Demanding art with the graver, file and polishing wheel
Joseph Moos
HEPHAISTOS 11/12, 1996, pp. 14-5
Tr: Mike Spencer


In the Renaissance, metal craftsmen no longer carried out their work solely at the anvil; They began to carve their forms like a sculptor from solid chunks of iron. This technique, first called iron carving and then, as the medium changed, steel carving, had mostly faded away when master smith Michael Blümelhuber reinvigorated it around the beginning of this century. Indeed, he carried the art to new heights. HEPHAISTOS' Joseph Moos reports from Blümelhuber's home district of Steyr in Upper Austria.


Demanding art with the graver, file and polishing wheel

Iron carving can be traced back to to the beginnings of ironwork in antiquity. The earliest masters engraved the surfaces of work -- usually the grips of weaposns -- with symbols of good fortune or representational images. In the Renaissance this surface ornamentation reached its first high point. For one thing, the escutcheons and locks of money chests called for rich ornamentation that was carried out in carved iron. For another, smiths began to cold carve grotesques and masks into door knockers that were rough-forged for the purpose. No less an artist than Albrect Dürer did sketches and designs for this work. Improved tools, in particular gravers of good hardenable steel, and better abrasives, diamond dust for example, permitted involved motifs and extremely refined detail in demand in an era that put much store in visible symbols of wealth.

The Nürnberg ironcarver Gottfried Leygebe created the first figures carved in the round as a development from the skills he'd acquired from many years of ornamental carving on dagger hilts, sporting weapons and pistol furniture. In 1668 he was appointed diesinker for the mint of Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Brandenburg and continued in that capacity until his death in 1683. His greatest works are the equestrian statue of Emporor Leopold I -- now in Rosenburg Castle in Copenhagen -- carved from a "single billet of iron weighing 67 pounds", and another in 1680 of Friedrich Wilhelm represented as Saint George, now in the New Museum in Berlin. Despite his very specialized skills, Leygebe had to serve as a drawing instructor for the Prince's son, take on design tasks for banners and glassware and died in poverty in Berlin. Carved steel works often take several years to complete, too long for even a liberal payment to support the artist.

In the ensuing years, ironcarving was nearly forgotten. It survived only in cutlery and weapon engraving, its original venue. But it enjoyed a second renaissance about 1900, the result of an encounter between a great artist and a fortunate coincidence. About this time, Michael Blümelhuber was working in Steyr, a hotbed of iron and steel carving and ironwork in general from ancient times. Disfigured and speech-impaired by an injury to his jaw in childhood, he worked alone in silence but was a talented freelance steelcarver and cutler in his own studio. Born in 1865 the son of a swordsmith, he entered apprenticeship in the Werndl Ironworks in Steyr to learn steelcarving. In 1885 he complete his studies in iron and steelwork in the craft college that is still there today.

He received commissions forthwith, form the collector Anton Petermandl as well as from Count Lamberg, the fiefholder in Steyr and a great patron of the young master. The Count recognized the young cutler's talents as an steelcarver and introduced him to the crown prince, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, among other well positioned potential patrons. At exhibitions in Linz, Vienna, Paris and London he soon received a worldwide reputation. Thus it was that from the beginning he worked not only for the Royal Family and wealthy local landowners and collectors but sent his work all over the world -- for example a pair of shears for Alfred Nobel and a hunting knife for the Duke of Cumberland. In 1892 a surgeon was successful in correcting the crippling damage to his jaw that he had suffered with since his seventh year as a result of an episode of typhus and which had made him somewhat reclusive and a loner.

From 1901, Blümelhuber devoted himself to setting up a master studio for steelcarving, hoping to bring about a revival of the increasingly rare skill. The school finally opened in 1910 and was officially recognized as a specialty training school in 1936. Here masters and journeymen would be able to extend their skills and learn from each other.

One of Blümelhuber's first colleagues at the studio was Hans Gerstmayr who carried the craft of steelcarving into the 1950s. He died in 1987 at the age of 106.

In the period following World War I there were few artistic commissions and he occupied himself with engineering and design work and in community service for his native Upper Austria. During this period his miserable experiences during the war and his longing for the orderly society of the pre-war, imperial era found expression in several uncommissioned pieces and it was in this time he produced his greatest artworks. Not utilitarian objects such as knives, letter openers or shears but sculptures, imbued with Christian mysticism and humanitarian visions. His greatest work is the "Linzer Domschlüssel", the key for Linz Cathedral, richly worked with Christian and mundane symbolism, which he completed in 1925. He was seeking to represent his vision of lasting peace for mankind on a foundation of Christian belief.

"The Kalkburg Cross of Steel" and "The Gospel" were executed in the same spirit. These pieces are now in the Civic Center of Steyr along with others of his works. In "The Gospel", carved in almost transparent delicacy from a shard of armor plate, a cluster of blossoms burst open, his impression of love and the life of the spirit that can pierce even the hardest armor. It 1921 it brought him the State Prize of the newly formed Austrian Republic. In 1924 he put the piece in the "Peace for All Lands" exhibition. In 1930 Austria bestowed on him the title of Professor. Despite all this, the studio where he worked and lived was closed upon his death in 1936. It was only due to the strenuous efforts of his colleague Gerstmayr that the school has survived and continued to teach young craftsmen the art of steelcarving.

So: What's special about the technique of working steel by carving?

The work is first roughly forged at the anvil, then the details are relieved by drilling and the piece is finally finished with chisels, gravers and files. Blümelhuber employed for this purpose a breastdrill and files which he made himself. The final form "migrates from the inside to the surface" under the graver and chisel. That the medium is usually high-carbon steel adds an additional dimension of difficulty, for though it takes a lustrous polish and is consequently more corrosion resistant, the toughness of the material places a higher demand on the artist's strength and patience. It isn't unusual to devote months or even years to a single work. During that time, not a single error can be permitted for if, just once, too much is cut away, the piece is irretrievably spoiled. And finally the fine surface details must be cut and the whole work polished. An indicator of the work involved is the volume of material removed as shavings: in the case of the Linz Cathedral Key, one and a half kilos of swarf to produce a finished piece of just two kilos.

The master steel carver doesn't construct his work with the classic techniques of the smith which allow building up the finished work from several separate forged pieces. He must visualize the piece within the single mass of material and then, like the classical sculptor, free it from the imprisoning clot of dross . Steelcarving is an art that will exploit every talent the artist can bring to it.

Blümelhuber has himself has written an essay recounting the practice and mystique if the craft:

The technological raw material is a rectangular steel billet that rings with promises when struck on the anvil. To capture those promises, the charcoal file roars and tosses sparks, the heat is closely watched and soon the nimble hammers dance upon the steel. Not too hot, now!....Then the outline of the final form appears under the ministrations of file and drill bit and it become possible to compose the final design directly upon the three-dimensional object. Such an object can't really be fully expressed by planar plans or schemata on paper. Because I take a concept directly to a hard and refractory material, I paint details directly on the workpiece with an artist's brush and etch resist. Then I drive violently into the interior with drills and chisels that are often as fine as the point of a needle. The exterior must at first remain unchanged, held in place, as it were, by the painted design, but the interior has to come out in bits and chips even if it fights back! Only when the interior has been fully cut away so that it's completely open to view can I begin on the details of the exterior surface.

For Blümelhuber's 70th birthday, his student Hans Kröll created a powerful steel portrait bust of the Meister. It now ornaments the "Blümelhuber Section" of the Civic Center of Steyr and imparts the lasting and forceful impact of steel carving.

Copyright © 1996 HEPHAISTOS Internationale Zeitschrift für Metallgestalter.
Permission is granted to reproduce this article for educational or other not-for-profit purposes.
Updated -- Wed Feb 12 1997 -- Michael Spencer