This interview is part of a series of interviews with European craftspeople conducted in collaboration between FRH, the European network for Religious Heritage, and Mad’in Europe, the network of European fine and traditional crafts and Cultural Heritage restoration professions.
When he was 19 years old, Luis David Salmerón learned most of what he knows about religious ornament production from his father. Today he and his brother run the business they inherited from him. Over time, they have managed to give it a more international dimension and now produce furniture, altarpieces and other elements for churches in Spain and abroad. However, the lack of young people interested in this activity and the administrative obstacles to recruiting apprentices pose a major challenge to the future of their studio. Read our interview with Salmerón to learn more about his workshop’s achievements and threats and how he deals with the current situation.
1. Please introduce yourself (profession, area of expertise and years of experience).
LS : I will not talk about myself but more about the company, which is made up of several craftsmen and artists. It has 50 years of experience in the profession. It was created by my father and is now run by us, the 2 brothers. We are specialized in religious art and cover many disciplines such as carpentry, sculpture, gilding, metal-work or polychrome. But our focus is mostly on gilding and carving.
2. What clients/markets do you work with (are they local, national or international)? Which are the required skills and certifications that your customers request?
LS : Until 6-7 years ago, 95% of our customers were local, i.e. from Spain. But we have recently opened our business line to export and the situation is the other way around. Now we invoice 60% abroad and 40% in Spain. In Spain, our customers are churches and Holy Week brotherhoods (Cofradías de semana santa). Abroad, we work with companies or associations in the United States that are concerned with the renovation and construction of new or old churches. We supply them on an exclusive basis with all the furnishings, altarpieces and elements for churches, because there are no processions there. We also ship to France, other European countries, South America and Singapore. Our work is always sent directly to the church or to an intermediary company dedicated to the renovation, construction and/or restoration of churches. They do not usually ask for any kind of technical certification beyond the certification of the materials such as wood or metals.
3. Please briefly explain how your profession is related to religious heritage and/or cultural heritage.
The relationship is that: parishes call us because they are renovating the church and they want to update the furniture or restore some types of altarpieces. Other times they are new churches. The relationship is always directly with the parish, the bishopric or through a construction company, architect or restorer who is looking for craftsmen for their work. Most of the work we do is new furniture: altars, amboes, lecterns, pews, altarpieces, everything that can be the interior decoration of a church. When we restore, it is mostly altarpieces that come from Spain, we very rarely work with altarpieces from abroad because of the difficulty in terms of licensing.
4. Please describe the main steps of your usual working process and the materials that you use most.
The process is very varied because it depends on the work we do. Basically what we do most are altarpieces or furniture. First we make some sketches and we coordinate with the client the final result, the design, the size and the details of the furniture. Then we move on to production, where we have a carpentry team made up of carpenters and cabinet makers who are in charge of the construction. We use various types of wood: what we use most is Brazilian cedar, linden, beech, oak. For example, in the United States most of the furniture is made of red oak or American oak.
Apart from the carpenters, we also have the carvers who are the ones who make the carving that the furniture will have (floral and vegetal elements). From there we move on to painting or priming, where the furniture is stained and primed. If the furniture is decorated, we prime it with classic or modern stucco. Once ready, the gold leaf and polychrome decoration is applied. In the middle of this process, the piece of furniture can also have metallic, goldsmith, bronze or silver elements. The goldsmith association we have is in charge of making these pieces. We have a multidisciplinary workshop that is itself divided into workshops: carpentry, carving priming and decoration, metal and assembly workshop. The furniture is passed from hand to hand so that everyone can bring his or her craft to the piece.
5. Do you regularly cooperate with craft professionals from other fields?
LS : Most of the time we have everything here, but sometimes we also need external collaboration from other craftsmen who perform work that we do not do in the workshop. I can think, for example, of metal lathing and notching or bronze casting. We make the model, but we have to send it to have the bronze casted. We may also need textile and embroidery workshops, for example, for a chair that has an embroidered back. We can also collaborate with glassmakers to complement our work. We really have a network of collaborators all over Spain.
6. Please mention any innovation that helped improve your work (technological, digital, material related, legal…) and explain the impact they had on your profession.
LS: At a technological level, in the last 2-3 years we have incorporated numerical control, a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) that allows us to make complex figures and sculptures in 3 dimensions, particularly for the altarpieces that we send to the United States. This innovation gives us support in those works that are really complex to do by hand, although there are almost always parts that have to be finished in this way. We are also starting to do 3D carvings and sculptures although for now the CNC is neither fast nor perfect. It is only a support. My brother is currently doing 3D design and modeling classes to model the parts on the computer so the machine does the carving. It is an innovation that allows us to give more quality in the finishing of the pieces but not so much speed in production.
At the process level, we have innovated in the gilding with gold leaf because we have noticed some imperfections that this technique has with the stucco on wood. The traditional stucco, with rabbit glue and plaster, is rigid, so when the wood moves due to humidity, the stucco tends to fall off. So we innovated in our new works by applying synthetic primer, which is more flexible and accompanies the movement of the wood. This way, we manage to have a longer gilding. This application gives a better guarantee in time for the customer. It works only with new works, for historical works we continue to use the rabbit glue, plaster or stucco.
7. How did you learn the profession? Can you detail your learning path mentioning schools and workshops where you were trained?
LS: I studied in a school of arts and crafts, but I learned everything here in the workshop with my father when I was about 19 years old. My brother, who is the other artist in the company and artistic director, studied at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cuenca and also finished his training here in the workshop.
8. Do you pass on your knowledge to young people?
LS : He has to deal with an aging category of workers in his workshop. Due to several reasons such as a lack of time to train and a lack of interest from young people, there are no young people attending his workshop anymore. More details are given in the answer to the question below.
9. What would you recommend to a young person interested in your profession?
LS: Most of the workers we have here have been trained in the workshop since they were young, after finishing high school. My father has been training each one in a specialty: one in carving, another in gilding, another in painting. These workers are now 45-50 years old. It is much more difficult to do the same with the young people of today because they have less interest and patience with the profession. Another problem comes from the lack of time to train young people in times of great demand because we need people who are capable of producing at the given moment. And this limits our possibilities to grow.
10. Do you think that your profession is threatened and in this case, what are the main threats?
LS : The main threat we suffer from is the lack of personnel, of new apprentices. In Spain, 10 years ago, there was the 18-month apprenticeship contract where an apprentice could join a company at a very low social cost for the company, thus compensating the time spent on training the person and the low production that the newcomer was going to give to the workshop. But this contract disappeared and transformed into a training contract, which includes the need to be enrolled in a school and an internship period reduced to 6 months. This makes it much more difficult and expensive to hire a person taking into account the lower production that he/she will develop for at least a year, the time for him/her to know the profession. We need help from the State to make apprenticeship contracts available to all young people, without conditions.