A visit to Birnbaumblau joinery

A city yard filled with wood

The Birnbaumblau joinery is a workshop of a kind you rarely see any more these days – though if you do, it’s most likely to be in Haidhausen. In a tranquil rear yard, two master joiners, three qualified skilled workers and two apprentices work to create sustainable, lovingly handcrafted furniture. A visit to a magical wood-crafting operation.

Right beside the workshop entrance, stacked under sheets of corrugated plastic, is where Walter Schernhammer stores his treasures: the timber from which he and his colleagues at the Birnbaumblau joinery produce tables, cabinets, beds and kitchen furniture. You can still spot the tree trunks’ curved shape and the odd piece of bark clinging to the wood here and there, and notice that someone has written the wood type in black marker on the cut edges: service tree, beech, stone pine, oak. “Cutting the wood, planing it, giving the surface a face,” is always the best part of his work, Schernhammer says as he scrutinises the sawn-up tree trunks.

A large woodpile in a Haidhausen rear yard seems like a surprising sight in an area so well-manicured that every traffic island is diligently mown every couple of weeks and every park bench has its fixed spot. That’s true even here in the Franzosenviertel area of the district, which is more compact and villagey than other neighbourhoods in Munich. But Schernhammer insists that his wood pile and associated joinery are no aberration: “It used to be that every rear yard accommodated some kind of trade,” he explains.

“Cutting the wood, planing it, giving the surface a face,” is always the best part of his work, Schernhammer says as he scrutinises the sawn-up tree trunks.

The Birnbaumblau workshop is a joinery of a kind you hardly ever see any more: on this 240-square-metre site in the heart of the city, two master joiners, three qualified skilled workers, and two apprentices devotedly craft high-quality furniture by hand. Whereas most joineries are characterised by the computer-operated milling machines which have become standard, here they are notable for their absence. This is partly due to a lack of space, but mainly because almost all the furniture pieces built here are one-off items. “The people who come to us here often have a spare nook or corner and have been unable to find the right thing for it from the mass suppliers,” says Schernhammer.

There has been a joinery on this site since the 1950s. Schernhammer took it over in 1999 – and he has the widow of the original joiner to thank for the fact that it is still here today. “When this area was being renovated and built up during the 1980s, she simply refused to sell,” he explains. That was a real stroke of luck – not only because Schernhammer has himself been living in Haidhausen for almost thirty years and values the short commute – but also because Birnbaumblau only works in conjunction with the area and the local people.

“We see ourselves as part of the local basic supply network,” says Schernhammer, as he points out that many orders are from within the neighbourhood. But it means something else to him as well: people with smaller problems often knock at the workshop door looking for help. Maybe they bought a plank at the DIY store that needs cutting down for example, or a new cabinet which won’t fit in their apartment. “For those situations, it’s really great to be able to go down the road and get some help,” comments Schernhammer. “It doesn’t really pay off for us financially, but as a craftsperson I think it just comes with the territory.”

Doesn’t it bother him that his carefully crafted one-off pieces often end up standing beside anonymous furniture shop items? On the contrary: “Our customers are not the kind of people who like to throw money around,” says Schernhammer. He loves knowing that someone has saved up to buy a high-quality desk from them, but then in return they have had to make sacrifices when buying the wall unit. “And there are always people who come back five or ten years later and still want to buy the cabinet from us,” he notes.

“We try to work as sustainably as possible,” says Schernhammer. That means green electricity, waste prevention and avoiding tropical timbers.

Close customer interaction is also important to Schernhammer, because the pieces produced at Birnbaumblau are not abstract products, but are instead always created in interaction with the people they are made for. “We create furniture that hasn’t existed before – pieces made especially for a specific person.” To be able to do this, it is essential for the customer to visit the joinery – that is the only way to establish the necessary basis of trust for a customised piece. After all, you can’t consult a catalogue to see how the finished cabinet will look.

“We are never reinventing the table, obviously, but nonetheless each of our tables is unique,” Schernhammer says, pointing out an example made from light-coloured wood, which is currently being assembled at the back of the joinery. The square tabletop looks narrower and longer than the standard unit size from a furniture shop. Later, a sophisticated extension system will be added to ensure that the table can be adapted to make room for guests, with a few simple movements. “The customer asked for that,” says Schernhammer.

Back in his office, he tells us about how the work of a joiner has changed in recent years. When he starts to talk about the finer points of woodwork his hands begin moving; his fingertips seek out contact with the wood, and his roughened hands make a pleasant rasping sound as they stroke the oiled oak top of a desk. “In the past, people had an even more specific idea of the furniture they wanted and how to make it,” Schernhammer recounts. Today though, a common language is often lacking – for example, when a customer expresses a preference for “white wood” and it later emerges that they actually meant chipboard painted white. “Sometimes people don’t realise that those boards do not grow, but are manufactured,” Schernhammer says, without irritation.

He knows that the reality of life has changed a great deal in recent decades, especially for city dwellers, and that so much has changed from manual to virtual. For him, that makes the remaining city workshops all the more important. “I consider it to be a mission.” He wants to show people how the pieces are made – that the boards are not simply waiting in the warehouse, ready-made, but instead start as tree trunks in the yard which need to be cut to size, planed and assembled – something that is only possible if people live nearby and can call in spontaneously. “You don’t get people just passing if you’re in some industrial estate,” says Schernhammer.

Now it is nearly closing time at the joinery, and the circular saw – the roar of which has been drowning out all other noise – is switched off. The team has a cabinet to deliver tomorrow, so they pack their toolboxes, grab the bubble wrap from the basement and arrange the cabinet pieces. “We try to work as sustainably as possible,” says Schernhammer. That means green electricity, waste prevention and avoiding tropical timbers. They also got rid of their van twenty years ago, and now use car sharing when delivering furniture instead; it’s a little less convenient, but worth it for people and for the environment.

When Birnbaumblau was established two decades ago, they set themselves three goals, Schernhammer explains. First, to uphold traditional craft techniques; second, to find a timeless modern design language for doing so; and third, to work as sustainably as possible. Schernhammer looks around the joinery, now quiet and still; he seems content: “We are still doing the same things we committed to back then. It’s just that many more people are interested in it nowadays.”

 

 

Text: Nansen & Piccard; Photos: Frank Stolle

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