Monday, December 21, 2009

A Champion Bull

We have some magnificent animals at The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, and some equally stunning counterparts in the Fenimore Art Museum’s folk art collection. This bull is one of the best of its type to be found anywhere. One of the biggest too, at 44 ½” long and 31” high. It’s a wood carving, but not meant to be seen by anyone in its current form. That’s because this bull was simply a model for a copper weathervane rather than a finished work of art on its own.

All of the great copper weathervanes, with fully articulated bodies, were originally hand carved in wood by a highly skilled artist. These are rare survivals, since they were not highly valued once the manufactory went out of business. It is very fortunate indeed that this bull was not tossed away. A sharp-eyed dealer named Adele Earnest saved it and we purchased it from her Stony Point Antique Shop in Stony Point, New York in 1954.

The process of taking a wood pattern and creating a copper weathervane required several steps. Nineteenth-century commercial manufacturers followed the steps listed below, with some variations, to produce hollow-bodied copper weathervanes from wooden models like our bull.

How Commercial Weathervanes Were Made
Step One: Artisan carves full-scale model in wood.
Step Two: The model is cut into component parts (see the front view below that shows the bull cut in half down the middle. There are seams for his head, horns, legs, and tail too).

Step Three: Cast iron molds are made from each of the parts of the wood model.

Step Four: Artisan hammers sheet copper into the molds to force the copper into shape.

Step Five: Copper is removed, and additional details are hammered by hand.

Step Six: Copper parts are soldered together, seams smoothed and polished.

Step Seven: Figure mounted on brass tube and gilded.

For any given design, steps one through three had to be done only once. Many weathervanes could be made from the molds before they showed any signs of deterioration.

Large weathervane manufactories such as L. W. Cushing and sons employed professional woodcarvers to carve the patterns. Other artisans would do the metalwork to finish the vane. The weathervane industry is one place where hand craftsmanship and mass production merged to create a large supply of beautifully wrought and decorative vanes to grace houses, barns, and public buildings across the country.

And like so many other folk artists, their cast-offs are as interesting as the finished product.


  1. I guess I had never thought about how weather vanes were made, but this is not what I would have guessed. The wood bull is very beautiful in his own right.

  2. Thanks, Christine. I agree that the wood bull is a better work of art than anything made from it in copper would be. We are lucky it survived!


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