For centuries, the woodcarvers of Val Gardena have enriched the world with chiseled works of art exhibiting astonishing detail and beauty. Join us as we go behind the scenes at DEUR Sculptures to reveal why appreciating South Tyrol’s woodcarving heritage should be a part of your trip plans.
With the Dolomites lording over the forests of South Tyrol’s Val Gardena, it’s easy to let the mountains capture all the glory. But as we discovered, one would miss out on a vast world of artistic splendor if they were to never explore beneath the peaks.
Our introduction to the earthly talents of Val Gardena almost didn’t happen. Not without an encouraging nudge from Mother Nature. On most outdoor adventures, bad weather is a misfortune. Yet sometimes, just sometimes, it can actually be luck in disguise. That was the case for us the day we came to adore Val Gardena for far more than its heavenly mountains.
Into the Valley of Woodcarvers
The forecast said rain throughout South Tyrol. A glance out of our balcony confirmed it. Clouds blushing with anger brooded upon the summits of Merano.
Our plan for the day was to drive into Val Gardena and hike Seceda — one of the most iconic mountain scenes in the world. Seceda stirred in our imagination ever since gushing over pictures of its saw-tooth peaks looming above a sweeping Alpine pasture called Col Raiser. We decided to risk the overcast weather.
Less than an hour into our drive, the rain began. Softly at first, like a gardener sprinkling her flowers. Then as we turned off the A22 towards Val Gardena, the sprinkle swelled into a fire hose.
By the time we arrived in Ortisei, the rain barely let up. Clouds stubbornly rested atop the slopes. It was quite clear the Dolomities were going to remain in a foul mood.
As we knew next to nothing about Ortisei, we decided to venture onto Brixen. Yet even in under the spell of gloom, the Alpine charm of Ortisei was enticing. Timber-roofed chalets bearing balconies flush with bright geraniums called to us. We made a note to come back and wander the town when the weather was more friendly.
But before departing, we spotted a towering stone studio along the roadside with tall windows allowing a glimpse inside. There, stood beautiful figures. Some haunting. Others cheerful. They were motionless, but full of life. The sign on the facade said “DEUR Sculptures”.
Inside was a treasure chest of chiseled wood. We carefully eyed the pieces like we were in a museum. Soon we were greeted by Nadia Demetz, DEUR Sculptures sales leader. She graciously helped us find an ideal woodcarving for our home, but before leaving we asked if we could return to learn more about Val Gardena’s woodcarving tradition and DEUR Sculptures. Nadia said of course as she was the daughter of the owner.
A Chiseling History
The mood of the mountains was much more amicable when we returned to Ortisei the following fall. All of the Alpine wonders we missed on our first visit were now on full display. Clear skies prevailed throughout the morning allowing us to finally ascend and wander what very well may be the Dolomites’ greatest masterpiece: Seceda.
After our hiking outing, we returned to DEUR Sculptures to meet Nadia for a grand tour of her family business. She began with the history of wood carving in South Tyrol. Nadia stated historical documents provide evidence of two Ladin families, Tröbinger and Vinatzer, carving wood with their children as early as 1624. With farming not possible in the winter, more and more families in Val Gardena passed time carving toys, religious figurines and tools.
The wood carvings of Val Gardena ultimately found demand beyond the farmsteads as artisans traveled to nearby cities like Innsbruck, Milan, Munich and even Paris to exchange their crafts for other goods. By the late 1800s, wood carving grew into a viable source of income for many Ladin families. So much so that Val Gardena became known as the “Valley of Woodcarvers”. Carving schools arose to formalize teaching the craft from one generation to the next.
Today, the wood carvings of Val Gardena are found in all corners of the world. The valley’s captivating creations adorn many of mankind’s greatest cathedrals and architectural treasures.
Deur Sculptures Takes Flight
The seeds for DEUR Sculptures began in 1954 when Nadia’s grandfather, Oswald Demetz, enrolled in a carving apprenticeship. His father was a wood turner and his mother a sculptor so pursuing a wood carving career was only natural.
Oswald nourished his creative talents under a master woodcarver for 12 years. In that time, he established a renowned reputation for excellence and scrupulous attention to detail. In 1966, this hard-earned reputation led him to found DEUR Sculptures. The name of which comes from the shop he initially opened in St. Christina.
His son, Karlheinz, made it a family business by joining in 1985. Together, they grew DEUR Sculptures beyond religious art and nativity scenes to include relief wall carvings, furniture and secular figures such as clowns, folk characters, gnomes, animals and much more.
DEUR Sculptures now even creates custom carvings based on pictures or sketches they receive. These personalized pieces include life-size figures of individuals, as well as beloved pets. Nadia shared images of this custom work with us. We were awestruck. The skill it takes to chisel such uncanny resemblance from a block of wood is remarkable.
Now one of the largest wood carving companies in South Tyrol, DEUR Sculptures’ staff is made up of specialty wood carvers, painters, business managers and a sales team who promote the company’s creations around the world. Many religious institutions look to DEUR for their artwork, as well as other organizations that do not deal in the divine. Recently, the company sold a life-size nativity scene to Stiegl Brewery, which is on display in Salzburg, Austria during the Christmas season.
A Sampling of Wood Carvings from DEUR Sculptures
Deciding where to settle your gaze first when walking into DEUR Sculptures is like trying to decide which rose to smell in a bouquet. Every piece looks elaborate and awe-inspiring. From rows of Madonnas cradling child to hallowed angels and saints to figurines of all walks of life, the amount of talent on display in the showroom rivals a museum.
⇒ See More: Discover the massive wine casks chiseled by Val Gardena woodcarvers deep within the wine cellar of Elena Walch.
How a Woodcarver’s Vision Takes Form
After giving us a historical perspective, Nadia walked through the actual art of wood carving. Once DEUR selects a subject to carve it is first sculpted out of plasticine (modeling clay). This prep work takes a sculptor 2-3 days; however, the time spent is well worth it. The finished plasticine sculpture becomes the model — making carving from a block of wood much easier and greatly minimizing the risk of costly mistakes.
With a model to emulate, a woodcarver can produce a 2 ft. figurine in less than 2 weeks. But the production time frame is also dependent on the wood type used. DEUR carves a variety of wood species with the most common being pine, maple and lime.
Thanks to the abundance of pine in the Alps, the woodcarvers of Val Gardena perfected their craft over centuries using the soft wood. Nowadays with greater access to woods from all over the world, DEUR can be more selective in matching the perfect wood species for a given subject.
For example, DEUR Sculptures uses maple for smaller figures. It’s a hardwood with bright color and minimal branches — an ideal choice for chiseling details. DEUR’s grandest sculptures arise from limewood. Softer than maple with a close grain and few branches, it is less liable to warp than other hardwoods like oak or walnut. Additional wood types used, although less frequently, include chestnut, nutwood, cherry wood, ash wood and oak.
When a woodcarver finishes a piece, DEUR will either leave it in its natural state or have a painter transform the artwork with even more detail. Nadia indicated they use three different coloring styles: brown toning, oil painting or antiquing.
In antiquing, the artist applies 22-karat gold foil to give the carving a more vintage appearance and appeal. Layering gold foil over a piece is called gold leafing or gilding.
A Master Woodcarver at Work
Nadia led us to a studio off of the showroom so we could watch a woodcarver in action. Upon entering, the rich aroma of fresh-cut wood instantly enveloped us. A carver stood chiseling on a block of wood suspended on a post. His eyes flashed up momentarily to politely greet us before returning to his subject with a steady rhythm of gentle knocks.
Watching him masterfully perform his artistry was riveting. It’s one thing to be moved by a finished piece of art, but to see the artist’s vision unfold before your eyes is truly powerful. We studied his mesmerizing movements as he fashioned a sorrowful Madonna from a piece of chestnut wood. The beautiful detail he chiseled left no doubt it would only take the breath of life to make the wooden Madonna a living soul.
We could have easily spent the rest of the afternoon watching the carver seemingly dance around his subject, but did not want to overstay our welcome in the studio. No one likes a voyeur lurking over your shoulder while concentrating on a work of art.
vISIT the Valley of Woodcarvers
Nadia finished our tour by sharing with us the work DEUR Sculptures has done to make their artistry more accessible worldwide. Much of her time over the last several months was spent capturing artwork imagery and descriptions for a new storefront on their website. Thousands of products can now be purchased from DEUR Sculptures’ online shop. They ship to virtually any country in the world. Each item sold includes a certificate authenticating it is handmade in South Tyrol.
Of course as impressive as their website is nothing compares to browsing their shop in Ortisei. And if you’re venturing deeper into Val Gardena, you can also visit the original DEUR Sculptures shop in St. Christina.
Stopping in either location is an enamoring introduction to the wood carving tradition of South Tyrol. With more than half the region blanketed by forest, purchasing a carving is a perfect way to bring a bit of South Tyrol into your home.
Once you leave DEUR Sculptures, you’ll not only have an incredible piece of art, but also the conviction that within the hands of their artisans, there is scarcely any limit to the beautiful forms and expressions they can carve.
We’d like to give a special thank you to Nadia for her time and for giving us a wonderful glimpse into South Tyrol’s wood carving tradition.
Brianna Simmons says
I’m always fascinated by local crafts and could easily spend all day at the DEUR showroom. The craftsmanship of those woodcarvers is amazing, they almost look like porcelain.
Jenn and Ed Coleman says
I love seeing crafts made by local artisans. It sounds like they have a story that goes back many generations and could really commemorate your trip to a place like this.
Fiona Maclean says
I love that you discovered something so special because of bad weather. The “Valley of Woodcarvers” does have some really beautiful artisan carvings.
Rahma Khan says
TBH I had no idea about these carvings in South Tyrol! Thanks for educating me. A really fascinating tradition.
Those carvings would make perfect souvenirs! They completely capture the rural charm and lush forest of the region!