Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Rocking Horses
Modelled on one of the most popular of all animals, the elegance of rocking horses appeals to adults and children alike. Finely carved to be beautiful and perfectly balanced, the best examples take days to make, but will be ridden for generations.
Some early examples of the
craft dating back to the 17th
century have survived the battering of the nursery. These toys had solid
rockers, like those on a cradle, which form the body of the horse. This
design still forms the basis of the simplest rockers made today.
It was not long before makers
began to refine this crude design and carve complete horses with legs
fully outstretched. Over time, the rockers became reduced to two slender
arcs on to which the horse was bolted. This bow rocker design is the
type most people think of as a classic rocking horse.
The other highly popular design was developed in the late 1800’s and was called the swing iron mounted horse. The rocker for this consists of straight parallel bars attached to a main frame by metal bars which enable the horse to swing.
Woods – the body and head are
made from a hardwood with a straight grain, such as jelutong. The legs, which
have to be stronger, are usually made from beech. The stand is made from pine or
mahogany depending on the type of finish required.
Other materials include; glue,
paint, varnish, polish, leather for tack (saddle and bridle), real horse hair
for mane and tail, upholstery tacks and nails, steel bars and brass fittings and
Tools – a range of carpenters tools are needed. An extensive set takes a while to build up so some improvisation may take place. The main tools needed are: sash or sliding clamps (like vices); G-clamps; a plane; several saws; a drill; a variety of gouges and chisels; a mallet; flat face spokeshave and curved spokeshave; a drawknife; glass paper in fine and coarse grades.
Every horse is made unique by the
choice of wood and finish and by the individuality which naturally arises from
hand carving. For these reasons the horse is made first and then the stand is
modified to accommodate the individual variations such as the angle of the
horses legs and the colour of the finished horse.
Each horse is made from numerous
pieces of wood joined together; the smaller horses comprise seventeen separate
pieces, the larger models nineteen pieces. The head and neck is the first piece
to be cut out using a band saw, with the aid of a pattern. This piece is then
carved with great care as the facial expression is central to the character of
the piece. This section is glued to the leading edge of the main part of the
The body comprises six separate
sections which are securely glued together to give a hollow oblong block. Then
legs are cut, partially carved and housed (not butt jointed) into the
body. Pieces for the neck and leg muscles are then glued on. This rough shape is
left with the pieces clamped in place while the glue dries. After this, the body
is carved. The horse has now assumed its final shape.
The shape of the rocking horse
presents an exacting challenge even to the skilled carver.
Fine chisel work, using a variety of
shaped chisels, brings the horses head to life with it’s complex series of
planes, curves and angles. Nostrils must be gently flaring to give an air of
movement and life – and of course they must be level. The eye sockets must be
carefully gouged out and again be level with each other. The expression of the
mouth is also important to the character of the face, while teeth add the final
The carving of the body is again an
art; great care must be taken not to chisel too much away from one side as the
same amount will have to be chiselled off the other, leaving a very thin horse.
Mistakes can be rectified to some extent by repeating on the other side, but
this is to be avoided.
Once the carpentry and carving work
has been completed, coarse and fine sandpaper are used to smooth down the
The carved horse can now be painted.
Three applications of undercoat and primer are followed with two of top coat
(all lead free paint). A dapple grey would be stippled with small areas of black
for a realistic effect. All this is followed with a coat of satin varnish to
dull the otherwise shiny effect of the paint. French polish can be used on the
horse instead of paint to bring out the richness and grain of valuable woods.
The rocker is then made to suit the
horse, which is bolted to the base.
With a swing iron mounted horse, the
degree of movement is determined by the steel bars, which are almost vertical
and at opposing angles to one another when the horse is immobile. As the horse
rocks the bars initially move freely, but the bigger the movement the more the
steel bars resist.
The rear bar will move upwards only
to a certain point after which it stops. This is to prevent the horse tipping
right over. The horizontal wooden bars, positioned at right angles to the steel
bars, must be strong enough to withstand the weight of the horse, the rider and
the energy of the rocking motion.
Finishing touches – A bridle and
saddle of real leather are put on the horse. A purist to the craft will make a
proper miniature leather bridle as the child then has fun taking it off and
putting it on; other rocking horse makers fix the bridle permanently with
upholstery tacks. A leather saddle and saddle felt are attached with upholstery
tacks. Special stirrups are attached to the saddle.
The mane is then attached. The tail
is inserted through a small hole on the rump and firmly fixed in with a wedge of
wood. And, finally, the eyes bring the horse to life.
The painting, tacking up and final touches all help to make the horse real for the child. Rosettes and martingales and other little extras help to give the rocking horse a further touch of individuality.
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