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This article is from Issue 17 of Woodcraft Magazine.
By Sarah Brady
Mooney Warther was a world-renowned carver who amazed people with his intricate trains and high-quality knives. Family members have preserved his legacy in an impressive museum while they continue to carve and to make fine cutlery.
The small, quaint workshop attached to the Warther Carving Museum occupies only a tiny fraction of the museum’s floor space. It was in this shop, with wood burning in the brick fireplace and a view of the valley out a large window above the tool-cluttered workbench, that Swiss-American woodcarver Mooney Warther created his genius replicas of famous steam engines in the 1900s. It was also here that Mooney started a knife-making business that would thrive for more than 100 years, with a fourth generation of Warther knife makers still treading his path.
While history favors men who make their marks in politics or war, much can be learned about 20th-century America from an artisan and family man such as Mooney Warther. His parents had emigrated from Switzerland just two years before he was born, searching for prosperity in a new land along with many other Europeans. Mooney’s apparent energy and zest for life, in addition to his mechanical and artistic talents and his bent for collecting things, make his story outstanding.
But if Mooney gets credit for creating his own story, his family earns recognition for preserving it. Each year, 70,000 people visit the museum in Dover, Ohio, on the picturesque hilltop where the woodcarver spent most of his life. And the knife business Mooney started in 1902 is still thriving on this same spot.
A grand tour
Dover, Ohio, is a small town originally populated by Swiss immigrants, close to Ohio’s Amish country. The biggest attraction for several miles around, the Warther Museum can get quite busy with tourists. There is so much to see there, a visit can last for hours. As difficult as it is to encapsulate Mooney’s life – he appeared on the Johnny Carson show, carved a chess set for Henry Morgan, exhibited at the World’s Fair, traveled all over the country with his carvings, built his own house, workshop and terraced grounds, carved hundreds of train models and other items, worked at the same steel mill for decades, made kitchen knives for housewives and commando knives for soldiers, kept a diary, made his own beer, raised five children and was generally a prankster – the best way to learn his story is to see his story.
Entering the spacious, organized museum is like opening a grand, colossal toy box your grandfather once dreamed of as a child. Dozens of magnificent trains are ensconced in glass, many on red velvet pedestals, some rotating in gigantic arcs in the center of the room. Hundreds of collected photographs show Mooney at various ages with family members and friends, playing cowboys and Indians, relaxing on a riverbank, feasting on watermelon. Thousand-year-old arrowheads (Mooney’s collection) and 100-year-old knives are arranged under glass. One wall displays the hundreds of small train parts that made up a single carving, and two mechanized replicas of a working steel mill click and clack as tiny wooden workers munch sandwiches, shake their fists and pull hot sheets of steel out of the fire. The 10' x 12' attached original workshop is a throwback to early American dad, with its hearth and anvil, rows of hand tools, and disassembled carvings of train parts. A work lamp on a sliding track and strategic cabinetry are clever accoutrements that tell of a carver with true efficiency. The shop is one of the museum’s exhibits, and it’s still employed by Mooney’s grandson, Mark, who makes intricate jewelry boxes and repairs his grandfather’s carvings.
Mark Warther runs the museum, meeting with visitors and demonstrating his grandfather’s technique of carving a pair of pliers from a small block of wood with 10 swift, precise cuts. Just like Mooney did, he hands them to children for souvenirs and fields questions with a smile.
Various studies report the average child watches TV four to seven hours a day. “We always preach to our school groups that all this was done on less than TV time,” Mark says, gesturing toward the rooms full of carvings. Mark also oversees display, repair and cleaning of the vast collection, and keeps a handful of employees who lead tours, greet visitors and help maintain the carvings.
“People come from all over,” said docent Kathy Gibson, a Dover native who knew Mooney when she was growing up. “Last year we had a guru from India, an opera singer from Austria and a Russian general.”
Mark’s father, Dave, built the museum and kept the knife business a thriving enterprise, which has grown over time and is open to public tours on the lower level of the building. Mark’s brother Dale runs the knife shop with the help of his own son, Karl; and another brother, Don, runs the woodshop where a variety of knife blocks and cutting boards are crafted as accessories. Other family members have helped and been involved in ways too numerous to mention. A fourth son, Dave II, is a talented carver who creates intricate models of ships. Talent and knowledge was passed, but never pressed, onto the Warthers.
“I spent my whole life working under my dad,” Mark says. “No one in my family would ever come to any of us kids and say, ‘Get busy with this. Why aren’t you doing that?’ But if we asked, they would drop anything they were doing and stick with us until we had it down.”
The museum is a family affair, but it’s no mom-and-pop operation. Its small theater seats about 50 for a documentary about Mooney’s life, and recorded demonstrations play in another room. Newspaper clippings, correspondence and hundreds of tools and small carvings are documented and arranged to tell the carver’s tale. The grounds are meticulously kept, with their Swiss gardens, picnic area and “button house,” which holds Mooney’s wife Frieda’s collection of 73,282 buttons.
Many of the museums visitors are repeats, and the adults often recount fond memories of meeting Mooney as a child. Arlene Sampiero of Akron grew up in nearby Willard. She first visited at age 7 or 8, and the family returned every year after that. Later, she brought her own daughter to the museum, and this year, her own children grown, she returned with a friend to gaze at the trains and remember the old days.
Especially for railroad or carving buffs, it would be easy to while away many fascinated hours analyzing the intricate trains, to read and study the copious memorabilia of Mooney, who must surely be one of the most interesting Americans in history. Mark and his tour guides are gracious and knowledgeable hosts, explaining how the moving parts work, what materials Mooney used and why, and how he made time to create such a vast collection. The museum is austere, with carefully placed lighting and wide corridors, yards and yards of plate glass and gleaming wooden railings.
But downstairs in the knife shop, it’s a different world altogether.
Men of steel
“We like to think of ourselves as old-world craftsmanship combined with modern technology,” says Dale, standing in the knife shop amid hulking machines and high-pitched grinders. Mooney and his son Dave I, who now lives in an extended care facility, passed on their hand-tooling methods to Dale. In turn, Dale and his son Karl have been unafraid to adopt new procedures as long as quality is not compromised. But the knife designs endure; the most popular model, the paring knife, is still the same design as the 1905 original.
The paring knife has endured, but knife trends come and go, and the Warthers adapt. Mark said French (chef’s) knives have become particularly popular, so they offer 7" and 9" models. Dale said the rise of cooking shows has caused increased demand for specialty food knives like boning and fish fillet knives. The Warthers continue to make classic pocket knives and commando knives on a custom-order basis, but the heart of their business is the 40,000 pieces of kitchen cutlery and carving knives they sell each year. Dale said his father started producing carving knives in 1967 as a “woodcarving craze” created a demand for them.
Whatever the model, Warther knives are hand-ground and polished to a convex shape, which allows them to retain a razor edge with only light honing. The Warthers sharpen their knives free of charge, through the mail or at the shop (while you wait).
Each knife starts as a piece of high-carbon steel punched out on a 100-ton press (offsite). Although the Warthers used to do their own onsite heat treating, the superior methods of a Cleveland company (which heats the blades to 1,860° before lowering them to -300°, reportedly adding 22% to the life of the blade) convinced them to outsource this part of the job.
The blades return to Dover and the handwork begins in earnest. First, they’re processed through automated grinders that process the blades to .012", which is considered heavy for a knife edge. Then they are hand-ground on bench grinders and polished with abrasive belts from 120 to 320 grit. Sparks fly from the grinder while Bryan Carlisle demonstrates. Bryan, hired by Dale’s father at age 17, has been with the Warther knife shop 19 years now. “They’re a great family to work for,” he says of the Warthers. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. When you’re treated like the family, it makes a big difference.” He takes a break from his production duties as a man walks in with his set of knives, carefully wrapped in paper, for a deft sharpening.
Once the knife blades are ground and polished, the trademark decorative swirl is applied. Mooney originally added it by hand with a honing stone, but that was tedious work. Now they brush on a semi-liquid abrasive and use a cylindrical stick of Teflon in a slowly rotating drill press to mark the polished steel.
Next, the blades are marked with “E. Warther & Sons” on a CNC engraver. Then the blades are riveted to their handles, which are made by Dan Warther from resin-impregnated birch ply. “The only thing that will break these is a garbage disposal,” Dale says. The final steps are sanding and buffing the handle.
The Warther life
Much personal care goes into making each Warther knife, and into hosting each museum visitor as well. The Warthers seem to represent many American ideals (which began as immigrant ideals): hard work, a true enjoyment of life and reverence for family. Though it might seem difficult to live in the shadow of a man as brilliant as Mooney Warther, those who have preserved his legacy have made their own contributions. These include carving, designing a new knife style, restoring an old carving or just teaching a visitor about Mooney.
“My favorite thing is meeting people,” Dale said. “They come in to get their knives sharpened and ask questions, like what kind of knife to use for a particular job.”
Dale and Mark’s uncle Fred still works at the knife shop at age 90, prompting a common joke from his nephews: “The only way to get out of here is to die … it’s the ideal retirement!”
And Karl, now 22, is looking forward to working with his family on kitchen cutlery and custom knives. You can almost hear Mooney in Dale’s voice as he opines, “The worst thing to do with your life is a job you don’t like.”
Bryan Carlisle sharpens a set of Warther knives for Fath Glenn of Wooster, Ohio.
Mark Ellwood of nearby Worthington picks up a custom commando knife (made by Dale) for his son, a Marine. In 1944, Mooney made a commando knife for Mark’s uncle, a bomber pilot who was killed in France during World War II. Mark still has the knife and has known Dale for many years. “Dover connections are long and loyal and pretty intense,” he says.
Jewelry box by Mark Warther
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