Apprentice for an Afternoon: Lessons with Germany’s Old World Artisans

During Oberammergau’s peak tourist seasons, visitors can easily while away an hour observing artisans demonstrating their trades on the ground floor of the beautifully-frescoed, 18th-century Pilatushaus. In past centuries, nomadic traders acquired crafts like these and sold them throughout Europe, making Oberammergau famous for its fine work. Today, travelers can purchase the items directly from the craftsmen and women at the Pilatushaus.

Just prior to Christmas, my mother and I ventured there, pleased to find three craftspeople at work: a woodcarver, coppersmith, and an embroiderer. (The brochure we were given noted that more than 50 artisans – including potters, puppet makers, reverse glass painters, and basket weavers – were also to show off their technique on future afternoons.)

Woodcarver in Oberammergau Lebende Werkstatt Pilatushaus Artisan in Oberammergau Lebende Werkstatt Pilatushaus

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Since Oberammergau is renowned for its woodcarving, I particularly enjoyed watching the woodcarver / Schnitzer, Karl Heinz, at work on a graceful angel. He explained that for several hours, he’d done the initial shaping with an electric saw. As Karl Heinz chiseled away at the angel’s features by hand, he mentioned that he loved that his non-technical job allowed him to live in such a peaceful region as the Ammergauer Alps.

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When I heard the great number of hours needed to complete just a reasonable-sized piece, it helped justify the hefty prices I’d seen tagged on woodcarved figures in Oberammergau shop windows — generally hundreds of dollars/euros.

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man carving angel figure in oberammergau

Next, we observed coppersmith / Kupferschmied, Josef, showing off his skills on a piece of copper destined to be transformed into a regal eagle. Brass and copper horse, angel and dog figures on garden stakes looked on.

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Looking at his work table, I found it remarkable that such delicate items – including the petaled roses prominently featured – could be fashioned from such rugged tools.

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Quite the social butterfly, Josef insisted on taking pictures with his American onlookers. He even mischievously took off his Bavarian hat and swapped it with mine.

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Posing with the coppersmith’s creation after having swapped hats.

After the impromptu photo session, Josef kindly gifted me with a copper bracelet, which he fashioned before me and placed on my wrist.

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Our last informal lesson was with embroiderer / Stickerin, Coletta, who sported an elegant Dirndl, upswept golden braid, and accessories with Bavarian flair.

Coletta makes elaborate decorations for monasteries and private buyers using fine, gold metallic thread. One floral creation in progress sitting atop her table had already taken twenty hours to create.

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An intricate Christkind display – featuring a wax figurine of a ‘Christ child’ adorned in gold – was priced at more than 500 euros (nearly $700).

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We left the exhibition with a greater appreciation of Oberammergau’s artistic heritage, and the desire to get creative ourselves. Perhaps follow-up lessons with Josef, Colette and Karl Heinz are in order!

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Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • The exhibition – referred to as ‘die Lebende Werkstatt‘ (the ‘living workshop’)  is housed in Oberammergau’s Pilatushaus at Ludwig-Thoma-Strasse 10. Their telephone number is 08822-949511. Check the website for current exhibition dates. Admission to the workshops was free when we last visited.
  • The town of Oberammergau is located about 90 km southwest of Munich. To get there by rail or by bus, research the Bayern or Regio Ticket (website in German, but you can use Google Translate). These special tickets start at €20/25 for one passenger, and cost €6 for each additional passenger. You can use them to travel via bus and train throughout much of the region, making them a better deal if you want to make a few stops in a day. You can purchase tickets online, via a ticket machine, or in person.
  • Are you looking for a guesthouse or hotel in Oberammergau? Before my parents moved there, Shawn and I spent two nights at the Gästehaus Hildegard (affiliate link). We thought the beds were comfortable, the owners were helpful and kind, and the breakfast was tasty. The guest house is centrally located in the town too, and it’s not far from the Tiroler Gasse bus stop. The train station is also only about 1 km away.
  • Visit my Germany page for more trip tips. If you’re seeking more ideas about what to do in this part of Bavaria, here are all my posts about Oberammergau.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

26 thoughts on “Apprentice for an Afternoon: Lessons with Germany’s Old World Artisans

  1. This is a delightful post, Tricia. As always, the perfect blend of travelogue, culture and personal. I am glad to see traditional craftworks being sold for prices that reflect the lifetime’s skill and work put into them. I think often these days crafts are undervalued – we all want them but tend not to expect to pay much for them.

    1. What a kind thing to say, Rachael! I do aim to provide a blend of all three.

      You’re spot on about the prices artisans deserve for their work! I wonder how many people today would have such patience to devote to these crafts? Hopefully it will not be a lost art.

    1. Virginia, thank you to you and your hubby for letting me know that you enjoyed a glimpse into the artisans’ workshops! Knowing you, I have a feeling that the post inspired you to delve into some of your many creative projects.

  2. What divine craftsmanship. True artists in their own right and who will they pass this on to? It is so difficult to make a living but I admire those who do. There is nothing like watching a woodcarver using mallet and chisels.

    1. Happy to hear you enjoyed it, Mark! Here in Oberammergau, the woodcarving shops are plentiful, but the finished product means a lot more when one knows how much work has gone into its production. What patience the artisans have.

    1. And it was made even more lovely since I spent it with my mother. :) Glad you enjoyed a glimpse of the artisans at work, Madhu. You’ll have to come to Oberammergau in the warmer weather to see the workshops.

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