Antique Rocking Horse Restoration by Cherished Rocking Horses

How a Rocking Horse is made ...

Wood for the job
The first thing to do is select the right wood. Either hardwood or softwood can be used for the horse but if using softwood then hardwood should be used for the legs. The stand or rockers are usually made of hardwood, but again softwood can be used. All wood should be kiln dried and of good quality. It needs to be kept in a dry place when stored and during the working process.

Where to start
The next stage is to plane the wood and cut to size ready for gluing together. The usual way is to work from a drawing/plan by cutting and planeing the timber to the size stated and making sure the mating surfaces are flat so they can be glued together without voids.

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The body
The body of the horse is made up of sections to form a box with a hollow inside. At this stage, before gluing, the sockets for the legs can be cut out at the appropriate angles as per plan.

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The head
The head can be made up of several layers depending on the thickness and the neck overlays, the length can be in two sections also depending on the size again. When the wood for the thickness is glued and dried and before the neck overlays are added, the shape of the head can be traced from the plans onto the head and cut out via band saw or jig-saw. A line is then drawn down the centre of the head front, top and back, as an aid to carving each side equally.

The head is usually carved as much as possible before fitting to the body, making sure that the bottom of the neck is flat for gluing to the body and the bottom area of the neck is left until fitted to the body so the carving can blend it into the body.

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The legs
The legs can be cut to shape by either tracing from the plan and transferring the lines to the timber or tracing and cutting out to use as a template. If the legs are in exact pairs, as a pair of front and a pair of back legs, then you only need to trace one of each or make one template for each set. Once the legs are marked out they can be cut either with a jig-saw or a band saw. They can then be shaped using various shaping tools such as spoke-shaves, rasps, files, sandpaper etc. The legs can be shaped before fitting to the horse but the tennon end should be left in the square for gluing into the body sockets.

Suitable glue must be used and I recommend the synthetic resin adhesive, this is a powder glue that is mixed with water to form a paste. Cascamite is one of the original forms of this type of wood glue and can still be bought; several companies now manufacture this type of glue under various trade names. This is probably the strongest wood glue around and sets fairly quickly at normal temperatures. It is also waterproof. Also when gluing, pressure needs to be applied to the joints in the form of cramps etc and left cramped up for several hours, preferably overnight.

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The assembled horse
When the horse is assembled, with square body, carved head and shaped legs, then the various overlays can be glued on, these are the extra pieces of wood of various shapes taken from the plan to form muscle shapes where needed and to strengthen the leg joints.

These are also glued and cramped until dry ready for carving.

At this stage the horse is complete as far as putting it together is concerned, the rest is down to shaping the body neck and tops of legs so that all of the joints blend in and the horse is symmetrical with the line of symmetry down the length of the body. A centre line is drawn down the length, front, back and underside of the body as a guide to work to before carving to aid in keeping the body even.

The neck groove for the main and the hole for the tail can be formed now by consulting the plan for measurements. Also the hooves can be cut to fit the hoof rails or rockers as necessary.

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The finish
After carving and shaping, the horse is smoothed down with rasps and sand paper. If the horse is to be left with the wood grain showing and clear varnished, then the sanding needs to be taken down in stages until very fine sandpaper is used for the final stage and all the marks have been removed. If you are going for a paint finish, then it is usual to use gesso over the wood, as all traditional horses were made this way. The gesso can be applied over a rough surface so the sanding can be minimal for this type of finish giving a key for the gesso to adhere to.

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This is a plaster based white powder which is mixed with rabbit skin glue to form a plaster paste that is applied to the wood while hot. It can be applied in several coats over several days and needs approx 3-6 weeks to dry. When dry it forms a hard shell and it can be sanded to a smooth finish ready for painting.

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The final paint job
The horse is now ready for painting to whatever you desire, whether you want it brown, white, piebald, dappled etc. The process is generally the same with the exception of a dappled finish. Several coats of paint are put on by hand and sanded lightly between coats. Dappling is applied by dabbing on paint in random circles with a sponge or similar or by applying with an air brush to achieve the required pattern. The teeth, mouth, eyes and ears are painted before vanishing and any other paint work should be done at this stage. Varnishing should consist of at least two coats brushed on, sanding between coats and a final top coat.

The hair and tack
All that remains now is to fit the mane, tail, bridle, saddle cloth, saddle, stirrups, rains etc.

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