Warther Museum & Gardens

Admission to the Ernest Warther Museum and Gardens in Dover, Ohio is approx. $15/adult, $13.50/seniors, $7/student (ages 12-17), $5 (ages youth 4 – 7).

The Ernest Warther Museum and Gardens:  This world-class facility is a fitting tribute to Ernest “Mooney” Warther, World’s Master Carver. Warther created a collection of steam locomotives carved of ebony and ivory which have been appraised as priceless by the Smithsonian Institution. The carvings are displayed in a beautiful Swiss chalet which includes a new theater handcrafted of solid curly maple. You will also experience new displays, and the expanded knifemaking & woodshop. Freida Warther’s Button House is still a sight to see and in the summer the Swiss gardens are magnificent.

The original Warther Carving Museum opened three generations ago and has blossomed into an attraction that draws visitors from all over the world. The amazing Warther story is presented by knowledgeable guides and enhanced by films that include family photos and movies of Mooney carving in his shop. Some of the new displays show his traveling years, his love of reading, and commando knives made during World War II.

Dave Warther, Mooney’s son, or grandson Mark is usually in the lobby greeting visitors and carving souvenir wooden pliers for children. Mooney made the pliers famous by placing 10 interconnecting cuts into a block of wood. Another grandson, Dale, makes handcrafted kitchen knives. From the knife shop viewing area, you can observe the cutlery and knife blocks being created. The Warther gift shop is operated by Dave’s wife, Joanne, and his daughter Carol. It is the exclusive home of Warther Cutlery.

Excerpt from a past edition of OhioTraveler


When a guy is named Mooney you expect something out of the ordinary.  Mooney Warther would not have been a disappointment. He was witty, funny, gifted, eccentric, ambitious, and entrepreneurial—genius would not adequately describe his stature.

Ernest “Mooney” Warther was a woodcarver extraordinaire.  Terms such as “world’s greatest” or “world’s best” are often used as fictitious hype, but when applied to Mooney’s aptitude with a knife, they are not an exaggeration.

It’s a quirk of human nature when hearing such exalted claims to believe that such talent is found only in some strange faraway venue. In truth, one of the most skilled artists in history was born, grew up, and plied his trade—largely unnoticed—in our own back yard: Dover, Ohio.

His father died when Mooney was three, and he acquired only a second-grade education that took him four years to complete.  Mooney didn’t have much time for school—he was working.  His cattle herding for a penny a day was the source of his name—an adulterated version of “moonay” from his Swiss heritage that means bull of the herd.

It was on one of his herding excursions in 1890 at the age of five that he found a pocketknife and began carving.  Mooney said it was a hobo who taught him to cut a pair of pliers from a solid block of wood.  It was a procedure he perfected and claimed as his signature. It is estimated that in his career Mooney made and gave away 750,000 of the little wooden devices.

By age fourteen he was working in a steel mill but continually carved models of steam locomotives that had enthralled him since early childhood. At one point, however, he found time to carve a working model of the mill including an animated figure of his old friend who liked to hide behind a furnace and steal a nip from his flask.

Mooney carved hardwoods like walnut and ebony and was dissatisfied with store-bought knives that wouldn’t hold an edge.  No doubt aided by his experience at the mill, Mooney researched different types of steel and techniques of tempering and sharpening. He first made a kitchen knife for his mother. It was so good that word spread rapidly, and by 1923 Mooney left the mill and began making knives as a business.

It was the same year that the New York Central Railroad discovered his locomotive carvings. He was offered fifty thousand dollars, plus five thousand per year to stay with the display. Henry Ford made an even more generous offer, but Mooney declined both.  “My roof doesn’t leak, I’m not hungry, and my wife has all her buttons,” he said.  (His wife was a collector of buttons, which are displayed along with Mooney’s carvings.)

While Mooney designed his own carving knives, he decided to see how far he could go with his pliers-making expertise.  He started with a large block and hewed one pair after another—all connected until he had a “tree” of pliers—511 in all that could be folded back recreating the block from which they were fashioned.  It was an exercise in mental dexterity as well as carving skills. Engineering professors from what was then Case Institute of Technology in Cleveland studied the sculpture and proclaimed it was impossible to have been produced in one piece. Yet undeniably, there it was.

As a young boy, I was the recipient of one of Mooney’s pliers.  His bushy snow-white curls bounced, as he talked non-stop in his high-pitched gravelly voice.  He held a four-inch rectangular piece of wood in one hand, and with the other made a series of quick strokes with a short-bladed knife. In a matter of about five seconds, he opened it, revealing handles hinged to jaws just like a real pair of pliers. My eyes bulged in wonder as he handed it to me, the youngest in the family of viewers.

But the pliers rate only as a parlor trick compared with his train carvings.  They’re done in exact scale and authentic in minute detail.  Some of them have as many as 7,500 parts:  pipes, rivets, screws, connecting rods, perfectly round wheels—each created on a simple bench with a vise, and Mooney’s carving knives.  Many are equipped with electric motors that turn all the moving parts, held by bearings he made from a Brazilian “oily” wood that never needs lubrication.  As well as wood, he used ivory for some pieces that are almost microscopic. Because of his love for elephants, his ivory carvings were mostly from old billiard balls.  Engineers have poured over his models with precision instruments and measuring devices, drawing the same conclusions as most nonprofessional observers: The replicas are so exact that it was not possible for them to have been carved by hand. But they were.

By the time railroads began phasing out steam engines; Mooney had carved 54 exact-scale counterparts of his favorite iron horses, but swore as long as he lived, he’d never carve a diesel locomotive.

Instead, he began a series of “Great Events in American Railroad History.”  He created a solid ivory rendition of the driving of the golden spike connecting the transcontinental railroad, the great locomotive chase, and the Lincoln funeral train to name a few. He was working on the Lady Baltimore locomotive when he died at eighty-seven, leaving it unfinished.

All his work can be seen at the museum in Dover, displayed in style worthy of the Smithsonian.

Mooney’s carvings are so notable as to make the cutlery business seem secondary, although since its inception it has been a foundation of the family business. Mooney taught his sons and grandsons the art of making knives and they continue to this day—everyone annealed and hand ground to Mooney’s specifications.

During the Big War, starting with a single request, Mooney made 1,100 personalized commando knives carried by every rank including Generals. The Warther’s have made special knives and kitchen cutlery for several presidents and numerous dignitaries. Yet the most important contribution of the commercial success was allowing Mooney to pursue his true passion.

Like one bull in a herd—Mooney Warther had no peer.

By Robert Carpenter
Robert Carpenter was born and raised in the New Philadelphia, Ohio area. He’s a freelance writer presently living in Florida.