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Woodcraft nirvana in Saxony

Brian Starbuck enjoys an Aladdin’s Cave of woodcarvings

I’m not sure where locals go to buy milk and bread in the town of Seiffen, not far from the Czech border in Saxony, because as far as I could see the entire place is devoted to the manufacture and sale of hundreds of little wooden figures. Accordingly, a visit there is an astonishing and rather surreal experience.

There are literally dozens of shops, large and small devoted to all things wooden and German. Prices for this Erzgebirge Holzkunst (woodcraft from the Erzgebirge, or Ore Mountains) range from a few to many thousands of Euros for complex and sometimes frighteningly large models. Nearly all are made locally with several workshops in and around the town.

I believe the current industry developed from people in the 18th century supplementing their income by making wooden toys and figures in the winter months, rather in the way that cuckoo clocks came into being in the Black Forest. These toys and figures proved popular with travellers and the trade spread and grew into an important industry and a major employer in the region. There is a museum in the town that tracks this development.

On a personal note, I discovered that a box of wooden bricks I played with as a child and branded from a UK retailer was almost certainly made in the area – I saw an almost identical set in the museum which had been made during the DDR times in the 1950s.

A lot of the production is aimed at Christmas Markets around the country. Personal favourites are the little Christmas advent models with a windmill on top driven by the warm air from the lighted candles beneath. With just one candle lit, the figures rotate slowly but by Christmas Day the kings and shepherds are racing around the crib scene with dizzying speed. Enchanting.

There are many different styles of figures but perhaps the most remarkable place for them is the hushed interior of the Wendt and Kuhn shop where the reverence with which the figures are treated might seem funny, but actually feels sincere and captivating. Tiny, and beautifully made, angels playing trumpets and little girls carrying flowers are presented in cabinets as if they were fine jewellery. There is a film that shows how the figures are made and if you indicate that you would like to buy one, the assistant places four choices of that figure in front of you. You then inspect them closely and select the one with the individually painted expression you like the best.

We parted with quite a lot of money.

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