"Tramp art" is a style of wood carving that was especially popular during the early part of the 20th century.
Dear Helaine and Joe:
I have a very large — 55 inches by 35 inches — piece that I believe is a “crown of thorns” tramp-art frame. I have been unable to find one similar in style or size. It does have some condition issues. What is it exactly, and how much is it worth?
T.G., Overbrook, Kan.
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“Tramp art” is certainly a romantic piece of nomenclature and brings to mind images of hobos riding the rails and making useful items from scrap wood to sell for sustenance. The reality of this art form is a little less quixotic.
In simplest terms, “tramp art” is a style of wood carving that was especially popular during the early part of the 20th century. It is an itinerant art form that was widespread in the United States from about 1870 through the 1930s — but was most prevalent during the Great Depression.
It evolved from the European tradition of chip-carving wood for decorative purposes, but there are no known surviving written instructions that detail how to construct or craft a piece of tramp art. It is likely that the skill for creating such objects was passed down from father to son, passed through word-of-mouth or practical demonstration and imitation.
To create a piece of tramp art, the artist uses a penknife to cut simple V-shaped notches into the edges of scrap wood. This is generally referred to as either “chip-,” “notch-” or “edge-carving.” These edges can also be created with a U-shaped gouge or with a zigzag pattern made with a straight spade tool or chisel.
The material of choice was often wooden cigar boxes. The carved wood is then glued, layered and assembled into utilitarian objects for the home such as jewelry boxes, furniture trim and, yes, picture frames.
Though chip-carving and layering are two distinguishing features of tramp art and are usually present, occasionally some examples are only chip-carved or only layered. Some tramp art will also display applied and inlaid decorations, mostly geometric patterns of circles, squares and triangles.
Religious themes were used infrequently for tramp art, but the so-called “crown of thorns” objects are often found in the shape of crosses. Crown of thorns is a woodworking technique using interlocking wooden sticks that are notched to intersect with one another at right angles forming joints.
Like the example in today’s question, crown of thorns objects have a “prickly” quality that is very distinctive. Crown of thorns objects are not exactly the same as tramp art, but they are often considered to be in the same family.
Crown of thorns pieces can be very fragile and are, therefore, difficult to transport. Objects made using this technique are fascinating to look at, and the three-dimensional animal head found at the pinnacle of the one belonging to T.G. adds a bit of interest.
However, crown of thorns items are not as highly collectible as the more traditional chip- and notch-carved items made from old cigar boxes. We do not know exactly what the “condition issues”are for this particular example, but if they are not too serious and unsightly, the insurance value is between $500 and $700.
(Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson are the authors of “Price It Yourself”(HarperResource, $19.95). Contact them at Treasures in Your Attic, PO Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.)