These are called Ostheimer figures. They’re wooden figures designed for play by children to help make real world connections and for imaginative play. Sometimes they are animals, sometimes they are people or characters from folk tales. Most of them originate from Germany, as it is a German tradition. They are very expensive.
How expensive? This set right there would be around $60.
Well, there’s more to money when it comes to the value of Ostheimer figures. They are heirloom quality toys that are often passed on through generations. They are pretty impervious to destruction as well.
I said to my mother, “Gosh, I’d love to get Abe some Ostheimer figures, but they’re so expensive!” To which my Irish-German-born mother replied, “Well, see, those types of things used to be made by grandfathers. Grandfathers would whittle them as a treat.”
Ah. Leave it to my mother to get my creative juices flowing. But she is absolutely right. In olden days back in old country, they didn’t have mass-produced wooden figures made from scroll or band-saws. They had toys made from hand tools. I prefer hand tools actually, and never was able to articulate it until I read a book by Ianto Evans called The Hand Sculpted House, in which he describes the difference in rhythm and spirituality felt by working with hand tools instead of scary, noisy, and very dangerous electric tools that literally seem to vibrate the brain.
I thought this a perfect lesson to pass on, as I recently figured it out myself. My concentration for my BFA was in sculpture and ceramics, so I have quite the history of working with hand tools and wood. I thought I would start carving Ostheimer figures for my son and it turned out to be quite easy.
First you’re going to need to gather some hand tools. I recommend a utility blade with a NEW blade or a sharpened pocket knife, a hack-saw (any hand-saw will do, but this one has a fine blade), and a couple of grades of sandpaper (meaning medium, fine, and extra fine). For finishing, you’ll also need a small chunk of pure beeswax and a rag, and some high-quality watercolors. You may also want gloves if you’re accident prone.
Now- I have to tell you, these are the tools that *I* prefer. You may want to pick up some other hand tools like wood chisels or linoleum print chisels. I do not prefer wood chisels because you then have to place your item in a sandbag and hit the chisel with a mallet. This is very difficult on small figures and I wouldn’t recommend it AT ALL if you’re working on something smaller than your hand. The chisels often need to be sharpened as well. For lino print chisels, they’re ok, but often not sharp enough. You can get wood-print chisels, which may be even more successful than a blade in some instances- BUT! They are EXTREMELY sharp, and you are more likely to cut yourself. I’m an experienced printmaker and even I abstain from using them (they go through gloves!). Here are some examples of each that I would recommend.
Next, find a small piece of wood. I began with a stick. I recommend a soft wood like white pine, but if you haven’t any pine if your neighborhood, you may be able to get a small piece at your hardware store. The hack saw comes in hand if you see a stick that you like that is too big. Get a fallen limb- it should be dried out and not “green”. If it comes off the tree, it will be too full of sap. If its from the ground on a rainy day, bring it inside and don’t work on it until it’s fully dry.
I recommend that you start with a bird because they’re easiest. In Toymaking with Children, the author makes an excellent point- if you start out with a stick that is close to the shape you want, it is easier. For birds, I recommend a wide “V” shaped stick.
Now, the reductive process is one of it’s own- most people are used to the additive process, ie, adding things to what they’re making, such as building a dollhouse or piecing a quilt. Whittling is completely different because you’re creating a form by taking away. You will have better luck concentrating on one part at once, rather than working all around the figure, but everyone works in a different way. I began with the face. The beak and head are the hardest part of the bird, and if you completely mess them up and need to start over, you haven’t invested all of the time required for the body.
It’s also helpful to Google a few pictures. Sometimes I Google real images, sometimes stylized images, and sometimes I go back to the link above and look at actual Ostheimer figures.
Once you have your figure carved, it may look a bit like this.
Sand it down, starting with a medium grit, and work until you get to a fine grit. The surface may have digs or marks on it, but this is about practice, not perfection. The beauty of the wood WILL show through, which is even more meaningful since these figures are made to help children make real-life connections. This item is made of wood, with love, from hands and blade. It has knots and veins in it because its made from the remnants of a living tree, which grows from the earth.
Next you can watercolor it. I prefer hard watercolor when I work, but many prefer liquid. I like the watercolor because the wood absorbs it, making it less prone to chipping, and because the colors are muted. I kept away from detail and made it simple to encourage imagination, and I abstained from including eyes for reasons of my Islamic faith. Start with the lightest colors FIRST. Add darker after, and if you want to accent grooves or transitions between limbs, you can add a bit of dark brown or black around the edges. You can see where this is evident in the ears of my rabbit. Make sure it dries well.
Lastly, you’ll want to coat it with beeswax. The method I recommend is something that is actually used in stone carving technique. Simply use the solid beeswax to rub all over the figure. Then take a rag and rub it in evenly. You may prefer more than one coat. Every so often you may prefer to put a new coat of wax on the toy to protect it from wear.
The smell of fresh white pine and pure beeswax is intoxicating and beautiful.
For the next challenges, experiment. I tried a duck (easier said than done!) and then a rabbit. Each figure is up to interpretation.