Good practice from Norway:

Oselvar boat, reframing a traditional learning process


Above: Inside the boatyard & workshop Oselvarverkstaden. Photo: Vidar Langeland

In 2016 the building and use of Oselvar boats reached a new momentum as this practice was inscribed on the prestigious register of Good Safeguarding Practices, under the auspices of UNESCO.

The inscription is due to a longlasting and persevere effort from the organized NGO-community of dedicated boatbuilders and users of the Oselvar boat. Building and use of the traditional Oselvar boat includes practices, expressions, knowledge and skills in close contact with a wide range of objects and cultural spaces. It is appreciated and recognized by people of Hordaland, as well as by the Norwegian society in general, as valuable intangible cultural heritage. A rich oral tradition for knowledge sharing mixed with rituals, knowledge and practices concerning nature, where the traditional craftsmanship is incorporated.

The Oselvar boat is clinker built and the knowledge and use of it have been passed on through centuries. The name Oselvar originated in mid 18th century, but the design and construction is much older. The Oselvar boat is a result of evolution through more than two millennias. Some of the oldest boat findings in Norway show remarkable similarity to todays boatbuilding principles. The Oselvar boats were most commonly used around Bergen, on the west coast of Norway, for transport of people and goods as well as in leisure activities.

After 1945 wooden boats in Norway faced strong competition as the basic means of transport from newer boats, with deck, engine and/or made from other construction materials than wood. Also, after 1960 much of the transport in western Norway shifted from waterways to roads.

Although a leisure tradition for Oselvar boats emerged trips as early as in the beginning of the 19th century, this modern demand could not compensate for the decreasing traditional demand from fishermen and farmers. This meant that boat-user competence was no longer being transferred from generation to generation in the same extent to which it once had been passed down. Still, the scope, level and character of the modern use, especially in the sailing clubs, have for more than a century created new boat-user arenas.

During the 1950s and 1960s the increasing state of emergency for the trade became apparent. The few still active practitioners organized in the boat-builders guild Os Båtbyggjarlag gradually aged and retired. After 1977 urgent safeguarding was needed as only two boat-builders were still active.

The safeguarding programme has demonstrated effectiveness at many levels, first of all by the establishment of the boatyard and workshop foundation Oselvarverkstaden. Effectiveness is as well demonstrated by having 10 new coastal preservation organizations established in Hordaland during the same period.

The film, Oselvar boat – reframing a traditional learning process of building and use to a modern context (2015) present the Oselvar project in a wider context and was an attachment when applying UNESCO for a good practice status.



When opening the boatyard & workshop foundation Oselvarverkstaden in 1997, the objectives were:

  • Establish a way of recruiting younger boat-builders as apprentices
  • Gather the active craftsmen and apprentices
  • Establish an infrastructure with buildings, materials, tools
  • Support the market for organized boat-builders, in order to cooperate and develop in a joint environment
  • Implement the exchange and transferring of know-how and skills

How it was done

Since the early 1970s there were discussions between boat-users, boat-builders and local and regional cultural governments on how boat-building could be safeguarded in a longer perspective. In 1989 a group of stakeholders concluded that systematic safeguarding of the Oselvar boat-building competence and skills required a more comprehensive and systematic approach.

Osøyri is the main town in Os municipality and the main seat for safeguarding the Oselvar living traditions. Photo: Vidar Langeland/Oselvarverkstaden.

The process of establishing the institution Oselvarverkstaden can be divided into three phases:

Phase 1 Conceptual framework
The community stressed that a younger boat-builder should learn the craft from still active craftsmen and perform as carpentry class teacher at vocational school. After 1977 the museum Hordamuseet was designated as venue, and the boat-builder should be building boats as a living museum exhibition.

Phase 2 Political goodwill generated through Oselvar Activity
Several local associations were sensitized in revitalizing the building and use of the boat.  They either collaborated or had shifting positions as driving forces. As activity and publicity generated from sail clubs in wider regional circles, so did public interest in general. This created a better understanding among politicians that by and by and led to a founding support for the Oselvar programme.

The Oselvar has since 1978 had annual official Norwegian Championships were 20 or more boats meet to decide who is the best Oselvar sailors. Photo: Trond J. Hansen.

Phase 3 Community and stakeholders hand in hand
Discussions and plans were oriented so that a boat-builder should be situated in a venue in Os. This was backed by local organizations and the municipality of Os. Transmission of boat-builder knowledge and skills from master to apprentice was incorporated  as a main objective for the planned institution (Oselvarverkstaden). This included a shift in orientation from finished boats as the main objective to the learning process for the boatbuilders/apprentices as the primary purpose.

The Oselvarverkstaden – both a boatyard and workshop. In front, a newbuilt Oselvar. Photo: Vidar Langeland/Oselvarverkstaden.

To secure the demand for traditional Oselvar boat, one of the stakeholder groups, Oselvarklubben, has organized the Oselvar class rules on an international template for class rules that defines clearly how the Oselvar is used for regatta. Enhancing the use of the boat in a broader context have proved important.

The use of Oselvar boats in regattas are regulated by an an international template for class rules. Photo: Vidar Langeland/Oselvarverkstaden

Key factors

1. Physical and organizational measures

Historically, Oselvar boat-builders worked in their own workshop as independent craftsmen. A crucial strategy of the Oselvar programme was to gather practitioners in a physical and organizational infrastructure. A new workshop building with workspace, tools and storage area for materials were established. The organizational infrastructure includes contact with forest owners, who provide access to materials, a market where customers order new boats, financial situation that allows salary and a general manager for administrational work.

2. A holistic approach

Oselvarverkstaden was designed as a knowledge institution. The effectiveness of the institution is assessed by the quality of knowledge gained, and not only by the quantity of boats produced. Oselvarverkstaden has become an arena for securing and transferring of traditional knowhow, and is also approved as an Économusé.

A crucial part of the methodology behind the enterprise is to combine technical knowhow with the understanding of the interaction between the user, the boat and the elements in craft education.

3. Revitalize the dynamics of tradition

Professional development and transfer of knowledge between the staff and between formal and informal professional partners is organized. The Skogadag is a seminar aimed at farm owners to facilitate the supply and logistic of raw materials. Traditionally the interaction between maker and customer has played a crucial part in the individual tailoring of a boat and development of the craft. Most customers of today are unaware of this process. Oselvarverkstaden take concern in ”training” the customer to be aware of and analyze his needs and intention of use. Båtslakt is an internal quality assessment done as a routine when new boats are completed.

4. Capacity building of the community

Boat-builders do external assignments, field studies, craft demonstrations and meet the audience at festivals and exhibitions on local as well as international level. Local Oselvar community resource centers spread around in Hordaland are seats for practice and dissemination of the intangible user culture of the Oselvar boat.

5. Documentation

To secure knowledge of the tradition and interpret knowhow, documentation is a must. Old boats are systematically documented, mainly when brought to Oselvarverkstaden for repair but optionally also as a field work. Innovative methods of measuring up boats are tested and implemented. As part of a PhD program, the whole process of building an Oselvar has been documented with an emphasis on the practitioners working methodology. A 548page book with thorough documentation of the history, boat-building and use were published by Oselvarklubben in 2016.

The Oselvar in the background together with reconstructions of its older relatives, the Gokstad Boat (900 AD) in the middle and the Halsnøy Boat (00 AD) in the foreground. Photo: Kjell Magnus Økland.

6. Preservation

Repair and restoring of old boats is a way of achieving a thorough understanding of the wide variety of old boats as well as increasing the total amount of boats in “daily” use. The more boats in use, the stronger the community.

The organized boat user communities organizes frequent events where activities like rowing or sailing the Oselvar boats is the main objective. Photo: Karen-Maria Andersson.

7. Competence sharing

The boat-builders usually work on separate boats, but at times they build together on the same boat, make repairs or take measurements. Occasionally they have external assignments. These alternatives give frequent opportunities to perform, observe and discuss different stages in the building process.

8. Pedagogic input and output

Practitioners are both pedagogic disseminators and investigators on behalf of themselves and their discipline. The knowledge and skills in building and use of an Oselvar have evolved over time and continues to evolve thanks to stakeholders who work symbiotic with identification, documentation and research.

To raise awareness, i.a. of the Oselvar culture, the regional Folklore museum Hordamuseet has opened a 1300 m² boat exhibition hall, where 25 boats are at permanent display. Photo: Kjell Magnus Økland.

Last updated September 14, 2017