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Home > Craft Topics > Craft Introductions > Rocking Horses

The Craft of Making Rocking Horses

The Craft of Making Rocking HorsesIntroduction to 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.

Origins of Making Rocking Horses

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.

Materials

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 glass eyes.  

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.

Basic techniques for the Rocking Horse Maker

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 body.  

The body comprises six separate sections which are securely glued together to give a hollow oblong block. Then the  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 detail.  

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 surface.

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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