I've never been good at anything crafts-related. My calligraphy at school was unreadable, I was never able to color between the lines (literally), and whatever object I created turned out more a “What is it?” than anything else.
Because of this, I've always had huge respect for people who are good with their hands and so I was pretty excited to go on a trip to discover the traditional German crafts and traditions of the German Black Forest.
The Black Forest of Germany
Why is the Black Forest called the Black Forest?
The Black Forest or “Schwarzwald” in German is called that because it's so thick that the locals called it “black”.
Where is the Black Forest in Germany?
The Schwarzwald – Black Forest in German – is a mountainous region in the state of Baden-Württemberg in southwest Germany. It's the largest forest in Germany.
The region is very green, with winding roads, views that stretch over kilometers of fields and small towns that all seem to have at least one guesthouse or Gasthaus.
Visitors to the Black Forest mostly go there for walking or hiking and they might make a side-trip to Burg Hohenzollern. At first, nature seems to be the region's biggest selling point, but if you look a little closer you'll notice the traditions and crafts that still form part of everyday life.
In the rest of this post, I'll tell you more about manual glassblowing, the open-air museum Vogtsbauernhof and clock making in the Black Forest. Feel free to skip to the parts that interest you most, or just start at the beginning.
Don't have time to read everything just now? This video is a short recap of my time in Baden-Wurttemberg. Check it now and come back to read the details later:
Traditional German crafts in the Black Forest
Black forest glass blowing at Dorotheenhütte
My first stop in the Black Forest was at the Dorotheenhütte, a glass manufacturing business in the town of Wolfach. The history of glassmaking in the Black Forest goes back over 1,000 years and there used to be around 100 manufacturers of mouth-blown glass in the region. Now only Dorotheenhütte is left.
I had a meeting there with the owner, Ralf Müller, but as so often happens I was early and so I took my time to have a look around their shop. What I saw were all kinds of objects in colored Black Forest glass.
They looked kitschy at first – you know, the kind of thing your grandmother would want to buy – but upon closer inspection, I noticed how detailed each and every piece was. Fine lines cut into a dark red wine glass, transparent crystal shapes in a king's blue vase.
My tour still had to start and I was already impressed as I'd read beforehand that everything at Dorotheenhütte is still produced manually.
At the end of my tour, Ralf would tell me that the shop is actually an outlet where they sell items that didn't pass their very strict quality controls (they have three during the entire creation process). Even when an irregularity can't be seen by the naked eye, it goes to the outlet shop.
No need to say that I couldn't spot anything wrong with the items I saw there and even Ralf had to look for a while before he could tell me that when you looked at a certain wine glass from a very specific angle, one of the decorative lines wasn't 100% straight.
But I'm going a bit too fast here, starting with the finished product. Let's rewind!
Everyone who visits the Dorotheenhütte can enter the manufacturer's workshop and actually see glassblowers at work. While we were looking at the men in front of their large ovens, Ralf took me through the entire glassblowing process.
Did you know that it takes 8 to 10 hours to turn sand into glass and that you need an oven that's over 3,000°C hot? Can you even imagine that temperature?
Did you know that glass is actually a frozen liquid? And that sand that's compressed for thousands of years turns into crystal? That every glass manufacturer has its own “sand recipe” and that if you add broken pieces of glass to the sand, it melts faster and you'll save energy as well?
Maybe if you're good at physics you'll know all of these things, but I felt like I was given a glimpse into a magician's world. (You can also read more about the science behind glass on Physics Central.)
Not only that, but I got to do some tricks myself as well. You see, every person who visits Dorotheenhütte has the chance to blow his own glass vase. With the help of a professional, of course.
I filmed the entire process from start to finish, including the explanation of what's happening. You can see it here or directly on YouTube.
When my vase had cooled down, it was taken to another part of the workshop for the finishing touches. Those usually require a lot of work as well, but as my vase was just a souvenir, it meant making sure that there were no more sharp edges.
Want to know what it eventually looked like?
While my vase was cooling down, we went to have a look at what Simon was doing. Simon is a glassblower in training who specializes in creating small glass objects using a flame. That flame is so hot that it gives off UV radiation and so Simon needs to wear special glasses (yes, glasses) to protect his eyes while working.
What amazed me the most, was that he was creating these objects without a photo or other model in front of him. Ralf told me that glassblowers might use a photo when they just start learning the trade, but that they usually work based on a mental picture, rather than a real one.
It were exciting times for Simon, as he was about to do his master's test to become a certified glassblower.
Dorotheenhütte trains glassblowers in-house. The education program takes three years to complete, but being a glassblower at Dorotheenhütte means you'll keep on learning as the manufacturer often gets requests for items they've never made before. The blowers need to stay sharp and creative.
There are glassblowing schools all around Germany, with the big glassblowing school being in Berlin.
Dorotheenhütte also has a museum section that will be expanded the following years. At the moment you can mostly see historical pieces here, among which glass art that's over 2,000 (!) years old and some glass eyes.
The new section of the museum will be more about the use of glass in the modern day, for example about the glass fiber without which we wouldn't have the internet right now.
I already told you about the outlet store, but Dorotheenhütte also has its own Christmas hall that's open all year long. There you can find all kinds of Christmas decorations (mostly balls) arranged per color theme. Even when you don't need anything, it's fun to have a look around here, especially when you know that each of these balls is handmade.
Lastly, there's also a small store where they sell products by local farmers. This way, the company wants to help the local economy and allow the farmers to determine their own price, rather than to have them conform to the market price.
I really could go on talking, but I hope I've already given you a fairly good idea about Dorotheenhütte and how it plays a part in maintaining one of the traditional German handicrafts. It's a place that has really fascinated me, especially because I got to see the glassblowers in action and noticed how passionate they are about their jobs.
If you're planning a trip to the Black Forest, I highly recommend a visit here.
Open all year round, except on December 25 and January 1.
Black Forest Open-Air Museum Vogtsbauernhof
From one craft to many, as my next Black Forest stop was at the open-air museum Vogtsbauernhof.
Vogtsbauernhof was founded about 50 years ago with the restoration of a farmstead there. That one farmstead is now accompanied by 5 other farmhouses from different regions in the Black Forest, as well as a day laborer's cottage and 15 additional buildings such as mills, a chapel, and storehouses.
These buildings aren't replicas. They're all original structures, completely equipped with original furniture, decorations, and tools, dating from the 16th until the 19th century. They were taken apart at their original location and rebuilt at Vogtsbauernhof to create some sort of “time travel village” where visitors can see how people from the region used to live.
Craftspeople like a broom maker, a spinner, a weaver, and a woodcarver regularly come to Vogtsbauernhof to give demonstrations. On top of that, there's an old mill that gets put to work every day and from mid-May until mid-September, you can attend a daily cooking demonstration and even get a meal afterward.
I was too late to see the cooking, but I did see a woodcarver, broom maker, and straw shoemaker at work.
The combination of the open-air museum that Vogsbauernhof is, and the craftspeople that are actively creating things there, makes you feel like you're walking around in history.
Schwarzwälder Freilichtmuseum Vogtsbauernhof
Vogtsbauernhof is open from the end of March until the beginning of November.
Also Good to know: there's a train stop right in front of the entrance.
The Cuckoo Clock Craft
I have to admit that, before I went on this trip, I didn't know a lot about the Black Forest. I just knew that they have a typical kind of pie, called Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, literally translated as “Black Forest cherry cake”.
But I soon learned that the region is actually known worldwide for something else: cuckoo clocks. Yes, I know what you're thinking: “Cuckoo clocks, that's so kitsch”, but bear with me for a moment because that's what I thought as well and I was proven wrong.
The world's largest cuckoo clock
In Schonach, I not only found but also entered the world's biggest cuckoo clock.
Now, before anyone gets upset: the claim that it's the world's biggest cuckoo clock isn't undisputed. When I googled this place, I found out that there are actually several cuckoo clocks all over the world who have been awarded this title by the Guinness Book of World Records.
Whether the cuckoo clock in Schonach really is the biggest in the world, is not what makes it so interesting. What's cool is that it's built as a house that you can enter so that you can see the mechanism of the clock working.
The clock was built by Joseph Dold, the father-in-law of the lady who let me in when I was visiting. It took him three years to finish it. It's 50 times bigger than a regular clock and weights of 70 kg deliver the energy to keep the radars moving.
World's largest cuckoo clock
Rombach & Haas Cuckoo Clocks
The Black Forest is still the best place to buy a cuckoo clock in Germany thanks to craftsmen like Rombach & Haas. This cuckoo clock manufacturing company run by Ingolf and Conny Haas doesn't just make the typical wooden cuckoo clocks, but also some very modern-looking ones.
Ingolf noticed my surprise and immediately told me about the history of the company and the clocks they'd been making.
Rombach & Haas has been a clock manufacturer for 120 years. Ingolf if the fourth generation of clockmakers and the company's workshop is still the same one as 120 years ago.
While he has several craftsmen who help him with the clock making, his wife Conny is the only one responsible for painting them, and by painting them I don't mean making them red or brown or black. No, by painting them I mean that Conny can put whatever you want on a clock.
A company logo? Your dog? A depiction of your favorite sport? A detailed flower? She can do it all.
I've watched her work and it's amazing. With a steady hand, she adds color to the clocks and she seems perfectly relaxed while doing so. I would be so scared to paint a wrong line!
She told me that she works on several different clocks during the day and that if you order a clock now, you'll have to wait for a couple of weeks as she simply has so much work to do.
That's partly because of the success of their modern clocks, which are actually the third generation of cuckoo clocks.
You see, the first generation didn't consist of the wooden carved cuckoo clocks everybody knows now, but “shield clocks” which were fairly simple in design. These date back to the end of the 17th century.
In 1850, there was a contest in the region to design a cuckoo clock. The winning design was the one which is now famous: that of a wooden house with a lot of carved details. This design was popular for a long time, but about 15-10 years ago people started to consider it “kitsch” and old-fashioned.
That's when Rombach & Haas changed the cuckoo clock industry. They started to create modern cuckoo clocks, in bright colors and untraditional shapes like square or rectangular boxes. The press heard about their innovative work and in the past 2 years, over 70 television shows have come to do a piece on them.
That's quite a number, but it didn't really surprise me. I could never tell you about the history of clock making and the work Rombach & Haas does like Ingolf did. I could have listened to his stories for hours. When he told me about the new things they're doing, his eyes lit up and I just knew I was talking to a man whose job was also his passion, his life.
It's so inspiring meeting people like Ingolf. They challenge me to always question where I am in life: am I happy doing what I'm doing? Can I do more? Can I become better? I hope when people hear me talking about travel and travel blogging, they see the same light in my eyes.
Rombach & Haas
Sommerberg strasse 2
Rombach & Haas does not have a webshop as they sell their clocks mostly through other webshops and stores. A Google search will give you plenty of information on where you can find their work.
I was lucky enough to be able to see their workshop and get a tour from Ingolf, but that's something they usually don't offer tourists. I managed to get in as a blogger so that I could include this piece about clock making.
I think it's important to also show the crafts part behind the object you might want to buy as a souvenir or you might come across at a museum. And a museum is exactly where we're going now.
The German Black Forest Clock Museum
The German Black Forest Clock Museum has a collection of over 8,000 items that it's been growing for the past 160 years. It's part of the university of Furtwangen and thus has a strong focus on historical research.
All the items on display are authentic German cuckoo clocks. That means that some of them don't work anymore as the museum does not want to replace original parts.
Interesting to know: the university first was a school for clockmakers. Then it evolved into a technology school and now it's an IT school.
Also interesting to know: the man who founded the museum, Robert Gerwig, has also designed the famous Schwarzwaldbahn, the “main road” that runs through the Black Forest. It's designed in such a way that no matter how many hairpin turns you make, you won't get nauseous or dizzy.
Visitors to the museum can read information on signs or use the special museum app. However, most attention goes to the items on display. These are divided per type of clock and per time period.
What I found the best part about this museum is that there are a whole bunch of old clocks that can be wound up so that you can see them in action. Just ask someone from the museum to turn them on.
The German Clock Museum
Closing thoughts on my time in the Black Forest
By visiting the Black Forest, my respect for craftsmen has only grown. Not just because of what they create, but also because of the passion with which they create and the stories they have to tell.
They have a deep understanding of what they're doing that goes beyond simply knowing how to make something. To me, their craftsmanship has something mystical.
Hotels in the Black Forest
Booking.com has an extensive list of options for all budgets and needs.
Don't forget travel insurance
Plan for the best, prepare for the worst. Travel insurance has you covered in case (part of) your trip gets canceled, you get sick or hurt abroad, and sometimes even when your electronics break or get stolen. I always make sure I'm covered every trip I go on.
Don't have travel insurance yet? Check out SafetyWing. They offer super flexible plans that you can even sign up for while you're already on your trip. On top of that, they were the first travel insurance to cover COVID, and when I got COVID, they reimbursed all of my expenses without making a fuss. Their customer support team is great and I can personally recommend them.
PIN FOR LATER
I took this trip in the light of Germany Travel's #joingermantradition campaign. This campaign wants to highlight traditions and customs all over Germany. Most of the costs I had for this trip were covered by Germany Travel. As always, all opinions are my own.
Jennifer (aka Dr J) (@SidewalkSafari) says
Such a cool tour. I haven’t been to the Black Forest (yet!) but it’s definitely on our list. Thanks for sharing, Sofie…
My pleasure Jennifer. Let me know if you go!
Great post, we did not make it to the Black Forest when we spent 3 weeks in Germany. It was on our list but we got sucked into so many other fairytale towns.
That’s understandable :D
Stephen Harrison says
Hi. I’ve been to the black forest a few times. I read your article with interest and I would add to your list of crafts.. .. brush making in the Todtnau region. In the surrounding mountains streams provided the energy for water mills… which in turn helped to power mills and lathes. The region provides great walking between villages and small towns.
Hey Stephen, Thanks for adding that tip! I hadn’t really looked into that region yet. I really should go back to the Black Forest sometime. I didn’t really have the chance to do much hiking while I was there.
My husband (an airforce brat) spend 3 wonderful years in Germany as a kid, playing in the Black Forest). We were suppose to go in 2021 for his 60th birthday but this will be impossible with the pandemic. I am thinking of offering him a leather belt with some design from the Black Forest. Would you know any artist/artisan who work with leather?
Lorraine from Ottawa, Canada
Thanks for commenting!
I’m afraid I don’t know anyone but maybe, just maybe, you’ll be able to travel there end of the year. Fingers crossed!
Debi Creech says
I have a carved wooden vase that I believe depicts the Black Forest. Under the lip of the vase is written Hirsau/Schwarzwald and there’s a number on the bottom. Could you give me any information or direction on finding out more about it. My dad was in the navy probably during the 40s and he got it then. I love it and would love to know more about it.
You might have some luck contacting the town of Hirsau and asking if they can direct you to someone, or perhaps contact the German National Tourism Board.
They have loads of contacts.
Let us know what you find! This could turn into quite an adventure :)