This is a How To… of a small wooden cup called a noggin (also known as noigin in Irish and noigean in Gaelic) I made as a Christmas stocking filler for my wife Alison.
Alison had always wanted a one carved for her so I thought it was time to get on with it. These cups were traditionally made out of burls (I will cover this in more detail in my next How To…) however I did not have one available at the time and used silver birch wood instead.
Noggin carving is a skill that has been practiced for millennia but due to modern industrial practices it is now something generally limited to green woodworkers, bowl turners and bushcrafters. These are a few of my carvings, all utilitarian and nothing fancy. The cup at the bottom is the one I made for this How To…
Wood selection and splitting
For this noggin I selected a green piece of silver birch that had no crack lines starting on either end. The log had a few knots in it but looked quite easy to carve.
I split the log on a stump with my axe and drew out the basic shape of the noggin with a pencil. My intention was to carve a shallow flat-bottomed noggin with steep sides as the log was not that big.
Tools & the bowl
As the sides were to be steep I opted to use a curved wood chisel and a mawl. I carved out the bowl first for various reasons:
- To locate any cracks deep in the bowl area quickly
- Working with the whole piece makes it more stable
- There is less chance of the side of the bowl cracking
Carving the bowl
To begin with I worked my way around the edge of the bowl taking out small chippings. I tapped the chisel with the mawl quite gently at this stage. The work piece was placed on my lap with 3 thick layers protecting my legs – two jackets and a small day sack.
I positioned the log so that the chisel was always pointing away from me. A work bench with a vice would have been safer but not available at the time (we were working in the winter in a small roundhouse).
Once the initial edge area was carved out I was able to use more force with the chisel. By this time I did not need to use the mawl but cut into the wood by just pressing down with force on the chisel. This seemed to work quicker than using the mawl all the time.
Working my way around the bowl I was able to take out a lot of wood rapidly until I had the basic shape roughed out.
Axing out the basic shape
Once the bowl was created I axed out the basic shape of the noggin. I used the saw to make ‘stop cuts’ first though so that when I was using the axe I did not cut out areas of wood that formed part of the cup.
I did this work on a stump placed on the floor. The work piece was always well in front of me so that the follow through from any slippage (from the axe) went to the side of me.
Here you can see the two stop cuts created by the saw coming in at either side of the work piece. I then used the axe to cut out the areas of wood I did not require.
Carving with the Sloyd knife
After using the axe to blank out the basic shape of the noggin I then switched to using my Mora Sloyd knife. This small knife is ideal for more detailed, controlled carving.
I was able to carve in a very controlled and safe fashion with my thumbs pressing on the back of the blade. Even though the cuts were always small it did not take long for me to fine tune the shape as the blade itself was very sharp and the wood was green.
The crook knife
When I had the outside of the noggin ready for sanding I decided to use the crook knife on the inside of the bowl.
This was to take out as many of the small ridges produced by the chisel as possible and also to try and flatten out the bottom of the bowl some more. The crook knife enabled me to smooth out a lot of the ridges that the Sloyd could not reach.
After finishing with the bowl I left the noggin in a paper bag to dry slowly over a two-week period as it is easier to sand down dry wood.
Sanding the Noggin
I used a variety of different sandpapers on the noggin including:
- Top left – 80 grit
- Top right – 150 grit
- Bottom left – 320 grit
- Bottom right – 1200 grit
I started with the coarsest, 80 grit, ensuring I covered the whole noggin and that all the edges were rounded off. The bottom of the noggin did take a considerable period of time to roughly sand (I should probably have done more knife work) but I wanted to create a small flat area so that it would be stable when set down with liquid in it.
I did not sand the whole of the noggin smooth as I wanted to leave some of the tool marks showing but I did give the rim of the cup an extra bit of sanding as I wanted that bit particularly smooth.
I really focused on making the rim smooth as I wanted that smoothness to contrast with the tool marks on the lower area.
Once I had finished with the 80 grit I worked my way up through the other sandpaper slowly smoothing the noggin down until I reached the finest, 1200 grit.
Boning the noggin
After sanding I oiled the noggin lightly (I used vegetable oil as that was all that was available) then used the back of a spoon to really smooth the surface. This is known as boning and as well as smoothing the surface it helps to seal the oil into the wood (a small rounded pebble works just as well).
This whole process took a couple of hours and I added more oil as I went along. I find boning quite therapuetic, and it leaves a beautifully smooth satiny finish.
Lastly I carved a hole in the handle, fixed a leather loop and oiled the noggin once again.
Lovely carvings for lovely ladies (although sadly Alison couldn’t christen hers with a dram of whisky on Christmas Day: she was pregnant with our son Finlay, who was born just a couple of weeks later!).