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Nutcrackers - What is a nutcracker?

Hard shell, healthy core. Nuts are tasty, rich in protein and fiber and are popular all over the world during the Christmas season. They have only one problem - the hard shell. Of course nut lovers can always pick up pre-cracked nuts in supermarkets; there is quite a diverse selection. However, if you like to do things traditional, you’ll have to do a little work to get at those nuts. Without effort, there is no reward, as the saying goes. Large walnuts with a relatively thin shell can be cracked with hand strength alone. It’s not a great look, but good for impressing kids. However, if there are small hazelnuts or perhaps the relatively hard Brazilian nut on the Christmas plate, you’ll get yourself nothing but sore hands and red cheeks.

Far more stylish is the nutcracker. At first glance, this kind of tool appears to have only one function: to get you to that delicious treat in a hard shell. However, a nutcracker is more than just a tool. It’s common to see one proudly displayed and surrounded by many small and large nuts inside of a decorative bowl.
It’s not hard to see that the nutcracker functions just as well as an ornament as it does as a tool. Like the shell of the nut itself, the nutcracker should also be decoration.
Nutcrackers are like nothing else. They can differ considerably in appearance and mechanics. Basically, there are three different methods of exerting the pressure necessary to crack hard nut shells:


This technology involves enhancing the muscle power of the hands using levers. The two rods are connected by a joint, behind where the nut is inserted. The shell is broken under the pressure exerted by the lever. The forceps is the classic nutcracker variety and can be found in many households. Individual models can differ considerably in the material and design of the levers; some even come small cups attached which are meant to catch the broken pieces of the nutshells.


Screw mechanics exert pressure on the nut by means of a screw. The nut is clamped into a tight repository and a screw with a plunger is screwed down through a hole located in the container. Under the steadily increasing pressure of the screw, the shell of the nut finally cracks. Nutcrackers with screw threads are less popular than other varieties; however, they are often made of wood and are therefore a very popular decorative item.


The third technique for cracking nuts is the slingshot technique. The nut is accelerated and forced to stop abruptly on a solid surface; the shell bursts due to the impact. The construction is fairly unorthodox, consisting of a fixed housing which is fastened to a balloon. The nut is inserted into the housing through a closable opening and falls into the balloon. By pulling back and releasing the balloon, the nut jumps through the housing and smashes against the inside of the lid. These slingshot-crackers are pretty exotic, however, and quite rare. All the more reason why it would be such an eye-catcher under the Christmas tree.

Table of Contents

How does a nutcracker work?

First of all, the best nutcracker opens nuts with as little effort as possible with the goal of maintaining the nut’s kernels whole. When cracking nuts, like anything else, physics apply. Humans are not the only creatures that crack nuts; the animal kingdom has long known of the delicacies hidden inside those hard shells. Some monkeys use simple tools, for example shaped stones, to open nuts. Crows are also experts in the art of nutcrackers; they are known to place nuts on roads, using the weight of the vehicles rolling over them to crack the nuts.

Levers- where not only raw forces are used

Impact, pressure, and leverage are considered to be the most important ingredients for successful nut cracking. In addition, the slingshot technique and utilizing the momentum of the nuts. Eager to to get their hands on the healthy fruits inside, mankind realized the benefits of levers early on, using them to increase the amount of pressure they could exert using strength alone. Pincers were designed to take advantage of the principles of lever force and are very good at cracking nuts, so it’s no surprise that the very first nutcrackers which used them were successful. Over time, lever mechanics became more sophisticated and effective. At the same time, the aesthetics of the handles became more important. They took on round, oval, twisted, sweeping and leg shaped forms. Their surfaces were scrubbed, polished and ground. Regardless of the large variation in design, all pliers and lever-based nutcracker have two connected limbs. These levers have one or two places for the nut. By closing the levers, the pressure on the shell increases and the nut splits open. Some models do not just open nuts; these fancy models can even double up as champagne tongs.

By the way, the largest nutcracker measures 10.10 m and stands just like his dwarf brother, who measures in at only 4.9 mm, in the first nutcracker museum in Neuhausen (Erzgebirge, Germany).

Of impact force, pressure, slingshots and cracking nuts

The most effective and long-lasting nutcrackers are made with a solid metal plate and a rubber cap. They work on a very simple principle: Smash! Despite this rather primitive technique, the rubber cap cushions the impact of the hand and prevents injuries. It’s well known that applying pressure generates an opposite reaction, after all. When using a rounded screw, the rotating mechanism increases the pressure on the nut and ultimately leads to it splitting. The slingshot is quite the exotic technique. The nut is launched, slingshot-style, inside of a closed metal cylinder, smashing open when it collides with the back wall of the tool. The fashionably named nut splitter are similar in some ways to oyster knives and is best used for walnuts; they crack nuts by splitting them in half.

By the way, the delightful human form of the nutcracker, often depicted as a railwayman, king, policeman, forester or soldier, began its successful career in the Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains, Germany), first seeing the light of day in the early nineteenth century.

When did nutcrackers first appear?

Where would we be without nutcrackers? We might still be trying to break those shells with stones. Of course, that’s why mankind put forth so much effort into the development and improvement of the right tools for that job. Generally speaking, nutcrackers come in two types: the functional tools meant only for cracking nuts and the beautifully designed and decorated nutcracker figures. Each has their own history.

The functional nutcracker tool

Early humans opened nuts with their teeth or smashed them with stones. Searching for better solutions, the ancient Greeks applied their knowledge of physics. Aristotle is credited with inventing the first functional nutcracker in the fourth century BC. It consisted of two levered arms. The basics of this technology is still in use today: simply insert a nut between the lever arms, press together and the shell cracks. The Romans adopted this idea. The rich could afford very expensive tools, as evidenced by a nutcracker with a bronze lever from around 300 BC that was discovered in the southern Italian city of Taranto. Normal folk, on the other hand, made do with a hammer.

Nutcracker figurines

Things are a bit different with the decorative nutcracker figurines. They were developed in Europe beginning in the 15th century and stem from old pagan rituals, according to Jakob Grimm. In the past pagan idols were used to appease house spirits. Although this custom disappeared with the spread of Christianity, the small figures were still a source of inspiration. Leonardo Da Vinci developed a special lathe for carving wooden figures. He is supposed to have tinkered with wooden figures as well. Elaborately carved wooden nutcrackers have existed since the 16th century and were considered valuable enough to have been gifts worthy of kings and queens. The English King Henry VIII, for example, gave his wife Anne Boleyn a charming specimen as a token of his love.

Nutcrackers as cheerful caricatures

These beautifully carved figures were actually born sometime in the 18th or 19th century. It was the simple people of the mountain regions who became the creators of the beloved figurine that is still so popular today. The nutcracker finds its beginning in the villages of South Tyrol and Oberammergau. The Bavarian wood carvers preferred oriental motifs, whereas the South Tyroleans carved amusing scenes and figures inspired by their everyday lives as peasants. Big mouthed people are easy to charicature. No figure of authority can feel threatening when they’re reduced to being simple nutcrackers, and this was a popular way of cutting anyone considered a loudmouthed blowhard down to size. After Napoleon lost the Battle of Leipzig, he became a popular figure to caricature. The great Bismarck served also as a model for a nutcracker.

Romantic figures

The highest point came with the wooden figures, which were carved beginning in the 1800s in the Erzgebirge. After mining had been stopped in Olbernhau, Seiffen and Neuhausen, the men were forced to look for new professions; many of them became lathe workers. This is the origin of the famous Erzgebirge arts and crafts, which include furniture, wooden toys, figurines and the wooden nutcracker. They were often depicted as kings or gendarmes, but the most famous figure of the nineteenth century is the soldier, who was made famous by the story "The Nutcracker" by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1816). The wooden soldier comes to life on Christmas night and protects the little Marie with a toy army. Since then, the nutcracker has been inextricably linked to the Christmas season. The story also shows how much nutcrackers in the 19th century spurred the children’s imaginations. With a huge variety of tools and children's toys in many colors nutcrackers were very popular at Christmas markets. To this day, they set a romantic mood and bring laughter.

What different kinds of nutcrackers are there?

When we think of a nutcracker, what fist comes to mind is the image of a beautiful colorful wooden figure. The fact is, there are countless varieties of nutcracker, although all of them do have one thing in common, that is they are designed to free a nut from its shell. In principle nutcrackers can be either functional or decorative.
Functional nutcrackers are available in three different varieties:

  • Screw nutcrackers
  • Slingshot nutcrackers
  • Pincer-like nutcrackers
Using a screw nutcracker is simple.
The nut is placed in a dish, over which a lid is placed. The lid is screwed into the bow steadily downwards, resulting the nut’s shell breaking.

A slingshot nutcracker looks a bit strange at first glance, but its mechanics are actually quite simple.
Place the nut inside of a balloon, which is clamped to a small metal cylinder. The whole thing is bolted in place with a metal cover. Pull back the balloon and walnut and release the nut, which results in the shell getting smashed on the metal backing of the cylinder.

The pincer-like nutcrackers are the most well-known type.
They consist of two arms connected by a joint. The nuts are placed in the indentation provided and the arms are pressed together, destroying the shell.

Decorative nutcracker - centuries of craftsmanship

All that’s missing is the most popular and stylish way to crack nuts, with decorative nutcrackers. The grim journeymen are still very popular today, although these days they are more often than not used exclusively as decorative elements while losing more and more of their functionality. In principle, however, they work using a simple lever mechanism, in which the nuts are placed in front and a lever located on the rear is pushed down.
Since 1800, the Erzgebirge has specialized in the manufacture of these famous beechwood nutcrackers. Soldiers, kings and other figures of authority have always been used as models for the beautiful wooden figures, making them a popular children's toy in the 19th century. Today, the Erzgebirge still benefits from the production of the small journeymen. A large number of them are produced in this region, and they are particularly popular during the Christmas season.
Small children are often afraid of the grim faces of the nutcrackers. Nevertheless, the faces are made that way on purpose and have a long tradition. In the 1800s it was quite popular to caricature figures of authority, whom the figures were meant to represent.

Decorative nutcrackers nowadays are not necessarily well suited for actual nut cracking; on the other hand, they are beautiful and are beloved year-round not only at Christmas time. They are available in different colors and sizes. Christmas markets often have meter high versions on display, and they are still a popular symbol of the Advent season.

The birth of the nutcracker in the Erzgebirge

Following the end of the mining industry in the Erzgebirge, the production of nutcrackers experienced an incredible upswing. The carpenter Wilhelm Fürchtner, based in Seiffen, carved the first nutcracker in the middle of the 19th century, launching an era of legendary craftsmanship in the Erzgebirge. A nutcracker is characterized by its straight posture, a tucked in belly, and snow-white teeth proudly on display.
Erzgebirge nutcrackers from Seiffen usually caricature figures of authority, be they soldiers, kings, rangers, hussars, or policemen. Even Napoleon wasn’t spared. The grim facial expressions, which are unique to nutcrackers, are the proof that these figures are caricatures. The people of the era who had to deal with these authorities probably had their lives made difficult by them on more than one occasion.
Nutcrackers from the Erzgebirge are still painted by hand as they would likely lose a lot of their charm if this were to be done by a machine. The grim-faced soldiers are made of up to 60 individual pieces, which are manufactured separately and put together with care and love. They are usually 30 - 40 cm tall and made of wood, fur, leather and fabric.

But which nutcracker figures are the most popular?

When all's said and done, the gendarme, the soldier and the king are usually the most popular figures, with the king being the most popular. No surprise, given the figure’s elegant clothes really make a striking impression. The king usually has a golden scepter in hand and a regal crown atop his head.
By the way, even as a layman you can see with the naked eye whether a nutcracker is really from the Erzgebirge or an inferior copy from the Asian region. The noses of the machine-made Asian variant are usually considerably narrower and more filigree. In addition, the base with its feet is merely dyed in color and not hand painted as with the Erzgebirge model.

Where are nutcrackers mainly made of today?

Decorative Nutcrackers:
Those dark little fellows, who greet us at almost every corner over the Christmas season. But who actually makes these beautiful wooden figures and where do they come from?

The Erzgebirge and its importance to local handicraft

The origin of the nutcracker goes back a few hundred years. After mining in the Erzgebirge came to a standstill, the inhabitants of this region in Saxony had to look for another source of income and many of them turned to the lathe. A new branch of industry, concerning itself with the production of toy figures made of wood and figures for the Christmas season, gradually developed as a result.

The origin of the nutcracker

In the year 1870 in the small village of Seiffen, a certain Wilhelm Fürchner developed the first Erzgebirge nutcracker with many other models to follow. His inspiration for the beautifully crafted nutcrackers was taken almost exclusively from the then well-known figures of authorities in the region, including miniature models of soldiers, gendarmes, foresters, and kings. Since at that time common folk were often not treated well, he gave these authority figures their grimacing look.

How do I build a nutcracker myself?

Nuts are as much a part of the Christmas tradition as gingerbread and biscuits. Conventional methods of opening nuts will lead to broken teeth, however. This is why a simple and robust nutcracker, which children can use to quickly and safely crack nuts, is such a good idea. A wooden nutcracker can be put together in just a few hours.

Material and tools

The nutcracker consists of a base plate, a frame, an axle box and a lever. The only raw material you will need is a board made of hard wood like maple, beech, birch, ash, oak that’s about 18 mm tall.
You can either cut the individual parts from a board or use axle bearings and a fews strips of wood for the lever. With wood glue, wooden screws, a threaded rod, two washers and two cap nuts you have all the material you need. As for tools you will need a drill, a saw, wood files, sandpaper, wood glue, a compass, ruler and a pencil.

Saws and files

If you decide to cut the parts of the nutcracker out of a board, then move the measurements to the wood. To ensure that your hand will have space when pressing down the lever, cut an oval shape on one side of the plate. Then round off the corners and edges of the lever at the ends slightly. Both axle bearings should also be given a little work on one side as well. Saw out two roundings in different sizes so that the nuts can be secured under the lever properly. Add a few grooves to the curves to keep the nuts from slipping.

You can adapt the dimensions of the individual parts to your personal needs. You can use these measurements as a guideline, however:

  • Base plate: 18mm x 11mm
  • Lever: 280mm x 30mm
  • Axle bearing: 50mm x 35mm


To make sure that the holes for the studding are located in the correct position, drill a hole in one of the axle bearings. Place the positions of the hole over the second bearing and the lever of the arm. Slide the studding through the three parts, attach the washers and secure the whole thing with self-locking cap nuts. Now drill two holes in the base plate, apply some wood glue and screw the two axle bearings to the back of the plate.
To prevent the nuts from slipping on the plate, grind or drill two small troughs of different sizes into the plate opposite the lever. You’ll still have to outfit the upper part of the plate with a small frame so that the cracked nuts do not spill all over the table later. Cut out four small woodstrips and glue them onto the base plate. Wait a little while until the glue has dried, and you can crack the hardest nut with your newly-made nutcracker.

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