Lee Valley Tools Woodworking Newsletter
Vol. 3, Issue 1
September 2008
Automata: A Fascinating Woodcraft

Editor's Note: The following is the first article in a series of two. Look for the second instalment in an upcoming woodworking newsletter.

I regularly turn to woodcraft television shows for ideas and inspiration. Several years ago, I watched a show called Marvelous Mechalodeon, which featured a traveling mechanical theatre created by Ernie Fosselius. The theater was an old motorhome converted into a mobile display center and filled with mechanically animated caricatures called automata, which he had carved. I was immediately transfixed by those eccentric creatures. Little did I realize that half an hour in front of the tube would cause me to spend countless hours on this craft in the years to come. I was hooked on learning the woodcraft that Mr. Fosselius had made look so simple and fascinating.

A version of Lion Tamer
The author's version of automatist Ron Fuller's Lion Tamer.

The phrase "mechanical sculptures" can be used to describe contemporary automata makers' creations. Any automaton includes two essential elements: the use of mechanisms and the art of carving, welding, or shaping. When you turn the caricatures' crank handles, they spring to life and perform a variety of movements. They often tell a story, convey a point of view, or express an artistic statement.

Playful, artistic and sometimes silly, automata can also be very pricey. While most creations by better-known artists have asking prices ranging from several hundred to several thousand dollars, it's not unheard of to find rare early pieces that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

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