Few symbols of Sweden are more famous than the painted wooden horses from the province of Dalarna, in the Swedish heartland. People have been carving wooden horses as toys and decorative items for hundreds of years, but it was in the early 1800s that the Dala horse began to take its classic shape, with bright colors and painted flowers. The production of Dala horses was localized to four villages outside Mora, especially the small community of Nusnäs, where they are still produced today. In 1939, the Dala horse gained worldwide recognition after a giant version was placed outside the Swedish pavilion at the World’s Fair in New York. The following year, 20,000 Dala horses were produced for shipment to New York.
The Olsson brothers of Nusnäs began carving horses as a way to help supplement their family’s income. Eldest brother Grannas Anders began producing Dala horses in 1922, aged 26, along with other items that he sold through traveling salesmen. Younger brothers Nils and Jannes would help out by carving horses after school. In 1928, when Nils was 15 and Jannes 13, they started a small factory, taking out a loan in order to buy a saw. The risk paid off, and the descendants of the Olsson brothers are still making Dala horses in Nusnäs nearly a century later.
Visitors to Dalarna can visit the Olsson brothers’ factories and see Dala horses being produced. Grannas A. Olsson and Nils Olsson Hemslöjd are located adjacent to one another in Nusnäs, about 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) outside Mora.
Shaping the Horses
The wood for Dala horses comes from the dense forests around Lake Siljan, where Nusnäs is located. Producing a Dala horse takes about two weeks. First, a template is stamped onto the wood that has been selected and prepared. Using electric saws, the horses are cut out and given their general form. Then, they are hand carved and smoothed until they have obtained the desired shape.
The Base Color
Next comes the painting. The horses are dipped in primer in the main color — traditionally red, although other colors are also used nowadays. Each horse is smoothed and polished to eliminate any unevenness, and then given a second layer of primer.
Once the horses are dry, the detail work begins. Using oil-based paints, skilled artisans hand paint variations of the traditional design onto each horse. Once this is finished, a coat of lacquer is applied to each horse, and they are ready to venture out into the world.
A Classic Souvenir
Every Dala horse is unique. At the factory shops in Nusnäs, you can choose from a vast array of colors and sizes, and you can even order one with a name, date, or other text added as a personal gift or to mark a special occasion.
No matter what color or design you choose, you can rest assured that by taking home a Dala horse you are helping to maintain a Swedish tradition that may have achieved global fame but still remains rooted in the community where it began, so many years ago.
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Latest update: June 18, 2018