Friday, January 24, 2014

The Warther Museum

Have you ever heard of Warther cutlery?
They are an American family business from the turn of the century that is still family run and still hand-makes all their knives.  They're based in Dover, Ohio, about an hour south of where we live.  We went with our friends to visit the Warther museum back several weeks ago.

Eh, we thought, it's something to do.  How interesting can a knife factory be?  Maybe there'll be something good to eat down in Nowheresville.

But it turns out, the museum had almost nothing to do with knives.  It was all to do with Ernest "Mooney" Warther, the company's founder.  He worked all his life until retirement at a local steel mill.
Which he later carved from memory out of walnut and soup bone.  I can't find the video I took, but this little steel mill actually moves...the workings underneath the table that make the parts move (including the men) were cobbled together out of old bicycle parts, vacuum belts, and other things he found lying around.
 This was his self-designed (and self-made) set of carving knives.
 That?  That's a chain.  Carved out of wood.
 He would go on long walks where he'd start out with a long, thick stick, and he'd come home with a wooden chain hanging off his shoulders.  Yes, that is one unbroken wooden chain on that wall.

Here's something else he often did:
 He'd take a piece of wood, make a series of cuts, and it would splay open like a set of pliers.  Or, as in the above photo, like a set of 30-some-odd pliers, each set opening off the last. That wood block pictured at the bottom is the piece of wood into which he made his cuts to get that bouquet of pliers.  There is no glue or other fasteners involved here...the pliers don't come apart; they open and close on a simple internal hinge made by the strategic placement of cuts.
 This is a giant set of three pliers made by one of the grandchildren.  His kids got him this log of oak.  So he took a chainsaw and made it into this set of three pliers.

The "Pliers Tree" was displayed at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933 and nearly got into Ripley's Believe It or Not.
The only reason it didn't was that Mooney said this tree was the only one he ever intended to make, and so he couldn't possibly give it away or sell it.  It contains 511 working pairs of pliers, all of which fold down into a single block:
(Pardon the photos, btw; they were all taken on the little camera and pretty much all used a head-on flash.  What can I say, I didn't know this place was what it was!)

But Mooney didn't consider all these pliers and wooden chains as proper "carving."  This term he reserved for his master works: a collection of pieces telling the history of the steam engine, each carved in precise replica down to the last cog and wheel.  If it moved on the life-size version, it moves in these carvings.  Even the bells swing.
 Each engine is roughly a foot tall and anywhere from one to four or five feet in length.  They are entirely of walnut, ebony, and ivory, and the internal gears that allow them to "run" on their little motors are carved of a self-oiling wood called arborvitae.  This is a small sampling of his works.
 All of the white pieces are individually carved bits of ivory.  Early on, Mooney used soup bone; when he could afford an old cracked pool cue, he had real ivory. For Lincoln's funeral train (you'll see in a minute), he used the highest grade ivory available, and for the last ten years of his life, he carved only in ivory (this was before poaching became the problem it did).
 The rivets going down the sides - those are actual ivory rivets.  They are not bits held on by glue...they are structural.
 The inlay lettering is done in ivory or in mother of pearl.  The tracks are carved of walnut, the rivets are ivory, and the lettering on the bases are inlay work as well.
The above is a record-setting speed train, which he also carved in walnut (the first engine photo).  It is eight feet long, too long to get all in one photo as it uses a whole elephant's tusk (the bridge is carved ebony with the "mortar" being inlaid ivory, too, by the way).
 In the caboose, you can see the guys huddled around the speedometer, signalling by thumbs up that they've done it, they've broken the record.
The driving of the golden spike (President Grant was not actually present at the event, but Mooney said "The fool should have been!", and so he remains present in the carving, smoking his cigar):
Lincoln's funeral train:
 With Lincoln laid in state:
If you come to Ohio, you must stop in Dover.  You must visit this museum.  Who would have known that a world class master carver once resided here?  That his master works are still displayed and cherished here?  That nowheresville Ohio had such a wonderful treasure to offer?

Oh, and in case you are wondering, there's also some fabulous hole-in-the-wall barbecue down there. Fabulous, I tell you.

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