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Brienz, Switzerland, is the heart of the country’s woodcarving region – and the home of the only Swiss woodcarving school. Sometimes other specialists, such as coopers, basket makers or woodturners will visit the school and “widen the horizons of all the people that are here,” or offer opportunities for collaboration. In the hands-on sessions, the students copy a variety of carved items and styles – the school’s archives contain numerous examples – and also study animal and human skeleton models to understand musculature. The students also learn to create various textures  — one of the practical tests in her final exams, Lucy said, would be to add texture to a basic shape of an animal in a four-hour time period. At one point, you might have someone who carved bears, someone who carved ibexes, someone who carved flowers; and the government, which had to support the farmers in this area of rocky landscapes, saw an opportunity and began sending local woodcarvers to French academies so they could learn better techniques and come back and teach others. Founded 131 years ago, in 1884, the Brienz School for Woodcarving  (Schule fur Holzbildhauerei Brienz) has roughly 30 students at a time, divided fairly evenly among men and women.
Otherwise, Rene said, the school teaches “only woodcarving, and the furniture that goes with it.” The system is set up mostly as hands-on time, with students in the workshop for six to eight weeks at a time, then classroom time for a couple of weeks, then back to the workshop. If just for a change, I’ll bring plum and apple and pear, all the fruit trees – except for cherry; we don’t like it as well.
Some of their lessons, Rene said, include taking 30 to 35 flat workpieces and carving different shapes into the boards.
And the woodcarving school’s students, who develop their own preferred style in the later years of schooling, don’t always find that it matches market demands. The youngest students, called apprentices, are 15 or 16 years old, while the oldest, at the moment, are around 35.

Classroom topics, said Lucy Wingeier, a fourth-year student who was preparing for her final exams, include things like how to calculate the cost of wood, and the meanings of carving symbols for weddings, cemeteries, etc. With walnut, it’s possible to get a full figure carved into it without ending up with any cracks.
Half of the shapes are done with the grain, and half against it; “They get a feel for wood as the material.
Lucy’s favorite pieces to make, for example, are “copies of things that are not made [originally] of wood, but of another material” – like carved toothpaste tubes, for instance.
Students are selected for the four-year program via a three-day entrance exam, which does include carving on a piece of modeling clay as a test, but, says Rene Reusser, the school’s woodshop instructor, it’s the students’ drawing skills that really get them in. Every project is set up in a certain way, and they have to cut it with a different type of chisel,” he said. Later, it’s “observe, sketch, make it in clay, then carve it in wood yourself.” The most important skill she’s learned in the school, Lucy said, is to “be a good observer. When a student starts at the school, he or she buys 100 chisels, at a cost of about 1,000 Swiss francs (roughly equivalent to $1,000 U.S.
Whether you want to be a doctor, or dentist, or landscaper, or whatever it is, the government’s always covering the cost. More traditional things are more in demand around here.” One day, she’d like to open her own studio, but for now, following her graduation this summer, she’s just looking for a job related to woodworking.
Rene, who spent some time in Canada, said, “I noticed that in America, you almost have to go to college, because ‘that’s what you do.’ In Switzerland, you can say, ‘I’m a furniture maker,’ or ‘I’m a timber framer,’ and there’s no difference in respect.

Whether you’re from a poor family or a rich family, you can do the job you were meant to do.” Students do need to find their own accommodations. In Switzerland and Europe, craftsmanship is appreciated.” Salaries for manual labor, Rene said, reflect that respect. Some of the students receive support from their home provinces, and some work during hours they are out of school. They might also get a percentage if they work on projects the school has been commissioned for – like redoing old seats from the country’s parliament building. Still, it’s not as easy as it used to be to find a job as a full-time woodcarver after graduation. The origins of Brienz’s status as a woodcarving region come from the era of the first tourists coming to see the Alps. The local farmers rowed these tourists across the water in the summer, and when winter came, “they started to carve a little cow or something as a giveaway, as souvenirs.

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