Muriel Schumacher makes typical Alsace Christmas decorations out of wood using a scroll saw – called, in French, a scie à chantourner.
She opened her workshop Au P’tit Bonheur in Nothalten, Bas-Rhin, in 2006, and the number of orders grew so fast that she has taken on two colleagues, Patricia Entzmann and Astride Didier.
It was not a job she planned to take up as she had trained and worked as an accountant for five years, then brought up her children and worked as a nanny for another five years.
It was when she was with her children that she bought her first scroll saw and started making Christmas decorations with them.
Requests for her decorations grew until she decided to open a workshop
A friend asked her to help set up a stall at a Christmas market. Little by little, the requests for her decorations grew until she decided to open a workshop. Now, the team of three work flat-out all year round to produce enough items to sell during the busy Christmas period.
In non-Covid years, they are busy supplying marchés de Noël from mid-November. This year, they will have to depend on internet sales.
Mrs Schumacher, 50, says she has no formal training and simply learnt on the job.
She is not sure what to call herself when anyone asks her for the name of her profession, but calls the art of using a scroll saw chantournage.
“Using a scroll saw is a bit like using a sewing machine,” she explained. “The extremely fine blade is fixed and I move the wood around for it to cut in the right place, just as you do when you are sewing."
“You have to be a bit stronger because the wood is harder than material and we cut five pieces 5mm thick each at a time. You have to be very precise and concentrate like mad to get it right. It is particularly delicate when you cut internal tracery in the design.”
'I do all of the drawings myself'
The wood they use is lime plywood.
“The first job is to come up with a design. Some are based on typical Alsace decorations and some are original. I do all of the drawings myself."
“They are made on a computer and now that I have been able to buy more sophisticated equipment, they are linked directly to a laser, which burns the outline of the design on to the wood surface."
“Then I cut them out with the scroll saw – it can be fairly straightforward or take a long time if it is very intricate. The edges are rough, so need to be sanded, which is first done using a machine with a roller and then more finely with a smaller tool."
“If they are painted, this takes time as each one has three layers. For some, we then add on material, or smaller detailed wooden decorations, engrave them or add detail by laser at the end.” It is difficult, she said, to say how long it takes to make an item as each one is different. A series of 50 angel shapes she recently worked on took all day just to cut out.
The time spent on each piece is reflected in the price. In the range of hearts, the cheapest is a simple cut-out for €1.80, going up to €6.50 for one painted red with an engraved white lace pattern.
She said wooden decorations like hers are traditional in Alsace and neighbouring Germany: “I do not know the history or why this has become a tradition, but families used to make them at home.
'Often, when I am at a Christmas market, an elderly man or woman will come up and say it reminds them of what they used to make when they were children'
She said demand is growing for “authentic” decorations like hers: “People want to buy authentic products.
“They want to know where they come from and how they are made. They are more personal than industrial ones. If someone buys one on a visit to Alsace, it will remind them of their holiday every time they look at it.”
The Au P’tit Bonheur workshop also produces nonseasonal items such as keyrings and fridge magnets, which are sold in their boutique and in local tourist offices, but most of their sales are at Christmas.
They have to start working on their stock in January, and have very little left by the end of the following December
This year, they will have some in hand from an inevitable drop in sales but at least, they say, this may give them time to develop new projects.
Mrs Schumacher loves her job: “There are always new adventures. Last year, Strasbourg had a stall in New York and our decorations were on display and sold there.
“A lot of people have a dream to change direction and start on something new they think they will really enjoy and I have been lucky to do that.”
There are no official training courses to become a scroll-saw operator and make objects like this, though you can find short private courses to learn the techniques.
They are held, for example, at the museum Atelier des Savoir- Faire, based in an old woodturning factory at St Claude, Jura (atelierdessavoirfaire.fr), and at Passion Chantournage, Trebrivan, Côtes-d’Armor (stageboisbretagne.com).