What are some unusual jobs that you can try your hand at? From LEGO maker to llama shearer, one of these surprising careers could free you from the typical 9-5
The cowbell maker
Cowbell makers Michael Rohrmoser (left) and Gerhard Bertele at Bertele’s family-run forge
The sound of cowbells is as synonymous with the Bavarian Alps as lederhosen and beer drinking. But the bells serve a serious purpose, allowing herdsmen not only to know where their cows are if visibility is bad, but even to recognise individual cows, because every bell has a unique ring.
The bells are made by a small number of companies in the Oberallgäu region, including Gerhard Bertele’s family-run forge in Bihlerdorf.
The business was founded by his great-grandfather in 1912, who made all kinds of metalwork, and it was around 1980 that cowbells became part of their repertoire.
“The idea came to me on the occasion of the so-called Klausentreiben, a custom in the Alpine region in December that is supposed to drive away demons,” explains Bertele.
“Young men run through the streets wearing animal skins and with cowbells around their waists. I thought it would be a good thing to produce bells during winter, when we are less busy. We make them for cowherders all around.”
It takes between two and eight hours to forge each bell by hand. Two sheets of iron are heated until they soften and then hammered into a semicircular shape.
To make a single, medium-sized bell that weighs around two and a half kilograms and is 45 centimetres wide, it takes more than 25,000 blows.
"Young men run through the streets wearing animal skins and with cowbells around their waists"
The clapper is added and the two halves are then joined together and coated with a clear varnish to prevent the metal from rusting.
“You need to be physically fit, but as well as strength and endurance you also need a good ear and an accurate eye,” says Bertele, who employs three skilled workers and two apprentices.
Cowbell makers can be recognised by the signature shape of their wares, which range from round to oval to cup-like (which is Bertele’s favoured shape). “The sound of the bell is important, too,” he says. “It has to be deep, powerful and harmonious.”
Making cowbells is satisfying in many ways, he adds: “The work involves several different skills, and when you finally hold the bell in your hand, you feel proud. And we are also maintaining a tradition, which is important.
The teddy bear surgeon
Aimee Whyte is one of five teddy bear surgeons at the Leith Toy Hospital in Scotland
Aimee Whyte has seen some terrible things in her working life. Mangled hands and feet. Limbs barely attached. Sometimes even a whole face missing.
“Nine times out of ten it’s been a jealous dog, and they always seem to go for the face,” she says in a matter-of-fact way. “We get a lot of those.”
Fortunately no blood was spilled in these horrific accidents, because Whyte is one of five teddy bear surgeons at the Leith Toy Hospital in Edinburgh, where soft toys and dolls are sent to be repaired and renewed. And no case is terminal.
“Nothing is ever beyond repair,” she says. “I’ve never turned away a bear.”
The “hospital” receives around ten teddy bear patients every week, and each is given its own patient card and referred to by name. The kinds of injuries they exhibit are many and varied, says Whyte, and no two days on the job are the same.
“A lot of older ones need patches because the fabric’s so worn, and we have to re-cover them completely if it is very degraded,” she explains.
“Often we have to take them apart to fix their joints. We also get a lot of koalas that have been brought back from Australia and they have little plastic hands, so sometimes we have to remake them.”
Whyte has worked at the hospital since the beginning of 2019. She studied costume design at university and had just finished working on a play in Glasgow before joining.
“I was supposed to come in for the day just to help out and I ended up never leaving,” she says. “When I tell people what I do, I have to explain it. A lot of people don’t realise it’s a real job.”
And it’s a job that means a lot to the worried teddy bear owners who provide Whyte’s patients.
“It’s mostly adults,” she says. “It’s not just a toy to them, it’s their special companion. It’s usually been a constant in their life—they’ve grown up with it, they’ve left home with it. So when they get it back, there are always tears.”
The golf ball diver
Golf balls make unexpected treasure for Patrick Schönemann's diving business
When Patrick Schönemann was nine, his father took up golf and bought him a little club of his own so that he could join in. But young Schönemann wasn’t so interested in playing the sport. “I found it more fun to go into the woods to look for balls,” he says with a laugh.
Before long, hunting golf balls turned into a passion, and he’d cycle to the club in his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden, every weekend, selling the balls he found to players there for pocket money.
After a while he extended his search area to the ponds on the course, and would wade into the shallows, feeling for balls with his feet.
But the treasure trove of golf balls in the ponds’ depths remained frustratingly out of reach—until he turned 18, that is, and got himself a diver’s licence and some scuba equipment.
For many years, diving for balls was just something Schönemann did in his spare time to make a little cash. It was only when a business he’d started didn’t work out that he suddenly saw it as a potential career.
"The number of balls we find can vary from 500 to a couple of thousand in each pond"
“I was 30 and had no money and big debts, and I thought to myself, ‘What is the fastest way I can earn as much money as possible?’” he says. Together with a friend, he started his own golf ball diving business, Golfballdivers.se.
That was five years ago, and today, Schönemann and his team retrieve errant balls from golf courses throughout Scandinavia as well as in Germany, Switzerland, and Poland, driving there from his base in Stockholm.
“The number of balls we find can vary from 500 to a couple of thousand in each pond,” he says. They put on their scuba gear and gather them by hand. “The pond is completely dark, so you just have to feel around to find them.”
But that isn’t all they find. As well as discarded clubs, Schönemann has also retrieved phones, a pair of ice skates, a frying pan and even a cash register.
The balls are sold to online retailers. “We make money but we have to work hard for it,” he says. “I enjoy it. Every day is new: a different golf course, different ponds. But if you ask me in December and it’s two degrees and snowing, maybe I’ll give you a different answer!”
The LEGO artist
Dirk Denoyelle with his Lego portrait of musician Ed Sheeran
Dirk Denoyelle’s daughter’s seventh birthday changed his life. “She got her first box of LEGO bricks,” he recalls.
“I’d had LEGO as a kid, but then I’d gone to college, got my degree, met my wife, all those things. I’d forgotten all about the bricks. And then suddenly they popped up again. I started playing with them and after a while I thought, I seem to be quite good at this.…”
At the time, Denoyelle was a successful comedian in his native Belgium, and the bricks gave him an idea.
“There’s a local artist here who’s both a singer and a sculptor called Willem Vermandere, and I’d been impersonating him for ages. I said to myself, why not build his head in Lego bricks?”
So he did, and revealed it onstage as a “self-portrait” he’d done in a new sculpting technique called “digitalistic cubism.” “Much to my surprise, people loved it!”
The seed was sown. Denoyelle, who lives in Antwerp, carried on making life-size celebrity heads for his act: lots of comedy figures, such as Laurel and Hardy, Mr Bean, and John Cleese, as well as Belgian celebrities and even a Hollywood superstar—he’s particularly proud of his George Clooney.
“On average they take around 35 hours, spread over a month,” he says. “After about two hours I’m usually sick and tired of concentrating, and go and do something else.”
After he’d made around 25 heads, he found himself doing a comedy show for LEGO Holland, and met an executive from their headquarters in Billund, Denmark.
Not long after, he became only the seventh “LEGO Certified Professional” in the world. The title means he doesn’t actually work for LEGO but gets easier access to bricks.
As well as his 3D busts, Denoyelle also creates stunning 2D LEGO mosaics. His favourite is a 5-by-3.6 metre adaptation of Rubens’s Adoration of the Magi, featuring Einstein, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Denoyelle’s wife, Amaya.
And he loves his job. “It’s great to turn a hobby into a profession,” he says. “For me, life is about fun, fame and fortune—in that order.”
The llama shearer
Eve Kastner shears hundreds of alpacas and llamas each year
Eve Kastner has a liking for unusual animals. At home in the Dordogne region of France, she breeds miniature American donkeys and “mini-mules.” But she also has a second job shearing llamas and their smaller cousins, alpacas.
It all started in 2015, when Kastner’s family decided to give her father a present of two alpacas for his 50th birthday. Like sheep, neither llamas nor alpacas moult, which means they need to be sheared each year.
“If they’re not, they can die during periods of extreme heat,” says Kastner. “Not shearing them is considered to be animal abuse.” Flies can also lay eggs in the animals’ wool, and their larvae then burrow under the skin.
When Kastner saw her father’s alpacas being sheared, she got the idea of doing it herself, and the shearer offered to train her. She now travels to more than 100 clients scattered around the country. Last year, she sheared around 400 animals.
"One day I forgot to close my car window and an alpaca spat with all its might all over the inside"
In order to shear the animals, they have to be restrained on the ground for around 20 minutes. This can be stressful for them, Kastner admits, but it’s the only way to shear them safely.
“To calm them down, I talk to them or get the owner to talk to them,” she says. “That usually works.”
“It’s a very physical and tiring job,” she adds. “I’ve never been seriously injured, but there’s always a risk because sometimes the animals can be very lively and struggle. It’s easy to get kicked.
"At the same time, you have to really concentrate during the shearing, because you can easily injure them with the shears if your movements are not precise and controlled.”
Kastner says that when she tells people about her job, they’re mainly surprised by the fact that there are so many llamas and alpacas in France. And she has a word of advice: don’t get on the wrong side of a llama or an alpaca.
“When they get annoyed, they spit on you. They’re real sub-machine guns,” she says with a laugh.
“One day I forgot to close my car window and an alpaca spat with all its might all over the inside. It was everywhere and smelled very bad. Une horreur! But I love these animals. Most of the time, they are very elegant and peaceful.”
Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter