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

During Oberammergau’s peak tourist seasons, visitors can easily while away an hour watching artisans demonstrate their trades on the ground floor of the beautifully frescoed Pilatushaus building.

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 before Christmas, my mother and I ventured to the Pilatushaus, 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 — also show off their technique on certain days.

Woodcarver in Oberammergau Lebende Werkstatt Pilatushaus
Artisan in Oberammergau Lebende Werkstatt Pilatushaus
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Oberammergau is renowned for its woodcarving, so I especially enjoyed watching a woodcarver (Schnitzer) named Karl Heinz working on creating a graceful angel. He explained that it had taken him several hours to do the initial shaping with an electric saw.

As Herr Heinz chiseled away at the angel’s features by hand, he mentioned that he loved how his non-technical job allowed him to live in a peaceful region like the Ammergauer Alps.

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When I heard the great number of hours needed to complete a modest-sized piece, it helped justify the hefty prices I’ve seen for wood-carved figures in Oberammergau’s shops. Generally, such figures cost hundreds of euros.

A man carves a wooden angel in Oberammergau, Germany.
man carving angel figure in oberammergau

Next, we observed coppersmith (Kupferschmied) Josef as he showed off his skills on a piece of copper destined to be transformed into a regal eagle. Brass and copper garden stakes topped with horses, angels, and dog figures surrounded Josef.

A coppersmith's copper figurines in Oberammergau Germany.
A coppersmith makes a copper bracelet in Oberammergau, Germany.

As I looked at Josef’s work table, I found it remarkable that delicate items — like petaled roses — could be fashioned from such rugged tools.

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Josef was quite the social butterfly and offered to take pictures with me and my mom. At one point, he even mischievously took off his Bavarian hat and swapped it with my grey-wool hat.

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

After the impromptu photo session, Josef kindly offered me the copper bracelet he’d demonstrated how to make earlier.

A woman demonstrates gold embroidery techniques in Oberammergau, Germany.
Golden embroidery on display at the Pilatushaus in Oberammergau, Germany.

Our last lesson was with embroiderer (Stickerin) named Coletta. She sported an elegant Dirndl (traditional Bavarian dress)an upswept golden braid, and more 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!

Tools for gold embordery / Stickerei, in Oberammergau, Germany
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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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A Christmas tree, decorated with hand-embroidered gold ornaments, on display at the Pilatushaus in the German town of Oberammergau.
Gold embroidery on display.
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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 — called Lebende Werkstatt (Living Workshop) — is housed in Oberammergau’s Pilatushaus building at Ludwig-Thoma-Strasse 10. The telephone number is 08822-949511. Check the website for current exhibition dates and opening hours. Workshop admission is free.
  • Oberammergau is located 90 km (55 miles) southwest of Munich. To get there by mass transit, research the Bayern Ticket (website is in German, but you can use Google Translate). As of 2021, these tickets start at €25 for one passenger, and cost €8 for each additional passenger. You can use the Bayern Ticket for most trains, trams, and city buses, making it a good deal if you’ll be doing a lot of exploring in one day. You can purchase tickets online, via a ticket machine, or in person.
  • Are you looking for a guesthouse or hotel in Oberammergau? Here is my round-up of hotels, organized by theme.
  • 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.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Though they are currently nomadic, they look forward to establishing a European home someday. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

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. Glad you enjoyed it, Judy! Being the avid baker, you probably would’ve loved the Spekulatius cookies they had to sample. Being gluten-free I couldn’t give them a whirl, but they looked tasty.

    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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