishing the inside dimension of your box. Put flour into the box. Wet the surface of the wood you are using for the lid. Place the wood on top of the box, and flip it over, putting the flour on the dampened surface.

Marking out the scrap portion of shrink box lid
Marking with a pencil where you need to remove material makes the process of carving your lid to fit into your box pretty easy. (The lid will stand slightly proud of the box sides.)

Pick up the box, and the internal dimension of your box will be left behind. Now go to the band saw and cut the lid out slightly bigger than your line at a 67˚ angle. Put reference marks on your lid like you did your box bottom. Now you will use your knife to carve the lid to fit into the box. Leave the lid sticking out proud about 1/4". By putting the lid on the box, you can make pencil marks where the lid is hitting and then cut that off.

Lid, knob and wedge parts for assembling a shrink box's lid
When you put the knob into the lid, make sure your wedge will be perpendicular to the lid’s grain.

Once the lid fits, chamfer the corners. Then make your knob. I chose to make the knob on the lathe, but you can easily carve a knob, too. Drill a 3/8" hole that is off-center in your lid. Putting the knob off-center actually makes it easier to open the box.

Scandinavian shrink box lid with knob fully assembled with trimming marks
The placement is shown here with pencil marks.

Then make a kerf in the bottom of the knob that is going across the grain so that it will be less likely to spit the whole knob. Carve a wedge that will fit into that kerf. Then glue the knob into place. Glue and tap the wedge in, too. After the knob has dried into place, you can trim the bottom of the knob and wedge flush with the lid bottom.

Finishing Options

Now you are ready for surface treatments! You may want to leave the box textured with your knife cuts. Or you could get out your carving gouges and add more texture. Jim did a great demonstration using milk paint, a wonderful way to add color to any project.

Whether or not you paint your shrink box, you'll want to apply a finish to protect the wood. We discussed walnut oil, non-boiled linseed oil or beeswax as good options. Each of these finishes are food-safe and very easy to apply.

Now that I have learned the process of making shrink boxes, I can make these rather fast. I can do about seven bottoms fitted into the box in one relaxed day. Shrink boxes are great gifts, and it is a wonderful way to accelerate my knife carving skills!

I highly recommend taking the opportunity to go to North House Folk School for any of the awesome classes or events that they offer. The whole experience of being a part of a community focused on enriching lives by sharing skills and knowledge is priceless. Words can't do justice describing the adventure of going to North House Folk School.