The Stave built mug

In 2011 I began to experiment with building the octagonal mugs that you see at various SCA and Renaissance fairs. I didn’t know much about them but they looked cool so I decided to try making some. It worked out pretty well and I have made a lot of them since then. If you are not sure what I am talking about let me help.

Small sample of ones  I have made over the years. When I started to make them I wasn’t to worried about them being authentic, just that they were a fun project that people liked and would use. Over the years I have made literally hundreds of these. Little did I know, they actually have a historical basis.

In the book “Domestic Wooden Artefacts in Britain and Ireland from Neolithic to Viking times”, say that three times fast, Author Caroline Earwood documents a wide variety of wooden finds. I picked up the book for it’s sections on bent wood boxs, a topic for another blog, but inside I also found ideas and inspiration for many other things. Looking at the bucket information I noticed a section labled “stave-built tankards”. When I read it I found comments about such vessels being found in Romano-British graves. The burial vessels were richly decorated with bronze sheeting and attachments.

So now I have another new path to explore.

The Build
If you have ever looked online you can find this style mug all over the place. For sale on hand made craft sites, on the big bidding site, everywhere. You can also find a surprising number of places with instructions and videos on how to make them. I honestly don’t remember where I came across the instructions for how I built mine. I do know that I have yet to see anyone else who does it the same way.

On many online videos you see people cutting out pieces of wood, cutting a bevel on both sides of the stave and then gluing it up, some will cut a kerf near the base of the stave and fit the base in prior to gluing, other will attach the base after the body is complete. I don’t like the bevels, they are a pain to get right, and if you off a little they gap on one side or the other. Putting them together creates a challenge as well, gluing up 8 or so separate pieces in a circle is not easy.  Plus your sides are very thick and look clunky to me. So I did it a different way.

My mugs are built out of 8 staves of wood, average size is 6 3/4″ long, 1 5/8″ wide and 1/4″ thick. Average capacity of a mug at those dimensions is around 1000mL.

Set you tablesaw so the fence is 1 5/8″ from the blade and tip the blade to a 45 degree angle, facing the fence. Lower the blade until the top edge of the tooth will just barely break the surface of the wood, or leave a slight hinge.

Do this to all 8 staves. When you are done, gently break the piece off, this will leave you with a 90 degree face cut in at a 45 degree angle.

This is called a birdsmouth joint. There are router bits you can buy to do this as well and they have them commonly available in angles for 8 or 12 sided constructs. I prefer this joint to a simple bevel for it’s strength. When you break off the piece and sand it smooth you should be able to fit another stave into the corner and it will meet flush.

This gives you a stronger joint than a bevel and means that the ends lock in place much easier. You also only need to cut one side of the stave.

When all 8 are cut, the small piece is removed and they are sanded you can get ready to assemble. You really only need to sand the inside, the outside will be sanded later.

Lay the 8 staves inside face down on the work bench with the angle cut just barely touching the square side of the stave next to it. Make sure the bottom edge is lined up as well. When all is lined up and straight use a couple strips of painters tape to attach them all together and flip it over gently.
Place a small amount of glue in the 45 degree cut side of each piece. Begin to roll the staves up so that the 90 degree corner is firmly snugged into the 45 degree cut at each intersection. If your angles are cut correctly the mug should form an octagonal cylinder and all the joints should fit snugly without gaping. Tape shut to dry, for a little extra pressure I use rubber bands to pull it all in nice and snug.

Once the glue has fully dried, or the next day, remove the tape and rubber bands. make sure all the slats are glued together, if not, add a little more glue and let dry. Once I am happy with the body I sand the end flat, making sure it is smooth and square so the bottom will attach completely all around.

The bottom. I use a 5/8″ bottom for my mugs, I like the proportions it has to the finish mug and since I also use 5/8″ for my handles it makes for less cutting. Place the body on the blank for the base, If you have a side that is not as pretty as the others or your pattern is off now is a good time to mark that for the handle, then trace the mug body onto the base. I prefer to have my mug with the grain running to the handle, just a personal preference and has nothing to do with the strength of the mug.  cut the base to rough size of the body making sure to leave a little extra. Glue the bottom in place and clamp.

While the body and base are drying you can cut your handle. I have designed a handle for myself that I like the look  of and made a template. Cut it out and smooth the handle out to your preference, I like a smooth handle and I also use a router table and round over all my edges except where the handle will attach to the mug. Sand to final smoothness.

When the body and base are dried remove from clamp, now is time to grind. I use a bench sander, making sure the table is 90 degrees to the belt, I sand away the excess base and smooth it into the sides of the body. When you can no longer feel the joint between body and base with your finger more on the next side. Repeat for all sides.

The next step is to sand the entire body smooth to your final finish state. if you haven’t yet, ensure your top is level and smooth, as with the handle I run mine though a round over bit on a router table for comfort of drinking. Being careful to not over glue, attach your handle to the mug on the side of the mug you have chosen. Secure with painters tape and let dry.

Once the handle is dry take a good look at the mug, if there is squeeze out around the handle remove it and sand away and remaining. Next step is finishing.

I have tried a number of finishes on my mugs, boiled linseed oil, spar urethane, polyurethane, polycrylic, and shellac all come to mind. Find a finish that will work for you for your purpose. Most of the mugs I make go to people who will use them for alcoholic beverages so my finish needs to not be alcohol solvent, like shellac. You can also try a french polish or just wax if you don’t mind the maintenance.

For the inside a real popular finish is a product called “Envirotex lite” it’s a 2 part epoxy that many people use and can be found at big craft chains in the U.S. . Price is not bad, better with coupons, and it does a good job. My only real complaint is the heat rating. The manufacturer only rates it up to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit . Over the years a lot of people have asked about using for coffee, not an option with 120 degree heat limit.

In 2016 I found a product called max clr. it is listed as a food safe finish and has a heat rating going to 180 degrees Fahrenheit. When I corresponded with the manufacturer I was told 180 as a limit not due to the epoxy failing, but due to heat expansion. Much above 180 degrees the epoxy and the wood expand differently causing the max clr to begin to separate from the wood.


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