Wood, metal and stone

By Stephan Elbracht, September 2020

Wood, metal and stone not only require different tools but also quite different skills and states of mind. Humans and trees are connected through the breathing – their breathing corresponds with ours. But what the trees bequeath us, what they gift us and what we take from them is the hard, bony frame.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

It is not that long ago that people surrounded themselves with easy-to-handle wood, lived in it and made many useful objects from it. Everything was made by hand! In the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, it is still possible to buy hand-made wooden ploughs such as we can find depicted on ancient Egyptian murals. We craft a few selected, practical, artistic and educationally useful objects with the pupils: from a half-timbered house for the kindergarten, furniture, bowls, spoons, animals, sculptures, boats, stools, recorders and violins to key fobs and jewellery – depending on age group. 

In the workshop

“What a lovely smell,” many people say when they enter a wood workshop for the first time. Then they look around and discover many wooden shapes, figures and tools. They are immersed in a different world.

Wood smells sweet, tangy of resin, intoxicating. Each type is different – and it can also smell strongly of cat’s piss. Freshly cut, it smells fruity and sweet, sometimes of olives.

Wood is warm. It arises from a living flow of sap and then gradually becomes sclerotic – just like we humans.

In the transition from class 5 to class 6, a particularly consolidating step in development takes place. That is the right time to work with wood. We start with freshly cut or felled wood. First experiences are with the woodcarving knife. The fingers are very close to the blade. The hand that holds the wood and the hand that holds the knife. Earnestness, responsibility, joy in joint activity and a never-ending creative drive can be observed.

What is it that makes the children so enthusiastic?

A large piece of wood lies in front of the children at the start of class 6. Ancient types of tool are now used by them: a splitting wedge, a large two-person saw, an axe and also a hammer. They also gain practical experience of the structure of wood – the grain. Some of them will take a considerable amount of time to come to terms with the latter and this is what makes wood the most difficult material in comparison with stone and metal.

The tasks and tools are chosen in such a way by the craft teacher that the children learn to use them in stages. In class 6, articles of daily use are made. Wooden spoons for example. They should be “useful and beautiful”. Finely shaped, light and perfect wooden spoons leave the workshop.

The pleasure in and respect towards these household implements reinforce the meaningfulness of this task.

In class 8, we move from the detailed movement of carving to the big sweep of planing on a workbench. In class 9, the young people reach a stage of development in which they like to use the vigour of their will. They are presented with something substantial to “chew on”. A large rough sawn plank of wood still with the wane. Here they create order. They shape the first surface which then serves as a guide for everything else. “Dressing” it is called.

Uncontrolled will does not achieve a lot here. The young people have to learn to observe and think. Smaller joints require the precise guidance of the tool, a high level of attentiveness and the ability to think spatially. The final result is a small bench with dovetailed joints.

With carving, the pupils embark on the search for their own sculpted form in class 12. The task now is to shape every surface in its place in a living form and to make each cut with awareness of the surface. Capturing the whole form “in its entirety” and shaping it rhythmically and expressively is a great challenge appropriate for this age.

It becomes clear that the children and young people can have many different experiences with wood – from simple to demanding things, always in accord with their respective stage of development.

In contrast to other subjects, they can “see” what they are doing. They take their workpieces home with them and have the opportunity to look back at their work many years later and see their own development.

Metal

Metals can be found in humans, animals, plants, colours, earths and rocks. The first metals to be worked by humans were copper, gold, silver and tin. Later on they were joined by iron. With the children and young people we mainly work on iron and copper.

The class 3 pupils enter the blacksmith’s workshop with excited anticipation. There is a sharp and stringent smell and yet the children are drawn into the space. The great forge with the hood in the middle, the wood and leather bellows on the ceiling, and the series of hammers, tongs and unfamiliar iron tools on the walls: there is much to discover.

Now at the firepot they can hear the puffing of the bellows and in the swirling dust they can see the airflow.

“What is it that the smith needs?” The class touch the black coal, inspect the slack tub. Stacked in the forge, everything is brought together. The only thing still missing is the fire.

The four elements in action. I begin by continuing to cover the burning kindling with coal. Heavy fog-like smoke seeps out of the side of the forge and can be scooped up with the hands. Then I give a strong tug on the handle above me. A sharp current of air fans the fire and makes flames shoot out of the dark coal.

A gasp escapes the children standing around the big forge. Then they experience the smith and his helper – the fire – at work. On the next day, each child forges their own nail. It is proudly carried home and kept as a precious possession. No craft main lesson leaves such a strong impression as the visit of class 3 to a blacksmith’s workshop.

In upper school, we can work on copper with the young people. The two shaping techniques, stretching and swaging, with which the children were already made familiar in their work with iron, are now used for cold forming. The class 10 pupils make cake tins and saucepans and have to  master several work processes to do so: cutting – beating – planishing – chasing.

Beating the copper is noisy and the whole of the group is carried along by the rhythm. Coordinating both hands is a challenge for some. Others come to terms with it quite quickly. Planishing requires different skills. Things become more delicate and subtle. The copper is balanced on a planishing stake and the surface is worked on with a delicately handled planishing hammer. This is a challenge because you cannot see the planishing stake. With good sidelight from the window and, above all, good observation and skill, the pupil forms a clear shape.

Chasing is something else again. The copper is soft annealed once more. Round or angular shapes are produced. Care has to be taken not to squash the form but to keep inner and outer forces in equilibrium to create a beautiful form.

Stone

Rock gives us the firm foundation on which we live, the firm ground of security in life as well as reliability. That the different types of rock also arose from life processes can be seen not just in volcanism. Many rocks were created aeons ago, then reshaped, and others arise today, as we can see in a kettle. In us, bones and teeth also form a mineral basis of life.

Humans split, carved and dressed stone from early on. They formed not just tools but also ritual objects from it.

As we enter the stone workshop awash with light, we may notice the fine dust which covers everything like a veil, including the window panes. Stones on which work has started lie on heavy, solid metal trestles. On some of them their surfaces are rough and sharp to begin with. Others are already smooth and finely polished. In the process, the luminous and diverse colourfulness of the stones is revealed which we do not always realise is there in the stone.

When we touch the stone, we may notice how cold it is. It has a cooling effect which is used in southern regions.

In class 10, pupils have reached a certain solidity in their physical development. Their ability to think is capable of top performance.

The stone carving main lesson at our school offers the pupils the opportunity to come to grips with the hardest material. Here it can be observed that the stone cannot be mastered with strength alone. On the contrary, we have to engage with it, observe how it can be carved most easily. Then it becomes playful.

The pupils learn the appropriate use of flat chisels, point chisels, tooth chisels and hammers.

In class 12 and 13, they are able to produce their own designs: a variety of things such as sundials, water basins, free forms, animal forms and human forms. Reliefs arise from the inexhaustible imagination of our pupils.

Different materials – different skills

By working with wood, metal and stone, the pupils unite themselves with the world and practise various will and soul qualities. Every material requires its own approach and skills.

The saying: “Strike while the iron is hot” reveals a truth of its handling. In working with iron, I have to think before I act. Courage and vigour are required, the will is challenged.

In joinery, in contrast, I can and must conceive the joint as I mark it. In carving a sculpture, I must not think too much beforehand and have to develop a sense of the surface and form as it is created.

In violin-making, careful and attentive action is required. In working with copper, I am immersed in the rhythm, the hands must be coordinated.

It is very exciting to accompany the pupils through the various materials. Thus a pupil who was outstanding in violin-making found forging very difficulty, while a pupil who found carving a bowl difficult was clever in forging.

People leave school who are not only able to look at the world but they can also take hold of things and materials and shape them.

True meaningful craft and artistic activity, not tinkering, give human beings deep satisfaction, confidence and a healthy sense of life. That is why crafts and art are also used therapeutically.

The various artistic and craft activities, from which they draw strength and life, accompany many people into old age.

About the author: Stephan Elbracht is a crafts teacher at the Uhlandshöhe Free Waldorf School, Stuttgart.

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