CHILDREN'S FAVOURITE IS CREATED USING TECHNIQUES DATING FROM VICTORIAN TIMES
The smell of wood, fresh leather, paint and glue mingle in the one storey workshop of rocking horse makers Steve and Alison Smith. Shelves containing thick planks of wood line the walls, curly wood shavings and sawdust crunch underfoot, and all around the room are horses in various stages of construction. A box of smoothly carved heads sits atop a cabinet. Hanks of horse hair, which will be used to make manes and tails, hang from a row of hooks. Five unpainted horses are lined up waiting for their transformation into sleek dappled grey steeds with jingling leather bridles and burnished brown leather saddles.
Here in the Shropshire countryside, Steve, Alison and a small team of skilled workers produce approximately 25 rocking horses each year. Steve makes the horses from wood, and Alison, a trained artist, paints them. “We are constantly trying to recreate horses that are as lifelike as the ones made by the Victorians,” says Steve. “We’re replicating a particular style of workmanship to achieve that incredible quality and attention to detail.”
The couple have been making rocking horses since 1985 when a friend asked Steve if he could make one for his first child. “I had trained as an engineer, but wood carving had been a hobby since I was a kid,” explains Steve. “We had an old horse in the family and I copied it. It was falling apart so I took every stick to bits and studied it. That first horse was a success, and other people started to ask for them. We turned the hobby into a business and sales grew quickly.”
Alison and Steve were living on a narrow boat, a 72-foot craft called the Heather Bell, at the time. At first they worked on board. “We had planks of wood delivered to the boat,” recalls Steve. “But after a year and a half, when our baby daughter Heather arrived, demand for the horses was growing and we decided we needed to move to dry land.”
By 1992, they had relocated to Shropshire, where they still live in a lock keeper’s cottage by a canal. The horses are now made in a small workshop six miles away and the couple have a showroom in a converted chapel just a few minutes walk along the lane from their home. “We have up to five staff who help us with painting, carving and office work, depending on demand,” explains Steve. “The busiest time is in the run up to Christmas.”
The couple estimate they have made around 1,500 horses. The design of the horses is based on a traditional pattern. “In Victorian times a company called FH Ayres made the best quality horses. They are regarded by collectors and craftsmen as the ideal,” says Alison. “The company was in production from 1857 to the end of World War II. We try to copy these horses and replicate the craftsmanship as closely as we can. They were beautifully made and had a certain finesse.”
Initially, rocking horses were made as an aid to teach basic equestrian skills and balance to children from privileged families. Traditionally, it was important that the proportions of each horse were accurate and this is something that Alison and Steve strive for today.
From planks of wood
Each horse starts life as a simple plank of rough wood approximately 13ft (4m) long. A mixture of different woods are used to make one animal. Beech, a hardwood, is used for the legs, which need to be strong to take the weight of the rider. The larger horses can bear an adult. Tulip wood, which is easier to carve, is chosen for the heads and sturdy pine or oak is used for the stands. Oak stands are much heavier and stronger than pine. Pine is strong, but lighter to lift. “We do also make rockers, but stands are safer and give a better ride, so they tend to be more popular,” says Steve. The smallest horses they make are 41in (104cm) high and 54in (137cm) long. The largest ones measure 57in (145cm) high and 70in (178cm) long.
Steve usually makes up to five horses at any one time, working in batches. Cardboard templates are cut out in the shapes of the body, neck, front and hind legs. These are traced on to the wooden planks. A band saw with a rotating blade is used to cut around the shapes. Steve now begins to assemble the horse. He first makes a coffee table shape, a flat-topped body with four legs jointed into the wood. The jointing is done by cutting a slot in a plank of wood at ten degrees. A corresponding slot is cut into the top of each of the horse’s legs. The two pieces are then slotted together.
A neck is then fixed to the body, using glue and clamps to secure it. Twelve blocks of wood called muscle blocks are stuck on to the neck and clamped until the glue dries. These give a three-dimensional effect while replicating the powerful curves of a horse’s neck. “The muscle blocks are square shaped, so at this point it does not look much like a horse,” says Steve.
He now turns his attention to the horse’s body. This is transformed from a set of sharply angled blocks into a smooth torso. He uses five different grades of sandpaper, starting with a coarse one, and then using progressively finer ones. Some of the sanding is done by hand, but he also uses a handheld power sander to refine the wood. Next, the head is glued on with a specialist glue which dries in 20 minutes.
The art of creating heads
Steve takes special care when carving the horse’s heads. “Each is unique. I am always trying to make the next head the best one yet,” he says. He has no precise patterns and instead carves them largely freehand. “There is a template for the basic shape, but you have a picture in your head of how you can create something that is beautiful. It is the most artistic part of the making process.”
Steve uses three differently sized gouges to shape the head, creating flared nostrils, the open mouth and the undulating cheeks of the horse. Concave holes are made for the eyes to be inserted later. “Things do go wrong sometimes,” he says. “You might get the nostril in the wrong place or the head is not symmetrical.” In the situation where, for instance, a nostril is not in symmetry then re-carving can save the head, but if it is too far out, the head will be discarded. On a good day, Steve can carve five heads.
A stand is made using four flat pieces of pine. These are fixed in a cruciform shape, then screwed and glued together. Two holes are drilled at the intersection of the cruciform. On the lathe, two circular posts are shaped or turned and these slot upright into the previously made holes. A piece of flat wood with two holes corresponding to those in the base is made. The horse will eventually rock from this on two swing irons.
Applying the paint
Before this happens the horse must be painted. Alison applies a white, oil-based undercoat which is slightly transparent to bring out the grain of the wood. This is left to dry overnight. She sands the paint and applies a good quality wood filler to correct any small gaps or imperfections. After it has dried, she sands the horse again and paints on a grey undercoat. This process is repeated three times to make it very durable. Now the horse is ready for dappling. Using a black water-based acrylic paint, Alison works with a round stippling brush, around 2/3in (17mm) in diameter, to create the stencilled effect. “I might use a larger brush if I am working on one our bigger horses,” she explains. On a new horse she copies the traditional dappling pattern of the Ayres horses.
She uses a dark red paint to add the nostrils, mouth and inner ears. “It is a three- to four-day process, including the drying times,” says Alison. Once the painting is finished, the horse is ready to be varnished. She applies a polyurethane oil-based varnish, tinted with a yellow hue to give an aged effect. Again, she repeats the process three times, sanding the horse in between to create a super-smooth finish.
Glass eyes are inserted into the pre-made sockets. These are sourced from a family firm that has been making glass eyes for 200 years, originally for the teddy bear industry.
The next stage is to add the distinctive flowing mane and tail. Real horse hair is used for this. Customers can choose from light grey, mixed grey, brown or black. “The manes arrive in our workshop with the hair still on the tanned skin,” explains Steve. One horse’s tail provides sufficient hair for two rocking horse manes. The mane is cleaned, shampooed, brushed and cut to suit the horse’s size. Glue and nails are then used to attach it to the neck.
“Kate, who works with us, really enjoys transforming the manes,” explains Steve. “They feel like silk when she has finished brushing and cleaning them. She often takes them home to give them extra care.”
Ready to ride
Now the horse is ready for its bridle and saddle. These are leather with proper buckles and a steel or brass bit. “Our bridles are made for us by a skilled craftsman from the famous leather-working city of Walsall,” says Alison. “They are removable, and are just like a smaller version of a bridle you’d find on a real horse.”
Two styles of saddle are available. The sewn or padded saddles, traditional on rocking horses from their earliest days, are fixed to the back of the horse with nails. Steve and Kate often make these themselves in the workshop using an industrial-sized sewing machine to shape and stitch the leather. For the deluxe horses, a removable saddle, complete with stirrup leathers and irons, is handmade in Walsall in the West Midlands.
Finally, the horse is ready to be placed on to the stand. A hoof rail, a long piece of wood stretching between the front and back legs, is bolted on. There are two rails for each hoof. Swing irons are inserted and the horse is lifted up and placed on to its stand. A metal bearing strip goes under each swing iron and is held in place with a metal cap and four bolts, to ensure that it is secure. “Kate will trim and comb the hair, and check the leather work for any marks,” says Steve. “We then attach a brass breastplate, which is customised with an inscription for each customer and given an individual registration number.”
The horse can then be delivered to its new home. “We do some of the deliveries ourselves, because it is very satisfying to see people’s reactions when their horse arrives,” says Steve. “Customers who choose a rocking horse are always lovely people with a passion for horses. Some people save up for months, or even years, to buy one. It has often been their childhood dream to own a traditional rocking horse. We also have parents buying them for their children as presents, and bridegrooms purchasing them for brides, and vice versa. Our customers are always 100 per cent thrilled with their horses, and that makes all our hard work and attention to detail worthwhile.”
Words: Fiona Cumberbatch Photography: Clive Doyle