A visit to a Dalahäst factory

Summer vacation – we went to Orsa in Dalarna County, Sweden. Relaxing days on the beach and doing tourist-stuff. Just lovely! If you go there, a visit to Nusnäs and the Dalahäst factories are obligatory! Let’s take a tour.

All nooks and crannies of the world has their specialty, it seems. And if a certain area has a farming background, there are especially many things to explore it seems. When I was a kid, we travelled from north Norway all the way to Orsa in Dalarna County, Sweden. Took us 2-3 long days of driving, but arriving at Orsa Camping made it worth it. As a kid, I did not pay much attention to all the “tourist stuff” we did. It was just what I had to endure to get back to the beach and my blow-up boat. But now, as I am somewhat adult at 45 (body, not mind!) I find these things interesting. Of course, anything related to woodworking and I am all in! And in Sweden, woodworking has a long history. It seems like you can throw a rock anywhere, and you’ll hit a small band saw sawmill setup – or someone doing woodworking of some sort.

The weather was rather nice at first, but a couple of rainy days came around. Time to do tourist stuff! One of the days, we went to a small village called Nusnäs. The Dalahäst has been made here since the 1700’s; a bi-product from the local furniture production, often made for the kids by the workers, or for selling at local fairs. The wooden horses are decorated, traditionally with a red paint and embellished with Krusning decoration; a part of Kurbits style painting or Rose-painting (which Norway is famous for).

We visited the two factories, both family businesses started by siblings back in the days. Both factories are named after an Olsson – Grannas A Olsson Hemslöjd and Nils Olsson Hemslöjd. The images here are from Grannas’ factory.

The tour

The (unguided) factory tour starts where raw materials are delivered to the factory.

There are areas not open to the public, but most of the process is available. A peek through doors shows other things going on – in the image above, the behind of a huge green horse can be seen – quite possibly a special order item. You can order a horse with your logo on it, if you want to.

The workers rotate the tasks, so that you get to see most of what’s going on. A clever way to keep you in the house for longer – there are assorted product bins placed in the production area, so that you can grab a semi-finished horse you can paint yourself (images later in the article). Typical tourist trap, but well worth it!

One of the packages had a Mora knife, a rough band sawn horse, some paint – and one piece of band-aid! I chuckled when I saw that one.

Stacks of boards arrives on Euro pallets, which means they are 120cm long. The width is in the vicinity of 20cm – at least that’s what they worked with when we were there. I also saw some glulam pieces around, used for the larger horses.

The boards are planed to a set dimension for a given size, and a worker stamps horse silhouettes on the boards, carefully checking the boards for cracks, defects or splits. Problematic areas are avoided, while maintaining a good yield rate.

The horse blanks are then cut from the boards, leaving a rough outline of the horses. We did not get to see this part of the process, but it’s just band saw work anyway. They had three huge band saws at the place.

After the initial blank has been cut, it is time for detail band sawing. The opening between the legs are cut, and the horse get a bit of shape. You can watch the process in this video:

The video also shows a bit of the painting process. How long do you think it takes to develop the muscle-memory to produce near identical horse blanks all day? In the video, the worker spend about 8 seconds on the mane / head of the horse! I did not time him, but I think he made the cutout for the legs and the head / mane in about 30 seconds or so. Let’s say a minute per horse, tops.

After the band saw work is done, it is old school whittlin’! A knife and about 15 minutes of work per horse, and the shape is fettled and refined. We did not get to see this process, but it should be rather self-explanatory. The craftsmen to this job at home (mostly), and they use a traditional Mora knife – a knife made in the neighboring town of Mora. Really good knifes they are, too! I bought one, of course! Birch handle, 2.5mm wide by 6cm long blade. A perfect whittling knife that from now on lives permanently on or near my work bench!

After the horse is shaped, it is time for a paint bath and refinement. Two rooms are dedicated to this process, and the shelves tells a tale of production throughout the year – stock buildup during the winter when tourism is at a low point, and nearly empty shelves during summer.

The horse is dipped in primer twice, then placed on a tray to let excess paint run off. Each horse is then inspected, filled, sanded and then given a final coat of paint. Here is one of the sanding booths:

It is then time for the artwork – “krusmålning”, where skilled artisans decorate each individual horse. The final step is a coat of lacquer, and the horse is ready for sale.

The artisans sit in a room where they have their work station set up. Watching the process is a lot of fun, and you simply must admire the level of skill demonstrated by these skilled artisans! None of the horses are identical, yet they all look the same. Just another aspect of what a true hand-made item looks like!

It takes about 14 days from plank to finished horse, which explains why they do cost a fair bit. Emphasis on “fair”. Because I think they are worth the price tag considering all the manual labour that has gone into each individual horse. Perhaps I, as a practicing woodworker myself, can understand the value better since I can understand what goes into this? Of course, anyone who do some sort of hand crafting hobby will understand, and sensing the connection to the work being demonstrated makes the whole experience even better.

Here are a plank with horses in different stages of production – and a Mora knife. Click the image for a large version.

In a cabinet, lots of historical horses are shown. They also make pigs, roosters and cows, but the horse is the main product.

And of course, artisans need to show off sometimes! Look at that small horse! WITH paint! The two roosters are incredible too.

Last, but not least – this tiny one, just a few millimeters in size:

Here are the two unfinished horses we bought:

As you can see, they are still pretty rough, yet the familiar shape is there. The paint and filler smoothes the whole appearance a great deal. The kids are going to paint their own Dalahäst. Somehow, I sense a Dala-unicorn in the near future…

I just had to buy those two horses, because you can clearly se the whittling marks. An unknown artisan whittled these horses, and his or her work can be admired fully before the paint covers it up (for the most part).

The girls got to choose a small finished horse each, and this shows the uniqueness of a true Dalahäst – tell-tale tool marks that shows his is a product made by a human hand, and the fact that two are not identical (paint colors aside):

We also bought a bigger horse, and of course it had to be the traditional red! Here shown on my Merbau wall shelf.

The factory produces over 100.000 horses per year, and it takes about 14 days to manufacture one horse. The smallest horses are made from black or grey alder, while the rest is slow-grown pine from local forests.

I just had to get a Dalahäst for myself, as I spent most of my childhood summer vacations in this area. The Dalahäst (ä is pronounced like the “a” in “have”, or US “can”) is a true symbol of Sweden, and Dalarna County in particular. As a woodworker, it gives me great pleasure to own a one-of-a-kind hand made item – because no other Dalahäst in the world is exactly like ours!

You can’t program a CNC machine to achieve the look. You just can’t. The perfection lies in there imperfections, and any CNC’ed Dalahäst is not a true Dalahäst. That topic is not open for debate, ever!

You can visit the website of the factory here.

If you visit Dalarna, I highly recommend First Camp Orsa as a “base”, especially if you have kids! This is the beach where I spent hour upon hours as a kid:

My two girls enjoys the water while I rest on the beach. What a way to spend a vacation!

The best thing for me was to discover that the place is the same after 30+ years. I have not been here since I was a kid / early teens. All those years gone by, and I felt exactly the same way I did as a kid. The place seems a lot smaller than I remember, but that happens when we grow up. Everything else was – mostly – the same as I remember, although lots of improvements has been made over the years. And I got to take a moment and think about my dad; I know he loved this place. I walked around and remembered the different places and things – a drinking water fountain, where we parked our camper back then, the service house where my mother once made a huge stack of pancakes…

Going to the beach was the same, though. The feeling of warm sand under my feet, the “sand dunes” on the bottom of the lake and the cool, soothing water clucking in my ears as I laid back to float. I closed my eyes and was 9 years old again..

It felt like coming home.

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