What does it take to build the best sailplanes in the world? No, not a computer. And not laser-controlled milling machines or data-fuelled 3-D printers. Skilled hands are the essential ingredients. Nestled in the Rhön Mountains, Schleicher is a world-leading manufacturer of sailplanes. The snow-white surfaces of these elegant sailplanes are still formed and polished by hand. Millimetre for millimetre, using ever finer sandpaper until eventually the paper is softer than a page of newsprint. Dedication, dexterity, and patience are essential.
And these breathtakingly beautiful sailplanes are just one example. Many workshops and factories continue to prize traditional skills over high-tech manufacturing processes. Skills that require keen eyesight and a steady hand, sensitivity and strength, knowledge that is gained through years of experience and – perhaps most crucially – the inimitable art of thinking with your head, your heart, and your gut. Intuition. Passion.
Watchmakers sit at precision vices for hours at a time, deftly manipulating the movements of timepieces with their minute mainsprings, wheel trains, and escapements. Porcelain painters embellish the surfaces of their pieces with brushes made from the finest sable, plucked from the soft underbelly of Siberian squirrels. The stunning beauty of hand-forged Damascus steel testifies to a passion for something more than cold efficiency and precision, with knife-makers often spending weeks at their forges as they perfect their blades. Lost in silent reverie, they fold layer upon layer of steel.
These skilled artisans are united in their passion for flawless workmanship, smooth surfaces and fine angles, for materials that delight and for the perfect composition of line, curve, form, and function. It is a passion that borders on obsession. A passion that instrument-makers share with pastry chefs, compass manufacturers, saddlers, cobblers and many others. But in the end it is difficult to say what really makes for excellent craftsmanship. The work of an accomplished tradesperson should flatter the hand and the eye, of course. It should be flawless. And more.
It is impossible to put a price on the sensibility that shapes these objects. The accomplished tradesperson can breathe life into an object, filling it with near indescribable beauty. In a world of throwaway gimmickry and cold efficiency, their creations are an expression of a world view that prizes proficiency. Many tradespeople make a conscious decision to turn their backs on the ever-churning cogs of mass production. They disappear behind their workbenches and dedicate themselves to a single-minded passion. The fruits of their labours are instantly recognisable and frequently elicit a timeless response: “Made with love.”
Siegfried Schröttner bends to examine a large piece of leather. Closing his eyes, he caresses its surface with his hand. Feeling, smelling. Only the best full-grain leather treated with organic mineral-based tanning agents meets with his approval. If Schröttner comes across the slightest flaw – an insect bite or some other barely perceptible impurity – he will cast a piece aside without so much as batting an eyelid. Quality is everything when it comes to fitting a G-Class. Siegfried Schröttner and his colleagues have more than enough to do selecting the materials. Around 22,000 square metres of untreated leather are on hand at designo manufaktur – over 200,000 square metres are handled by their artisans every year. Layers of fine Nappa and Lugano leather, sourced from bulls raised in Central Europe. After passing under the merciless gaze of the quality controller, the leather undergoes a series of tests to assess its tensile strength, shrinkage characteristics, and climatic responsiveness. Only leather that achieves good grades across the board is passed on to the cutting room. There, an array of presses, water-jet cutters, and splitting and skiving machines awaits. Sections of leather are cut to a pattern using precision punching knives that are accurate down to the last millimetre. But the finest work is yet to come – steady hands are now required.
And Anita Rathkolb and Klaudia Eicher have the steadiest hands in the game. Together, the two are masters in the fine art of Indianapolis stitching, using curved upholstery needles to trim interior door handles with leather and hand-finished top-stitching. “Concentration, good eyes and a soft touch are essential,” explains Anita Rathkolb. Many of the sections they work on – such as the elevated passenger grab handles – are all but inaccessible. There isn’t a machine in the world that can top-stitch the inner face of a rounded object. “You have to commit the precise shape of every component to memory,” says Anita Rathkolb. And if that isn’t enough: the G-Class invites owners to make a statement with custom ornamental seams, leather colouring, and tufting. Sophisticated top-stitching sets off the mirrors, head restraints, seats – even the vehicle’s centre console beguiles with fine accents. And all this in a range of colours: saddle brown, silk beige, deep-sea blue. There’s a reason why so many drivers and passengers compare the off-road experience of the G-Class to a luxury lounge. It’s not just the technology. Mercedes-Benz has perfected the fine art of designing exquisite vehicle interiors over the course of seventy years. Bits and bytes simply can’t compete with that kind of experience. Nothing can beat a needle and thread, a hand and a heart.
Thick mechanical belts criss-cross the room to the thrum of mixing vats and the hiss of valves. The filter press and kneading machine have served at the paste mill for over a century. Here, everything is as it once was. Hydropower still drives the machines. This room is like a second home to Dieter Zeus. The miller has been producing porcelain paste for Nymphenburg Porcelain for 37 years – he is one of the few to have been initiated into the secrets of its production. Mixing the special blend of feldspar, quartz, and kaolin is an art form. Kaolin lends porcelain its strength, feldspar its lustre. The exact formula is a closely guarded secret. Once the ground raw kaolin has been cleansed, the quartz and feldspar are ground in drum mills for some 30 hours. The kaolin slurry is then mixed with the milled minerals in a vat and the resulting paste is then pumped into the filter press. In the next step, Zeus must live up to his namesake. Standing beside the filter press, he must use all his strength to depress its lever until the paste emerges in the form of a square cake. While doing so, he must also pay attention to the suppleness and homogeneity of the porcelain paste. “It takes years of experience to develop a feeling for the consistency of the perfect porcelain mass.” And something else: muscle power.
Standing at his forge, Luca Distler studies the glowing, 1,200-degree embers intently. Sparks fly, hot slag spits across the workshop. Distler thrusts a pair of tongs bearing a “parcel” of steel weighing 2.5 kilograms into the flames. From this raw mass, the smith will craft his knives. Fire welding is conducted over glowing coals and requires smiths to first produce the material from which a product is formed. Distler’s knives are forged from a special alloy, the nature of which he declines to divulge, comprising three different types of steel.
The parcel – a stack of five layers of steel – must now be heated evenly. As the steel begins to glow, the forge hisses and snarls. Then, Distler folds the hot layers together, as if closing a book. And again. And again. Gripping a heavy hammer in the other hand, he strikes the layered steel several times. Then folds it again before striking it anew. Layer upon layer of steel is forced upon the last as Distler toils in the heat, striking and folding the mass again and again to form a blank of 320 layers of finest Damascus steel. And the secret to its quality? Tradition. Layering the steel lends the blades both strength and their striking patterning. Each knife is distinctive. Each has its own character.
Knife making is hard work. “It’s akin to lifting weights all day – heavy, glowing dumb balls,” says Distler. “I’m exhausted by nightfall.” And the knives are far from finished. These raw blanks must be forged again and their blades shaped. This is followed by grinding, smoothing, and polishing. The steel must be treated with acid to bring out the pattern. And the surface buffed until it is smoother than a mirror. The grips are carved from desert ironwood and water buffalo horn, or formed from bog oak and ancient mammoth ivory recovered from the Russian permafrost. When all this is done, the blades are engraved and adorned with silver rivets and mother-of-pearl inlays. Occasionally customers approach Distler and his partner Florian Pichler with special requests, and the knife-makers have in the past fashioned custom grips decorated with leopard heads or nudes.
Some knives are made in two days, on others the two perfectionists might work for up to 300 hours. It is a passion that borders on the insane. But perhaps that’s what it takes to make a knife that is both breathtakingly beautiful and so sharp that you could quite literally split hairs with its blade.
Building a concert piano is a complex undertaking. The first challenge is to select a suitable piece of wood from which to craft the soundboard – the soul of the instrument. C. Bechstein uses only mountain spruce grown at elevations above 1,000 metres for this purpose. Many other components are crafted from maple, beech or mahogany. A concert piano consists of around 20,000 individual parts – from back posts to casing walls to keys and hammers to the playing mechanism and frame – and the construction of a single piano can take up to a whole year. The role of piano-maker Katrin Schmidt in this undertaking is a particularly meticulous one: Schmidt must tune and intonate the instrument’s 230 strings. Her task is made all the more difficult by the piano’s steel strings, which lose their tension frequently until the piano has matured. And what’s more, young pianos are sensitive to the slightest changes in temperature and humidity. Her work is a tightrope act, akin to making music from a horde of children humming wildly different tunes.
To achieve her goal, she must re-tune the instrument again and again, tightening and stretching its strings. All 230 strings must be tuned at least four times. Applying a tuning lever to each of the piano’s tuning pins, Schmidt must carefully adjust the strings to their proper tension – a task that requires the utmost patience and a fine ear. A tuning metre is used to set the concert pitch – after that, Ms Schmidt must be all ears. “Mastering the process,” she explains, “takes a lot of practice. When I began my apprenticeship I spent three hours every day doing just one thing: tuning, tuning, tuning.”
Next up: the hammer heads. These are the little “mallets” that actually strike the piano strings. It is vital that they are properly fitted. Deviations of a tenth of a millimetre in their angulation, spacing, or height can detract considerably from the tonality of a concert piano. Following this, Schmidt attends to the piano’s intonation, adjusting the hammers repeatedly until the instrument finds its true voice. Each of the piano’s eighty-eight Australian merino wool-tipped hammer heads must be tuned for this. To do so, Schmidt pricks at the felt-tipped heads with an intonation needle, altering their shape, density and elasticity until their timbre and volume are in perfect harmony. An art form, intonation is all but inexplicable. Each and every hammer head has its own inner life and character. “You have to sense it,” Katrin Schmidt remarks on what is perhaps the most sacred moment in the construction of a concert piano. To give a piano its proper voice is to breathe life into the instrument. A craft and a calling of its own. And a feast for the ears
Mr Paintmeier, do you go to the forest often?
Naturally. The forest is a contemplative place. I love the forest. And it is the source of our product. I am never closer to the trees than I am there.
Where is your wood sourced from?
I visit dealers in Germany and Europe as many as twelve times a year to inspect their inventories. The majority of our wood is purchased in the spring. The trees are felled and processed in the winter, making spring the best time of year to obtain wood.
Is there something akin to a caviar of the timber world?
Yes. Rare woods like bog oak crop up from time to time. The dealers are usually quick to call us when that happens.
That would be an absolute stroke of luck – particularly if the wood was suitable for manufacturing veneer. The trunk needs to be intact. And for that to occur, the tree has to lie below the surface – depriving the wood of oxygen – in bog-like conditions for between one and three thousand years.
How do you know how old the trees are?
Their age can be determined very precisely by carbon analysis. We were recently offered a bog oak that was 2,970 years old.
What makes it so special?
Its intensely dark colouration, which ranges from black-grey to dark brown. Bog oak is very sophisticated. Few customers have a wood of that quality in their kitchens.
How do you recognize good wood?
By examining its grain. How did the tree grow? Is it so pleasing to the eye that it could be used to compose an object of beauty? I have to feel the wood. Touch it. Its strength and its grain are the decisive factors. And I have to smell the wood, of course. It should smell of nature.
Does wood have a personality?
Oh yes! Like a human fingerprint, each trunk is unique. The grain tells the life story of the tree. In what climate and in what soil did it grow? Wood is a living material. And that is what makes each of our kitchens unique.
Does each type of wood have its own character?
Yes. Olive is very expressive. Just think of its grain. Its pattern can be calm or wild. The colours are always different. Sometimes yellow. Sometimes almost green. Then just shy of red.
Are there any down-to-earth fellows among the trees?
Yes, the oak. A classic. A resilient wood with slight variations in its colouring and structure. Oak has lived beside us in our homes for over two thousand years. With its appealing dark colouration, the walnut is rather more exotic. Walnut represents the sweetness in life.
How do you transform a tree into a kitchen?
We immerse the trunk in a basin at 50–60 Celsius for several days to ensure that the wood is not damaged during processing. Then it is cut and brushed to lend the surface more texture. The veneer sheets are then stored before the actual manufacturing process begins.
Mr Paintmeier, what do you do when you’re not manufacturing veneer or studying wood grains?
I am a passionate whittler. I find it very soothing. And I like to spend time in the forest that I bought twenty years ago. I look at the trees and imagine how the forest might appear a century from now when future generations can hopefully still enjoy walking beneath its canopy.