Norway’s Oselvar Boats

The Magnificent Example of Oselvarverkstaden Non-Profit Foundation: Passing the Traditions of Building Norway’s Oselvar Boats to the New Centuries

Norway’s Oselvar Boats

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Oselvarverkstaden is a project dedicated to the use and building of Oselvar boats. Oselvar boats, also referred to as Oselver boats are small wooden rowing boats. This particular type of vessel is intricately connected to the centuries-old traditions of boat building along the west coast of Norway.

2016 marked a notable momentum in the history of Oselvar boats building and use. It was then that the ancient craft earned UNESCO’s recognition, and it was inscribed on the prestigious list of Good Safeguarding Practices.

This valuable recognition celebrates the reframing of the traditional learning process of building and uses to a modern context which is crucial for the continuous transmission of the Oselvar boats craftsmanship for the next generations.

UNESCO’s acknowledgment was a fruit of longlasting and persevere efforts from the well-organized non-profit organization – the Oselvarverkstaden foundation. Oselvarverkstaden was created by a local community of passionate and dedicated boatbuilders, as well as users of the Oselvar boats.

Building and use of the traditional Oselvar boat include a vast array of associated practices. Nevertheless, it includes the expressions, accumulated knowledge and the preserved skills of the people involved in the crafting and use of the traditional boats.

All of these crucial factors are in very close contact with a range of cultural spaces and objects. The Norwegian society appreciates and recognizes the ancient craft regarding the build and use of Oselvar boats as a valuable intangible cultural heritage.

And indeed, Oselvar boats have made it present day because of the rich oral tradition of passing the skills, knowledge, rituals, and practices of the local community engaged in the ancient craft. The art of building Oselvar boats is also intricately related to understanding and preserving the nature. It is in the living nature where the traditional craftsmanship is incorporated.

“… [] The spirit of “the nature life approach” resides in seeking out and a nurturing of joy in and with Nature. The Norwegian culture has grown up in a stark setting on farms under the shadow of high mountains, reflected in the deep clear waters of the fjiords, washed by ocean waves, and fed by a thousand waterfalls. For more than a thousand years, Norwegians have been confronted by a nature more powerful than their human skills, yet more beautiful than human crafts, and so ever-present that it could not be shut out or forgotten… [],”

as pinpointed in the The Norwegian Nature Life Approach written by Sarah Pendleton

The magnificent example of Oselvarverkstaden non-profit foundation is more than merely inspiring. It points out to the social power of people that are able to operate independently of any government with the purpose of addressing issues that are of national and global importance.

Tracing the Roots of Oselvar Boats Building

Tracing The Roots Of Oselvar Boats Building

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The homeland of Oselvar boats – Norway, is a country well-known for its deep coastal fjords, glaciers, and unspoiled mountains.

With a population of 5.258 million people based on 2017 census, Norway has become a favorite destination for the aficionados of skiing, fishing, and hiking.

Keeping in mind the natural abundance of tree species, working with wood has a sacred place in the history of the country.

From the colorful, traditional wooden houses of Bergen to the well-preserved examples of Viking ships that date back to the 9th century displayed at Oslo’s Viking Ships Museum, Norway has been and still is a country where the ancient knowledge of working with wood permeates all aspects of life.

Video by Morten Rustad – NORWAY – A Time-Lapse Adventure 4K


The very name Oselvar originated in the mid-18th century. Oselvar boats were named after the mouth of the Oselva River in Os, Hordalanad County.

The mouth of the Oselva River in Os was a boat building site of major importance back in the 18th century. In fact, it was exactly in the outer regions of Hordaland where the Oselvar boats had been commonly built and used for centuries.

Boat building was a crucially important industry in Os back in the early 1800s. A great number of local people were involved in the industry, including the residents of the neighboring village of Tysnes and all the way to the other side of the fjord.

Nowadays, the symbol of the municipality of Os features the stylized figure of an Oselvar that appears on the coat of arms. Known as “The Arms of Os,” the arms of the official blazon were adopted in 1949 after a local competition.

The Arms Of Osofficial Blazon Of The Os Municipality Hordaland Province

“The Arms of Os” – Official blazon of the Os Municipality, Hordaland Province – Image Source

An intriguing practice of exporting Oselvar boats in kit form dates back to at least the 1500s, and it continued until 1860. The Oselvar boat kits were typically exported to the Shetland and Orkney islands, Scotland.

As the Oslevar boats had to cross the North Sea, they were first taken apart. Next, the wooden boats were easy ‘flat packed’ and formed a kit which allowed effortless shipping.

What’s more, the clever Oselvar boats craftsmen came up with a great idea in order to avoid sending complicated assembly instructions.

Instead of sending such instructions, they used to send master Norwegian boatbuilders to re-build the Oselvar boats once the kits were successfully exported.

However, the design and construction of traditional Norwegian boats actually date back to thousands of years ago.

The Oselvar boats are the culmination of a boat building evolution that lasted for more than two millennia. Amazingly, some of the earliest boat findings in Norway prove that there are exceptional similarities between the oldest Norwegian boat building practices and nowadays’ implementation of traditional boat building craftsmanship.

Oselvar Boats & Norwegian’s Deep Relationship with the Living Nature

Oselvar Boats Norwegian’s Deep Relationship With The Living Nature

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In order to understand the historical, cultural, social, and spiritual value of Norwegian Oselvar boats, one needs to understand better the locals’ deep relationship with the living nature.

“… [] The word hytte can too-simply be translated as “hut,” but it holds a more vaulted status in Norway than the English word implies. A quarter of the population owns such hytte. They are usually buried in the forest or up above the treeline and offer Norwegians a place of escape from their lives down in the valleys. Sometimes the huts are located so close to the main residence that it doesn’t seem to make sense that someone would abandon the comforts of home for a woodstove-heated, out-housed cabin. But that is exactly the point. This change of gears toward a simpler life, where tasks like boiling water on the woodstove or chopping wood with an ax, that might take only minutes with the help of more advanced technology, may fill the day in your wilderness retreat.

These places are sacred to their owners because they make a balance of the old world and the new… []” ~

The Fellowship of Ghosts: A Journey Through the Mountains of Norway by Paul Watkins.

The process of building an Oselvar boat always begins with picking the right type of timber. At the very start when the boat builders search for materials, it is crucial that they know exactly what they are looking for.

On the one hand, the trees have to be big enough for the broad boards used in building the Oselvar boats.

Nevertheless, the quality of the construction materials has to be nothing less but excellent to ensure the durability of the wooden boats.

Experienced Oselvar boat builders possess extensive knowledge about wood. They can spot the right type of timber at a glance.

The trained eye for quality is extremely important for the proper observation and examination of the wood. It is in the forest that the boat builders must look for naturally bent pine trees that will compromise the interior of the Oselvar boats. Apart from pine timber, oak timber is used when it comes to the building of the keel.

Video by UNESCO – Oselvar boat – reframing a traditional learning process of building and use to a modern context


Looking into the Diverse Uses of Oselvar Boats

Diverse Uses Of Oselvar Boats

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Throughout the course of history, Oselvar boats were most commonly used on the west coast of Norway, and in particular, Bergen. Interestingly, they weren’t used solely for the purpose of transporting goods or people. Oselvar boats were also traditionally used for leisure activities, too.

A boat that was capable of achieving both grace and speed was perfectly suited for rowing and sailing competitions.

In 1871 the Bergen Sailing Association arranged the first regatta that was held on Midsummer’s Day in 1871. Traditionally known as Sankthans or Jonsok in Norway, Midsummer’s Day is an ancient celebration when large bonfires are burnt.

Video by Arvid Hjelm – Midsummer Eve Bonfire 2016 under Construction 24th June 2016


Up-to-date, there is a number of sailing associations and clubs that are engaged in promoting the traditions of the Oselvar. These clubs and associations highlight Oselvar boats’ use as both sports, as well as a leisure boat.

It was in 2009 that the Norwegian Society for Sea Rescue crowned the Oselvar boat Norwegian national boat after a poll vote.

Video by Torbjørn HusevågFærderseilasen 2018 | Sailing in Norway


Safeguarding the Traditional Use and Building Practices of Oselvar Boats: The Rise of the Oselvarverkstaden Project

The Rise Of The Oselvarverkstaden Project

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Soon after the beginning of 1945, traditional wooden boats in Norway were faced with severe competition. The traditional Oselvar boats were no longer the basic means of transport because of the newer models of boats that appeared on the market.

Modern-day boats were commonly equipped with deck and engine. Nevertheless, many were made out of other construction materials than wood.

Meanwhile, another threat was posted on the preservation and transmission of the ancient craft of building and using Oselvar boats since after 1960 a huge part of the transport in western Norway shifted from waterways to roads.

On the bright side, it was at the beginning of the 19th century that the leisure tradition for Oselvar boat trips was reborn.

However, the rise of the modern-day demand for Oselvar boats leisure trips could not possibly compensate for the decreasing traditional demand for these types of boats from farmers and fishermen.

As a result, Oselvar boat building and use knowledge could be no longer transferred from generation to generation, at least not in the same extent that it used to have been passed down.

Fortunately, the scope of the modern use of Oselvar boats was greatly influenced by various emerging sailing clubs. These sailing clubs played a key role in preserving the Oselvar boats crafting and sailing competence for more than a century through creating new boat-user arenas.

Still, the 1950s and 1960s highlighted a state of emergency for the trade of Oselvar boats. There were only a handful of active practitioners of the ancient craft.

Troubled by the fact that the traditional knowledge of building and use of Oselvar boats may disappear, the practitioners organized and formed the boat-builders guild Os Båtbyggjarlag.

However, as they gradually became older and reached retirement, it was more than obvious that urgent safeguarding must take place. To illustrate better the dire need of urgent safeguarding, in 1977 there were only two Oselvar boat builders that were still active.

But with mutual efforts, the Os Båtbyggjarlag guild, Hordaland County, Os Municipality, and the Arts Council Norway supported the Oselvarverkstaden project.

The effectiveness of the safeguarding programme was demonstrated by the rise of 10 new coastal preservation organizations that were established in Hordaland during the same period.

Functioning since 1977, the Oselvarverkstaden non-profit organization has been recruiting apprentices in order to continue the transmission of the ancient Oselvar boat building craft that once used to be transmuted from father to son.

The process of constructing an Oselvar boat ranging from 5 to 6 meters and made for racing, fishing or freighting purposes takes approximately 500 to 600 hours or roughly two months.

Norway’s Oselvar Boats: Final Food for Thought

Norway’s Oselvar Boats Final Food For Thought

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The magnificent example of Oselvarverkstaden non-profit organization brings us towards a deeper understanding of the way that Norwegians treat and preserve their traditions. As it can be clearly seen in Norwegian folk songs, nature has shaped the collective memory of the natives for thousands of years.

Liti Kjersti og Bergekongen 

(Little Kirsti and the Mountain King)

* Norwegian folk song*

Little Kjersti was so young and innocent a girl

~ the brown foal trips so lightly ~

She could not govern her own life.

The rain falls and the wind blows.

Far north in the mountains, deep beneath the rocks, the underworld is luring you.

The Mountain King came riding to the farm.

Pål the Goldsmith receives him.

The Mountain King had a silent horse.

He placed little Kjersti on his back

They circled the mountain three times,

And the mountain opened so that they could enter.

They gave her a drink poured in a red and golden horn,

And into the drink they slipped three villar grains.

The third time that little Kjersti drank

The Christian lands were lost to her.

“Where were you born, and where were you raised?

Where are your virginal shoes?”

“In the mountain, I wish to live and there I wish to die

And there I am betrothed to the Mountain King.”

Nowadays, when the modern-day technologies are paving the paths to a brighter future, we must not forget the legacy of our ancestors. Or else, we may fall victims and slaves of technologies, and forget what it feels like to experience the magic of bringing wood to life with our own hands, minds, love, and labor.

“Being on a boat that’s moving through the water, it’s so clear. Everything falls into place in terms of what’s important and what’s not.”

James Taylor