The Cowbell Blacksmith

the Story

The "Schmiedshof" Blacksmith's Forge

In 1703, blacksmith Jakob Scherl purchased the estate on which the Schmiedshof proudly stands today. The estate comprised of the entire house with stables and barns, hemp and herb gardens as well as some land. He sold the entire estate to his son Josef in 1753, who expanded the agricultural and metalwork operations - as have his successors since. The Tyrolean Oberland tradition of passing property down the generations was not practised by the Scherl Family, resulting in economic problems during various generation change-overs when inheritances needed to be paid out. If there was no direct heir, a nephew would be named as successor. Josef Scherl took over the forge in 1958. He remained single and childless and handed the forge over to his nephew, Walter Scherl, in 1994. Walter Scherl is the last master cowbell blacksmith in Austria that continues to perform this unusual craft. 

The Forge

In order to carry out the activities particular to this trade in the 21st Century, liquid metal literally needs to flow in one’s veins. Not only does it take proper hard graft to create these bells, purchasers still need to be found for the product. These are becoming fewer and far between, because keeping livestock in the mountains is no longer such a profitable enterprise. This reduced demand cannot be replaced by the few examples purchased by fan clubs and traditional “Krampus” clubs. Production methods have been made easier with advancing technology, but there is still a great deal of manual work and feeling required to produce the bells.

The Cowbells

The blacksmith cuts the basic form for the bells out of a 2mm thick piece of sheet metal. This is heated to around 1,000°C and beaten into shape using a hammer, or moulded using a cold press. The cowbells are riveted along the side edges, then soldered or welded. The result is an egg shaped body with an oval opening at the bottom; the mouth. „Galgen“ are then welded on and inside the bells, through which the strap can be later threaded and the „Klaffl“ (clapper) is hung inside. Once the cowbell has reached this stage it is plated with brass. Previously, the cowbells were dipped in a borate bath before being sprinkled with brass powder. Small bells were covered in brass shavings and the large with a clay cope, then rolled in a hot charcoal-fired furnace.

Blacksmiths also had to understand the art of charcoal making; necessary for their trade - and where to find clay soil required for working with brass. Only when the cowbells have been highly polished, is the clapper inserted. Small cowbells are tuned with pure high notes and the larger bells are given three different tones. These three together should sound like a triad harmony, a so-called Senntum (dairy tone).