Germany′s wooden toy makers preserve a tradition all year round | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 16.06.2009
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Germany's wooden toy makers preserve a tradition all year round

Many of Germany's traditional handcrafted wooded toys and decorations come from Seiffen. There, specially trained craftspeople work to preserve the centuries-old techniques and pass them on to the next generation.

A toy maker at work at a desk

Patience is an essential part of the trade

Seiffen in Saxony is a center of the wooden toy industry, home to more than 100 Christmas decoration manufacturers and toy workshops. The tradition dates back hundreds of years and, today, toy making is still the town's main source of income.

Seiffen itself looks like it belongs in a Christmas tale. All meandering lanes and half-timbered buildings, it is situated in a valley surrounded by forested hills. It's the quintessential German village, a place where time appears to have stood still.

But it's also home to a thriving technical college that teaches the tricks of the toy-making trade to the next generation.

A dying trade

A German Christmas decoration

The Seiffen decorations are typically German

Students learn techniques such as wood turning, and how to chisel angels, nutcrackers and so-called "smoking men" out of timber. Seiffen's Christmas decorations are world famous, and some of the local techniques are unknown elsewhere in the world.

"These painted wooden dolls were given to children hundreds of years ago," said Isabell Goehler. "They wear skirts that are hollow inside and fitted with little wooden globes. They're very typical of the Ore Mountains region."

The toy-making industry in Seiffen is roughly 300 hundred years old and still going strong. The local college accepts some 20 trainees a year, aged between 16 and 26. Competition for admission is tough - even though sleepy Seiffen is hardly the sort of place young people would normally want to spend much time in.

Moreover, after a hard week's training, they're often required to spend their weekends woodcarving in public workshops for the benefit of the tourists.

Old-school craftsmanship

But, as Goehler said, toy making requires a lot of patience. She and her colleagues spend hours diligently piecing together Lilliputian dolls' heads, arms and torsos, painting miniature animals and affixing tiny wooden gingerbread to equally tiny wooden market stands.

"People are amazed that we can spend so long painting a few details on a minuscule doll's head," she explains. "But we love our craft - it's a love many of us have had since we were children."

Her colleagues Sandra Schubert and Sebastian Weinrich would agree. They both describe toy making as a job that never gets boring: It involves sawing, shaping, woodturning, carving, carpentry and painting. They also enjoy the fact that they're a dying breed - few outside of Seiffen are masters of the craft.

Wooden Christmas decorations in Seiffen, Germany

In Seiffen, it's Christmas all year

"Visitors to Seiffen go around marveling at what they see," said another colleague, Jenny Wagner. "That's when we realize that what we're doing is something special."

Tradition meets technology

Although she's only 25, Wagner runs her family business together with her parents. Traditional candle arches are the company's specialty.

Unlike many, she has made concessions to the changing times and now uses a laser machine for some of the more filigree work.

"My grandfather won't use it, but I do," she said. She also works at a computer, creating digital sketches that serve as a basis for the handiwork.

"Most of the work is still done by hand," she said. Wagner admitted that she enjoys the benefits of technology too, but at the end of the day her first priority is to keep a tradition alive.

"Sometimes I think about moving away, but ultimately I know that this is where I'll always be happiest," she said.

Author: Lydia Heller / Jane Paulick

Editor: Kate Bowen

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