The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

Ernest "Mooney" Warther

Added to museum: 2/20/03

"Whittling" doesn't even begin to describe this type of wood carving

Ernest Warther wasn't satisfied with the quality of the knives he could buy, so in 1902 he started making knives of his own. Warther handmade cutlery is now a third-generation company being run by his son Dave and grandsons, but Ernest has become even better known for his skill with a knife in the form of hand-carved wood and ivory objects. A family museum and cutlery shop is now located in Dover, Ohio about 30 minutes from Canton.

Ernest "Mooney" Warther is shown marking out a piece of ivory before cutting for his next carved part. This photo is from the cover a book offered by the Warther Museum. It covers the highlights of his career and has many large color photos of his work. (Click photo for larger image.) Photo courtesy of the Warther Museum

How Ernest got his nickname and his start in carving

Ernest "Mooney" Warther was born in Dover, Ohio on October 30, 1885 to Swiss immigrants. His father died when Mooney was only 3 years old, and his mother struggled to keep the family together by taking in washing, ironing, mending and boarders. Because of the pressing economic circumstances, Ernest was only able to attend school through the second grade. It took him 4 years to get through 2 grades because he would only go to school when the weather was too bad to take the cows to pasture. Calling on his Swiss heritage, he went to work as a herdsman. At the time, everyone had a "family cow" or two for milk. Those who lived in town had to arrange for a pasture, and this was the basis for Ernest's business. For a penny a day, he would take cattle from Dover to pasture in outlying areas, returning them at nightfall.

This was when he acquired his nickname, "Mooney." This was short for "moonay," which in Swiss means "bull of the herd". It foretold of the vibrant life force Mooney was to exhibit all of his days. In fact he became so well known by this name that few people outside his family knew his real name.

On one of this daily treks to the fields, he found a penknife on the road and this was to become the instrument of his greatness. He took up whittling, which passed the time admirably. Mooney's carvings during this period were "rustic" in style: Caged balls, chains carved from one piece of wood, canes and pliers. A hobo carved him a pair of wooden pliers. Mooney took it home, studied it and then mastered how to carve pliers. These pliers became his calling card. It is estimated he carved about 750,000 pliers in his lifetime. At the age of l4, he quit herding cows and got a job as a scrap bundler in the local steel mill. He spent the next 23 years working there.

At the age of 28, Mooney Warther built this little workshop. It was at this point that he says he "Stopped whittling and started carving." The original 8' x 10' shop is now incorporated into a larger building. Note the arrowhead collections on the wall. (Photos courtesy of Warlther museum.)

It was with the building of his workshop, at age 28, that Mooney, in his own words, "stopped whittling and started carving". Thus began the great work of his life, carving the History of the Steam Engine. Mooney felt that his early carvings, such as pliers and canes were "whittling." His steam engines were "carving." Mooney felt that the steam engine was one of the most wonderful inventions of all times. It had done more to advance civilization than any form of transportation to his time, and had been used for peaceful purposes. The works of art depict the evolution of the steam engine in sixty-four carvings. It starts in 250 BC with Hero's Engine, and ends with the Union Pacific Big Boy Locomotive of 1941.

Mooney's first fifteen carvings were of bone and walnut. In 1923, he was able to purchase ivory. On fourteen of these, he recarved the bone pieces out of ivory. From then on, he carved walnut, ivory and ebony. The last ten years of his life he carved only in ivory. His first sources of ivory was cracked billiard balls. Later he was able to purchase elephant tusks. On the Lincoln Funeral Train he used the eyetooth of the hippopotamus, which is the finest grade of ivory.

The first 23 years of his working life were spent working at the local steel mill. Starting in 1899 at age 14 he began at the American Sheet & Tin Plate Company as a scrap bundler, eventually working his way up to the job of head shearsman. During this time he carved 25 works of art. He would later carve a mechanized model of the steel mill out of ivory and walnut. During this time he also learned to forge and temper steel from the neighborhood blacksmith. Not finding the knives he needed to suit his carving needs, he learned to make his own. He designed a knife that fit his hand well and had a selection of replaceable blades about an inch long that locked into place. When his mother complained that she couldn't keep her kitchen knives sharp, he made a small paring knife for her. Her friends admired it and soon he was making knives for them as well as pocket knives for their husbands.  During extended shutdowns of the mill, he would make knives for income for his family. This was the beginning of the Warther Kitchen Cutlery business, which is still run by Mooney's son Dave and grandson Dale.

Mooney is "discovered"

The New York Central Railroad heard about Mooney's carvings and in 1923 made him an offer to exhibit his models on a special train. Mooney quit his job after 23 years at the mill and toured the country displaying his carvings for six months. After that, he displayed them in Grand Central Station in New York City for another two and a half years. He talked about his carving and made souvenir pliers for the showgoers. At the close of the show the railroad offered him $50.000 for his carvings and $5000 a year to remain with the display at the station, but he declined their offer. He also received an even more handsome offer from Henry Ford but turned that down too. He replied, "My roof doesn't leak, I'm not hungry and my wife has all her buttons." (His wife was a collector of buttons, and her collection is also on display at the Warther Museum.)

After returning from his exhibit at the Grand Central Station in 1926 he decided not to go back to work at the steel mill, feeling its old style hot rolling equipment would soon be out of date. (The plant closed for good in 1931.) Instead he decided to devote himself to carving and he and his wife Frieda would make a living making and selling knives and showing is carvings in a traveling show. The stock market crash of 1929 was hard on everyone, including Mooney and his family. In 1933 he completed his finest work, the Great Northern Locomotive. He continued to carve, make knives and display his carvings in shows until 1936, when he built a 12' x 16' brick building in the corner of Freida's garden which then became the home for his carvings. They remained there until his son Dave bought a neighbor's lot in 1963 and built a larger building adjoining the original workshop. This is now the lobby to the Warther complex.

During World War II took time off from his carving. During that time he exclusively made Commando Knives for local servicemen. He made about 1100 of these hand-forged knives, and they are credited in taking part in every major battle the United States fought except Pearl Harbor. Each was personalized with the serviceman's name stamped into a brass plate in the cocobolo handle. Each also included a sheath of copper and stainless steel. He had obtained all the inventory from the Canton Cutlery Co. in 1940 when they closed their doors. He used the steel from this inventory for his knives. Since he didn't have a government contract, other necessary materials were hard to obtain. The community got together and factory workers would bring scrap copper and brass to Mooney's shop. He became known locally as the smallest defense plant in the nation. Personally he was strongly opposed to war, but felt if the boys had to fight, they should have the best fighting knife he could make. When he heard the announcement of the end of the war on the radio he pud down the commando knife he was working on and never finished it nor made another. It remains in the museum today unfinished.

In 1953 at the age of 68 he completed his 54th carving; the Union Pacific "Big Boy" locomotive. Railroads were then converting from steam to diesel power, and Mooney vowed he would never carve a diesel if he lived to be 1000. He retired at the age of 68 and his son encouraged him to return to carving.  At age 72 he started his great work, "Great Events in American Railroad History". These carvings included a solid ivory representation of the driving of the golden spike on the transcontinental railroad. He also depicted the great locomotive chase of the Civil War, the Casey Jones locomotive and the first passenger train, the John Bull. His largest project is the 8-foot long Empire State Express. At age 80 he carved the Lincoln funeral train in ebony and ivory with mother of pearl accents.

With the building of a new display building in 1963 Dave Warther was able to realize his dream of a display dedicated to his father's work. Mooney continued to work on his Great Events series, carve pliers for visitors and generally enjoy life. He died at the age of 87 leaving his last work, The Lady Baltimore locomotive unfinished. His son Dave stated, "As long as I can remember, Pop always said he wanted to leave a carving unfinshed on the workbench. He believed everyone should do something creative and should do it as long as they can."

About his selection and use of materials

Most of Mooney's carvings start out with basic materials: An ebony or walnut log, an elephant tusk or ivory billiard balls and abalone pearl. Warther lived in an era when elephants died of old age or disease and not from poachers. When he first started carving, he used soup bones from his wife's beef vegetable pot for the white trim on the carvings. Warther loved the elephants and the family today believes he would have returned to using soup bones if he had lived long enough to see the poaching.

Model Railroader magazine article details his carved locomotives

Mooney Warther took on the project of carving history of steam engines throughout history. This article from Model Railroader was written in 1970, when Mr. Warther was 84 years old. The article is five pages long but, unfortunately, not in color. Click on each of the small pages below to enlarge it for reading. A collection of his carvings is on display in the family museum in Dover, Ohio.

page 1 page 2 page 3 page 4 page 5

Copyright 1970, Kalmbach Publishing Co.
Reproduced with permission of Model Railroader Magazine
( - - Russ Larson, Publisher.

More on the Warther family cutlery business, the museum and Ernest "Mooney" Warther's work can be found on their web site at Visit their museum in Ohio and see Mr. Warther's work in person.

A book entitled Mooney—The Life of the World's Master Carver was written by John P. Hayes. The 135-page book contains much more detailed information on Earnest Warther's life and career. Also included are 14 black and white photos of Mooney, his family and his work. Contact the Warther Musem to order a copy.

Here are several examples of Mooney Warther's work:

(Click photos for larger images.)

Photos courtesy of Warther Museum

This round carved tower contains a "plier tree" containing 511 working pliers carved from one block of wood. During his cowhearding days, a hobo showed Mooney how to carve a pair of pliers for a solid piece of wood using only 10 cuts. He would then carve each handle into two more sets for a total of three. Then he would carve each of those four handles into two more each for a total of seven sets, all branching from the first. In his twenties he carried this to the unbelieveable level seen in the photo. This "tree" of pliers took 31,000 cuts and took from June 24 to August 28, 1913 to complete. It was displayed at the Chicago World's Fair in 1933. Professors at Case University studied the plier tree and declared that one would have to have an advanced mathematical education to be able to design a block of wood of the correct shape to begin such a project. Mooney replied that he was glad he was told this after he made the tree and not before.
The "Big Four" 4-4-2 Atlantic topped 100 miles an hour in 1904. The photo shows Mooney's daughters Florence and Alice at his workbench while he carved it in 1920.
Six of the pieces from the history of the steam engine include Isacc Newton's proposed locomotive in the upper left down to the whirling Aeolipile from Greece in the first century AD. In the center of the top row is Hero's engine from Alexandria, Egypt in 250 BC.
The unfinished serviceman's Commando Dagger Mooney was working on when WW II ended.

The 8-foot long Empire State Express is carved from ivory, while the stone arch bridge it sits on is made from blocks of ebony. The "mortar" is inlaid ivory. The photo in the Warther history booklet crossed two pages and was too big for my scanner, so it is published here in two sections. We apologize for the fold across the middle of the photo, but the photo is not yet available in digital form.

The Lincoln Funeral Train was completed on April 14, 1965—the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination. It is carved from Ebony and Ivory with mother of pearl accents at the bottom of each car. A carving of Lincoln's body rests in a casket in the center car.

The Union Pacific "Big Boy," the largest of the steamers.
Burled walnut and ivory, carved from January 19 to October 30, 1953.
Mooney completed this carving on his 68th birthday. Completed in 9 months time, the carving consists of over 7,000 individually carved pieces. The brown components are of Burled Walnut, and all the white components are of Ivory. As with all of Mooney's carvings, it is mechanically accurate and carved to a scale of 1/2 inch to the Foot. Wheels, Pistons, Flyrods, Driving Arms, and Valves all operate just like the actual steamer. Even the bell swings.

This Union Pacific locomotive, weighed in at over 600 tons, had 6 foot tall drive wheels, and burned 22 tons of coal per hour. There were 25 built in the l940's.They were used mostly west of the Mississippi River. They were the last steam engines built, and by far the largest.

Considered one of Mooney Warther's finest carvings, The Great Northern Mountain type 4-8-4 locomotive consisted of 7,752 individually carved pieces. It was his favorite. Made from ebony, ivory and pearl, the carving was completed in 1933 when Mooney was 48 and at the top of his form.

A front view of the Great Northern shows the detail of the drivers and pilot. Note also the thin ivory bell chain looping down the top of the boiler.
A side view of the cab shows steam lines, rivit detail and the beautiful "goat" logo of the Great Northern Railroad inset into the side of the tender. The ivory goat is surrounded by mother of pearl.
This New York Central 4-6-4 Hudson type locomotive was carved in 8 months and consists of 7,332 pieces.
A top view of the tender of the New York Central Hudson shows a secret compartment hidden under the coal in the tender. In each tender he hid a time capsule with notes from the children present when he finished the project along with the last piece of sandpaper he used when finishing it. On the back of the sandpaper he wrote the starting and completion date of the carving, the number of pieces and the total number of hours it took to carve it.
This burled walnut and ivory carving shows the steel mill where Mooney worked for 23 years. The scene includes 17 articulated men doing their jobs and even a sleeping worker and irate foreman.
Mooney Warther's son Dave now continues to run the family cutlery business and the museum. His own son Dale is also involved in the knifemaking business. The knives are hand made from high carbon chrome steel and finished with their trademark "engine turned" finish. Each blade is hand ground and honed. They are available only through the Warther Museum Gift shop and by mail order.

For more information on the museum or Warther Cutlery contact:
E. Warther & Son, Inc., 327 Karl Avenue, Dover, OH 44622
(303) 343-7513

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