Art of carving ships’ figureheads

Claus Hartmann, carver of figureheads, works to restore a weathered old figurehead. At right is a muscular man in oak which he is offering to the Russian Navy for its training sailing ship Mir. (File photo, 10.10.2016 at his home on Harriersand island, Germany.) At left is a private commission of a woman in tropical wood.

Harriersand / DPA

Claus Hartmann works with enormous logs of up to 4 metres in length. First he traces out his design on the wood and then he takes a chainsaw and begins to cut out the head and shoulders of a figurehead for a ship. After a week of work in his garden on the river island of Harriersand in between Bremen and Bremerhaven, in northern Germany, a human-like form begins to take shape. There are only a few other people around the world who still practise his profession.
“It’s a very small club,” he says. “There’s only a couple of hundred sailing ships left worldwide.” His talent for wood carving developed early. “Art was always my best subject and I’m good with machinery.” But the 58-year-old wasn’t quite convinced about following a artistic career and trained for something else first.
It was only while he was at university that he heard about two carvers who made figureheads in the 1970s and 80s and thought about trying something similar himself. Claus
and Birgit Hartmann have now been running Hartmann Designs for the past 22 years.
“Our work isn’t limited to Germany, we’ve spread out all over the world,” says Hartmann. One of the couple’s most recent clients was the Indonesian Navy, for which they are creating a 450-kilogram figurehead of the mythological figure “Bima Suci” for a training vessel.
This time the 3-metre figurehead will be made of bronze rather than wood and is meant to be more than just decorative. “Bima Suci” represents strength, determination, bonding and team spirit, says Hartmann. “So it’s everything that the navy expects from its cadets.”
Most figureheads are made of wood however. Once Hartmann has created the basic outline with his petrol-powered chainsaw, he turns to a smaller, electric saw and begins to work on the details. “It’s all done with machines and at the end, it’s sanded down as much as the client wants,” he says.
The figureheads then have to be properly sealed to protect the wood from sunlight and seawater. The couple sometimes works on their designs with the client for up to six months. Then the work goes quite quickly. “Then I have no one to rely on but myself,” says Hartmann.
His work means a lot of wear and tear for his machinery and he tends to work on three or four projects at a time. The couple have now created almost 40 figureheads at their workshop in Harriersand. As every one is different, there is no fixed price. Instead it depends on the materials and time needed to make them.
The figureheads then become like sailing business cards for the couple and they get many of their new commissions through word of mouth. Although Hartmann hasn’t had many German clients, he has worked on a project for the German Navy, a figurehead for its sailing training ship “Gorch Fock.”
The ship has had six figureheads in total, the first five having broken off, beginning in 1958, according to a navy spokesman. Its figurehead has always been an albatross,
and this was the design that Hartmann followed. He says it’s due
to that ship’s hardball sailing style that its figurehead has fallen off so many times.
Unlike passenger ships, the “Gorch Fock” doesn’t avoid every storm at sea but charges headlong into atrocious weather in order to get the cadets used to exactly those situations, he says. After rigging its sails in freezing gales, they’re hardened against warship perils for life.
Hartmann’s albatross met a fate similar to its predecessors: it fell off at sea during one of the Bay of Biscay’s notorious storms in 2003.

Claus Hartmann, carver of figureheads, with a muscular man in oak (centre, and model in his hand) which he is offering to the Russian Navy for its training sailing ship Mir. (File photo, 10.10.2016 at his home on Harriersand island, Germany.) At left are two female figurheads.

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