Noah’s Arks


In Kew Gardens is a seldom-visited collection of all the kinds of wood which we have ever heard of, accompanied by specimens of various articles customarily made of those woods in the countries of their growth. Tools, implements, small articles of furniture, musical instruments, sabots and wooden shoes, boot-trees and shoe-lasts, bows and arrows, planes, saw-handles—all are here, and thousands of other things which it would take a very long summer day indeed even to glance at.

The fine display of colonial woods, which were built up into fanciful trophies at the International Exhibition of eighteen hundred and sixty-two, has been transferred to one of these museums; and a noble collection it makes.

We know comparatively little in England of the minor uses of wood. We use wood enough in building houses and railway structures; our carriage-builders and wheelwrights cut up and fashion a great deal more; and our cabinet-makers know how to stock our rooms with furniture, from three-legged stools up to costly cabinets; but implements and minor articles are less extensively made of wood in England than in foreign countries —partly because our forests are becoming thinned, and partly because iron and iron-work are so abundant and cheap.

In America, matters are very different. There are thousands of square miles of forest which belong to no one in particular, and the wood of which may be claimed by those who are at the trouble of felling the trees. Nay, a backwoodsman would be very glad to effect a clearing on such terms as these, seeing that the trees encumber the ground on which he wishes to grow corn-crops. The wood, when the trees have been felled and converted into boards and planks, is applied to almost countless purposes of use. Of use, we say; for the Americans are too bustling a people to devote much time to the fabricating of ornaments: they prefer to buy these ready made from Britishers and other Europeans.

Pails, bowls, washing-machines, wringing-machines, knife-cleaning boards, neat light vehicles, neat light furniture, dairy vessels, kitchen utensils, all are made by the Americans of clean tidy-looking wood, and are sold at very low prices. Machinery is used to a large extent in this turnery and woodware; the manufacturers not having the fear of strikes before their eyes, use machines just where they think this kind of aid is likely to be most serviceable. The way in which they get a little bowl out of a big bowl, and this out of a bigger, and this out of a bigger still, is a notable example of economy in workmanship.

On the continent of Europe the woodworkers are mostly handicraftsmen, who niggle away at their little bits of wood without much aid from machinery. Witness the briar-root pipes of St. Claude. Smart young fellows who sport this kind of smoking-bowl in England, neither know nor care for the fact that it comes from a secluded spot in the Jura Mountains. Men and women, boys and girls, earn from threepence to four shillings a day in various little bits of carved and turned work; but the crack wages are paid to the briar-root pipe-makers.

England imports many more than she smokes, and sends off the rest to America. M. Audiganne says that “in those monster armies which have sprung up so suddenly on the soil of the great republic, there is scarcely a soldier but has a St. Claude briar-root pipe in his pocket.” The truth is, that, unlike cutties and meerschaums, and other clay or earthen pipes, these briar-root productions are very strong, and will bear a great deal of knocking about.

The same French writer says that when his countrymen came here to see our International Exhibition, some of them bought and carried home specimens of these pipes as English curiosities: not aware that the little French town of St. Claude was the place of their production.
In Germany the wood-work, so far as English importers know anything of it, is mostly in the form of small trinkets and toys for children. The production of these is immense. In the Tyrol, and near the Thuringian Forest, in the middle states of the ill-organised confederacy, and wherever forests abound, there the peasants spend much of their time in making toys.

In the Tyrol, for example, there is a valley called the Grödnerthal, about twenty miles long, in which the rough climate and barren soil will not suffice to grow corn for the inhabitants, who are rather numerous. Shut out from the agricultural labour customary in other districts, the people earn their bread chiefly by wood carving.

They make toys of numberless kinds (in which Noah’s Ark animals are very predominant) of the soft wood of the Siberian pine—known to the Germans as ziebel-nusskiefer. The tree is of slow growth, found on the higher slopes of the valley, but now becoming scarce, owing to the improvidence of the peasants in cutting down the forests without saving or planting others to succeed them.

For a hundred years and more the peasants have been carvers. Nearly every cottage is a workshop. All the occupants, male and female, down to very young children, seat themselves round a table, and fashion their little bits of wood. They use twenty or thirty different kinds of tools, under the magic of which the wood is transformed into a dog, a lion, a man, or what not. Agents represent these carvers in various cities of Europe, to dispose of the wares; but they nearly all find their way back again to their native valleys, to spend their earnings in peace.

Many of the specimens shown at the Kew museums are more elaborate than those which could be produced wholly by hand. A turning-lathe of some power must have been needed. Indeed, the manner in which these zoological productions are fabricated is exceedingly curious, and is little likely to be anticipated by ordinary observers.

Who, for instance, would imagine for a moment that a wooden horse, elephant, or tiger, or any other member of the Noah’s Ark family, could be turned in a lathe, like a ball, bowl, or bedpost? How could the turner’s cutting tool, while the piece of wood is rotating in the lathe, make the head stick out in the front, and the ears at the top, and the tail in the rear, and the legs underneath?

And how could the animal be made longer than he is high, and higher than he is broad? And how could all the ins and outs, the ups and downs, the swellings and sinkings, be produced by a manipulation which only seems suitable for circular objects? These questions are all fair ones, and deserve a fair answer.

The articles, then, are not fully made in the lathe; they are brought to the state of flat pieces, the outline or contour of which bears an approximate resemblance to the profile of an animal. These flat pieces are in themselves a puzzle; for it is difficult to see how the lathe can have had anything to do with their production. The truth is, the wood is first turned into rings.

Say that a horse three inches long is to be fabricated. A block of soft pine-wood is prepared, and cut into a slab three inches thick, by perhaps fifteen inches in diameter: the grain running in the direction of the thickness. Out of this circular slab a circular piece is cut from the centre, possibly six inches in diameter, leaving the slab in the form of a ring, like an extra thick india-rubber elastic band.

While this ring is in the lathe, the turner applies his chisels and gouges to it in every part, on the outer edge, on the inner edge, and on both sides. All sorts of curves are made, now deep, now shallow; now convex, now concave; now with single curvature, now with double.

A looker-on could hardly by any possibility guess what these curvings and twistings have to do with each other, for the ring is still a ring and nothing else; but the cunning workman has got it all in his mind’s eye. When the turning is finished, the ring is bisected or cut across, not into two slices, but into two segments or semicircular pieces. Looking at either end of either piece, lo! there is the profile of a horse—without a tail, certainly, but a respectably good horse in other respects.

The secret is now divulged. The turner, while the ring or annulus is in the lathe—a Saturn’s ring without a Saturn—turns the outer edge into the profile of the top of the head and the back of a horse, the one flat surface into the profile of the chest and the fore legs, the other flat surface into the profile of the hind quarters and hind legs, and the inner edge of the ring into the profile of the belly and the deep recess between the fore and hind legs. The curvatures are really very well done, for the workmen have good models to copy from, and long practice gives them accuracy of hand and eye.

An endless ring of tailless horses has been produced, doubtless the most important part of the affair; but there is much ingenuity yet to be shown in developing from this abstract ring a certain number of single, concrete, individual, proper Noah’s Ark horses, with proper Noah’s Ark tails.

The ring is chopped or sawn up into a great many pieces. Each piece is thicker at one end than the other, because the outer diameter of the ring was necessarily greater than the inner; but with this allowance, each piece may be considered flat. The thick end is the head of the horse, the thin end the hind quarter; one projecting piece represents the position and profile of the fore legs, but they are not separated; and similarly of the hind legs.

Now is the time for the carver to set to work. He takes the piece of wood in hand, equalises the thickness where needful, and pares off the sharp edges; he separates into two ears the little projecting piece which juts out from the head, separates into two pairs of legs the two projecting pieces which jut out from the body, and makes a respectable pair of eyes, with nostrils and mouth of proper thorough-bred character; he jags the back of the neck in the proper way to form a mane, and makes, not a tail, but a little recess to which a tail may comfortably be glued.

The tail is a separate affair. An endless ring of horses’ tails is first turned in a lathe. A much smaller slab, smaller in diameter and in thickness than the other, is cut into an annulus or ring; and this ring is turned by tools on both edges and both sides. When bisected, each end of each half of the ring exhibits the profile of a horse’s tail; and when cut up into small bits, each bit has the wherewithal in it for fashioning one tail.

After the carver has done his work, each horse receives its proper tail; and they are all proper long tails too, such as nature may be supposed to have made, and not the clipped and cropped affairs which farriers and grooms produce.

This continuous ring system is carried faithfully through the whole Noah’s Ark family. One big slab is for an endless ring of elephants; another of appropriate size for camels; others for lions, leopards, wolves, foxes, dogs, donkeys, ducks, and all the rest. Sometimes the ears are so shaped as not very conveniently to be produced in the same ring as the other part of the animal; in this case an endless ring of ears is made, and chopped up into twice as many ears as there are animals.

Elephants’ trunks stick out in a way that would perplex the turner somewhat; he therefore makes an endless ring of trunks, chops it up, and hands over the pieces to the carver to be fashioned into as many trunks as there are elephants. In some instances, where the animal is rather a bullet-headed sort of an individual, the head is turned in a lathe separately, and glued on to the headless body.

If a carnivorous animal has a tail very much like that of one of the graminivorous sort, the carver says nothing about it, but makes the same endless ring of tails serve both; or they may belong to the same order but different families—as, for instance, the camel and the cow, which are presented by these Noah’s Ark people with tails cut from the same endless ring.

Other toys are made in the same way. Those eternal soldiers which German boys are always supposed to love so much, as if there were no end of Schleswig-Holsteins for them to conquer, are—if made of wood—(for tin soldiers are also immensely in request) turned separately in a lathe, so far as their martial frames admit of this mode of shaping; but their muskets, and some other portions, are made on the endless ring system.

All this may be seen very well at Kew; for there are the blocks of soft pine, the slabs cut from them (with the grain of the wood in the direction of the thickness), the rings turned from the slabs, the turnings and curvatures of the rings, the profile of an animal seen at each end, the slices cut from each ring, the animal fashioned from each slice, the ring of tails, the separate tails from each ring, the animal properly tailed in all its glory, and a painted specimen or two to show the finished form in which the loving couples go into the Ark—pigs not so much smaller than elephants as they ought to be, but piggishly shaped nevertheless.

All the English toymakers agree, with one accord, that we cannot for an instant compete with the Germans and Tyrolese in the fabrication of such articles, price for price. We have not made it a large and important branch of handicraft; and our workmen have not studied natural history with sufficient assiduity to give the proper distinctive forms to the animals.

The more elaborate productions—such as the baby-dolls which can say “mamma,” and make their chests heave like any sentimental damsels—are of French, rather than German manufacture, and are not so much wooden productions as combinations of many different materials. Papier mâché, moulded into form, is becoming very useful in the doll and animal trade; while india-rubber and gutta-percha are doing wonders.

The real Noah’s Ark work, however, is thoroughly German, and is specially connected with wood-working. Some of the more delicate and elaborate specimens of carving—such as the groups for chimney-piece ornaments, honoured by the protection of glass shades—are made of lime-tree or linden-wood, by the peasants of Oberammergan, in the mountain parts of Bavaria.

There were specimens of these kinds of work at our two Exhibitions which could not have been produced in England at thrice the price; our good carvers are few, and their services are in request at good wages for mediæval church-work.

We should be curious to know what an English carver would require to be paid for a half guinea Bavarian group, now before us—a Tyrolese mountaineer seated on a rock, his rifle resting on his arm, the studded nails in his climbing shoes, a dead chamois at his feet, his wife leaning her hand lightly on his shoulder, his thumb pointing over his shoulder to denote the quarter where he had shot the chamois, his wooden bowl of porridge held on his left knee, the easy fit and flow of the garments of both man and woman—all artistically grouped and nicely cut, and looking clean and white in linden-wood.

No English carver would dream of such a thing at such a price. However, these are not the most important of the productions of the peasant carvers, commercially speaking; like as our Mintons and Copelands make more money by every-day crockery than by beautiful Parian statuettes, so do the German toymakers look to the Noah’s Ark class of productions as their main stay in the market, rather than to more elegant and artistic works.

Charles Dickens (Editor)

All the Year Round – April 8, 1865

Illustrations from:
The Gardeners’ Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette – March 27, 1869

Links for further study:

Johannes Geyer – Reifendreher

Die Sendung mit der Maus

—Jeff Burks

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3 Responses to Noah’s Arks

  1. bloksav says:

    I have long wanted to try out this technique, but never taken the time to do so.

    There is an open air museum in Seiffen (Germany) that specializes in that technique:

  2. Ha! That’s awesome!

  3. toolnut says:

    I don’t know which I found more enjoyable, the article of the surprise at who the editor was. Thanks Jeff.

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