The red paint is mentioned in many descriptions of the copper processing at Stora Kopparberget in Falun. In a letter to the construction manager at Stockholm Castle, Johan III writes in 1573 that he wants to order “rust lead” or “mine bran” to dye all the castle’s roofs red.
Man has used red iron oxide as a colour pigment for thousands of years, most famously the cave paintings in southern France and northern Spain. The knowledge that metal salts are formed in mines with sulphurous ores is also old. After drying, the sludge gives a yellow dye, iron ochre, which turns red after heating.
In the 17th century it was still unusual and exclusive to paint one’s house and the pigment was mixed with wood tar for both protection and color. It was only in the 18th century that an industrial production of red paint began to be seriously considered.
After several more or less successful attempts, 25 tonnes of pigment were produced during the period 1764 – 74 as a side business to vitriol production. It was at this time that the red pigment was boiled with water and rye flour.
From 1764, manufacturing took place in the area around the Falu Mine. After all the previous failures, Bergslaget wanted to lease out the production and the lease lasted until the middle of the 19th century. The tenants not only used the slag product from the vitriol plant, but also made use of the raw material from the mine water and from old weathered gangue (copper-poor ore from mining). Gangue heaps remain in the area and today’s Falu Rödfärg still takes its raw material from there.
The raw material was easy to extract and the success of the dye meant that during the 19th century there were several red dye factories around Falun. In 1865, Bergslaget withdrew the leases and became the sole owner of all the red dye factories in Falun.
The red dye plant at the edge of the Falu Mine was expanded and modernised and the paint became increasingly popular. In 1861, 900 tonnes were produced and in 1877 production amounted to 1402 tonnes of paint. Production during the 20th century has varied between 1,000 and 1,600 tonnes with a peak in the 1930s of 2,000 tonnes. After a fire in 1975 when the entire roasting plant and all magazines were destroyed, production was limited following demands for fewer heavy manual jobs.
In 1912 it was stated in the annual report:
“UNDERGROUND SOURCES OF RED SOIL FOR RED DYE PREPARATION STILL APPEARS ASSURED”.
In 1992, the Falu Mine was closed after more than a thousand years of mining. The only thing that remains is the manufacture of the red pigment and manufacture of Falu Rödfärg.
The first traces of Falu Rödfärg date back to the 16th century. Red-painted log houses were signs of wealth and status. The inspiration came from the continent’s buildings made of red brick. City authorities ordered street facades to be painted red in preparation for royal visits.
The technique of painting the houses red spread from the cities. Throughout the country, grand manor houses were built, as red painted log houses. From these manor houses, the fashion then spread to well-off mining estates, farms, and vicarages. At the same time, it became more common for the houses in the cities to be paneled and painted in light oil-based colours.
The farmers began painting their houses and outbuildings. Towards the end of the 19th century, Falu Rödfärg had become widely used by everyone. National romanticism swept the country and especially Carl Larsson with his Sundborn contributed to the dream of the little red cottage.
The homestead movement and the home ownership movement in the 1930s gave Rödfärg a boost. After World War II, other paints came along, such as plastic paints and modern oil paints. In recent years, however, more and more of our young architects have introduced Falu Rödfärg in modern architecture at the same time as the interest in building maintenance has increased and thus also the interest in Sweden’s national paint with its proven properties.
Long ago, all the ore at the Falu Mine was sorted by nimble young lads by the edge of the mine. Ore with a lot of metal was put in a heap and ore with little metal in the “scrap heap”.
But the piles move, some grow and others shrink, some become flat and others pointy. The rubbish heaps are Falu Rödfärg’s most important source of raw materials. Load by load, we take in the weathered ore, wash off the finest grains, and put the rest back for continued weathering for 20 to 30 years. The ochre-yellow grains are dried and burned, and it is only at a high temperature that they change to the red colour that has characterised the Swedish landscape for centuries. The higher the firing temperature, the darker the colour. The pigment for our black colour is almost burnt. From the German werfen, which means to throw or evict, these piles have been named “varphögar”, gangue piles, and they still characterise the landscape around Falu Mine today.
The Falu Mine was closed in 1992 so no new raw material is added (unless we go back into the mine and resume production of course). So, in every jar of Falu Rödfärg sold today there is pigment that was hand-picked by these young boys hundreds of years ago.
Can you see the little boy in front of you weighing the piece of ore in his hand, thinking for a tenth of a second and then deciding? Did he throw the piece of ore into the pile that became the copper roof of the royal residence in Versailles or did he throw it into the “rubbish pile” that became Falu Rödfärg?