To be a woodcarver in Switzerland requires 4 years of formal schooling from the Brienz Carving School. Potential students must pass an aptitude test prior to being accepted. The students in Brienz are trained to be exact and accurate artisans and also trained to be fast for production purposes. Upon graduation, a student must be able to do specialty commissioned carvings of any scale and also mass produce to be able to make a living at their craft.
Three disciplines based on the traditional carving of Brienz are offered: ornamentation, animal figures and human figures. Students choose one of these three main areas of study.
Our first stop was a classroom where the students had been previously taken to The Ballenberg Open Air Museum to visit the many goats and select a favorite goat as a model. There are six students in the class. The students learn by first creating design drawings of their animal and then shape their first model in plasticine or modeling clay (see pic below). The final procedure is to carve the animal in wood where correct anatomy is a must. This is an exercise in anatomy by learning to observe, imagine, draw, mold and create.
Next we moved into the room filled with approximately 10 work benches and wooden lockers where more advanced students were carving in wood. Some students are working on ornamental pieces, such as the twisted piece carved from one solid piece of wood. One student is working on a table he built and now must carve a relief motif of ivy leaves on each side. He draws the leaves, carves the leaves on a separate piece of wood first and will eventually carve on the table itself.
Some of the students were working on commissioned pieces including the huge bear head located on the first bench. The bear will be placed under the roof gable of a traditional home:
In one instance, a young female carver had been commissioned to carve a statue of a retiring college professor. Rather than the American tradition of having an oil painting made of the retiree, in Brienz, a wooden statue is created. The facial features must be vivid, exact and recognizable. The statue should reflect an attribute of the professor’s area of study:
Commissioned works give students an opportunity to earn money while getting through school. Each student is responsible for the cost and care of all their tools. Students will graduate with over one hundred Pfeil “Swiss Made” carving tools. The students will customize their identity into their tools by carving their initials in the handles or painting or staining the solid ash handles various colors. Students also make their own wooden caliper tools for measurement:
Students are encouraged to enter carving contests, which also include carving ice. These students took third place in Berlin for their ice carving of the two bears. Many of the contests require crystal clear ice which is typically imported from Switzerland.
As we leave this room, a giant puzzle on the wall is explainedto us. Each graduating class carves a piece of the puzzle placing their names and graduation year on the hand carved piece.
We are taken to the sharpening area. There are two large water stones, three bench grinders and a Tormek water cooled sharpening system and a table of sharpening stones. Students may choose their preferred system, however, students are responsible for sharpening their own tools from the first day of class.
Also in this room we visited with students who are carving from drawings, taxidermy, and models. There are also several wooden blanks of an identical Egyptian cat displayed. The instructor will finish one cat to completion and the students will have to create exact replicas by hand. These pieces have been commissioned for a museum exhibit.
Video: Carving Exhibits
Our next stop is the machine shop where the school produces the wooden blanks, such as the cats and relief carvings for production. There are several industrial grade stationary tools including a milling machine, band saw, planer, drill press and disk sander.
In Switzerland everything is recycled and nothing is wasted. As we leave the building there are large bags of sawdust. The main sources of heat are wood and oil. The sawdust and chips are used for heating.
Students are also taught how to make plaster molds and cast images in bronze. The students carve the sculpture (typically this done in wax) and the wax sculpture is encased in plaster. Once the plaster dries, the wax is melted away leaving the plaster mold in which to pour the molten bronze. This is often referred to as Lost-wax casting or as sometimes called by the French cire perdue (from the Latin cera perduta). After the bronze cools the plaster is removed to reveal the sculpture in bronze.
We visit the model rooms where there are original models dating back to the 16thcentury made from wood, plaster, bronze, and various other materials. Students may choose from these to replicate; thousands of them from Ibex skeletons to whimsical leprechauns to Greek Corinthian and Ionic columns.
As we leave the school, we notice the outside of the building is plain in comparison to the residential chalets except for the many sculptures placed around the landscaping and entry way. Behind the building, we find dinosaur sculptures, which were commissioned by a theme park and the carving begins with a chain saw. Behind the woodcarving school is the Geigenbauschule Brienz (or Brienz Swiss School of Violin Making).
Before our tour was over, Felix Zulauf, owner of Pfeil Tools got a chance to look at our winner, Nairi’s book of carvings:
Next up on the agenda is our blog on The Woodcarver’s Tools by Christoph Wunderle followed by the history and facility tour of Pfeil…Stay Tuned!