Sunday, 25 November 2018

Seraphine finished and for sale

I haven't detailed the stages of restoring Seraphine, as the process is the same as I used for Zaphod - even though every horse presents its own challenges. She is now finished and sold.

Here are her before and after photos:

Saturday, 10 November 2018


I used to be good at gesso - I've successfully gessoed two medium sized horses and a push horse, but found I'd forgotten the details of how to mix it. I knew from this blog that Anthony Dew's recipe is too watery, and needs lots more whiting than he says. The first coat I did was a bit too thick, and I had to do a lot of sanding - very dusty and I had to wear a mask.

Also, stains appeared, and on Seraphine's neck, this odd crack. I'd filled and sanded the wood carefully, and have no idea what caused this problem. I had nothing like this with Woot or Zaphod (but I guess many things can happen to a horse in more than a century). Gesso is supposed to be good at covering even rusty nails without the rust seeping through.

After some thought, I used a stain blocker on the patches, then gessoed over them. The gesso dried more slowly on the patches, and I used a hairdryer on cool setting to speed it up. By about the fourth coat of gesso, the patches were invisible.

This is the recipe I used:

500 milliliters water
45 grams granulated rabbit glue
550 grams whiting

I added the glue to the water and left to soak overnight. Then I heated it in a Pyrex mixing bowl over a pan of boiling water. Once the glue was dissolved, I added the whiting gradually, stirring to get rid of lumps and air bubbles. When the gesso was smooth like thin cream, I applied it to the horse with a flat brush.

You can take it off the heat to use, but stir from time to time and keep putting it back to heat up. It dries fast, and you can sand as necessary between coats, and if it goes well do the whole thing in a day. Six coats is about right, I think. It's a good idea to start with the horse on its side in order to gesso the belly and inside of the legs.

You can see Seraphine's extra carving on her neck and legs.

Sunday, 4 November 2018


Seraphine is a G & J Lines (Zaphod was a J & G Lines) dating from the late 19th century. She's named after the dragon in my novel, Trav Zander.

This is Seraphine as I bought her, with no lower jaw and truly depressing beige paint. I carved her a new jaw and ears, and replaced her missing eyes with new glass ones.

I've now cleaned up her brackets, swing irons and bowler hats with emery paper and painted them black, and started varnishing her stand. Since Zaphod's looked so good with four brushed on coats of Rustin's French Polish, I thought I'd do the same with Seraphine's stand. The turned posts were fine after three coats, but the rest of the stand for some reason is not; the finish is uneven, shiny in some places and matt in others after more than ten coats. I can only think it's the type of pine. The posts are a different wood, I'm guessing beech. Hmm.

Saturday, 3 November 2018

Zaphod finished

Zaphod is finished at last, and here are his before and after photos. I'm quite proud.

Tuesday, 30 October 2018

I've invented the S pin

Well, that was tricky.

I'm beginning to think that restoring a rocking horse properly is a workout for the brain - you come across so many problems you weren't expecting, to which you have to devise solutions.

Today I secured the ends of the swing irons and nailed on the brass bowler hats. I'd bought split pins to go through the holes at the ends of the irons, then realized because of their large heads the bowler hats would not fit on top. (I also had to file down a couple of the ends and washers a smidge for the same reason.) What to do? I cut lengths of wire coat hanger, long so I'd be able to pull on them. I annealed the rods, bent them to an S shape through the holes and cut them to size.

These worked perfectly. Perhaps I could patent them and become a millionaire?

 I used tiny brass tacks to nail on the bowler hats. They were quite stroppy, over-compensating for their small size no doubt.

Zaphod is now finished, hurrah! I haven't yet bolted his hooves to the hoof rail - I'll have to take him home in two trips as my elderly Micra isn't quite large enough to transport him on his stand.

Thursday, 25 October 2018

Brass bowler hats

These are used to cover the ends of the swing irons where they poke through the hoof rail. I suspect Zaphod didn't have them originally, as I can't find any screw/tack marks, but split pins and washers look a bit unfinished when the rest of him is all shiny and new.

For some reason, you can only buy brass bowler hats in one size, 45mm. This is too big for a medium size horse - that's the size that Oliver, the extra-large Stevensons Brothers horse I bought for my daughter when she was small has. So, being a jeweller, I made my own 38mm ones from brass sheet. First I milled it down to 0.4mm thick, cut it into squares, annealed them and tapped them into a doming block. I had to anneal them three times. Then I pierced out a circle, polished them, and drilled three holes in each. They aren't perfectly regular, but will look fine.

Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Making a rosette

Now this surprised me - I'm good with my hands, and thought making a rosette from ribbon would be a piece of cake. Wrong. Turned out it's really difficult to get it neat, symmetrical and the right size. After a couple of goes I looked on Google for help, but failed to find instructions for the right kind of rosette. Martha Stewart's were particularly vague and unhelpful.

In the end I found instructions on how to sew a flounce, and adapted it by ironing box pleats into a 15mm ribbon (using a slip of 8mm card as a guide), hand sewing the edge and then glueing the ends together. You seal the raw edges to stop them unravelling by carefully running a lighter flame along them. I glued the finished rosette to a leather disc.

It's important to use good quality ribbon. Mine was from John Lewis a decade ago. Cheap ribbon is too soft and loose-woven.

I made six pleats to go with the six petals of the brass florette that goes in the centre. It's nailed on to Zaphod's neckstrap with a domed brass nail. If I'd made him a nailed on bridle, he'd have had a smaller rosette on that to match.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Saddle and sundries

When restoring a rocking horse you have to make hundreds of small decisions along the way as to how you are going to do it. As a jeweller, I'm obsessive about minor details and like to get things right. But sometimes you just can't find a photo of a similar horse in original condition, and you have to plump for one thing or another. The gold fringe, for instance, is possibly more Ayres than J & G Lines - but I couldn't resist the way it looks.

Here are some photos of the process, to show how I made the saddle. I used a staple gun, which was very handy, two types of Bostic and domed upholstery nails. I stitched the saddle on an ordinary sewing machine using a new needle - it only worked if I used the leather forming the underside of the saddle suede side up, as the other side wouldn't feed through the machine. It's stuffed it with horse hair which I believe is traditional. I cut the thick leather on a cutting mat with a stanley knife, and used scissors on the soft leather.

The tail strap was surprisingly easy and quick to make. Everything else took ages.

I made paper then fabric patterns of the saddle first

I glued on the velvet saddle cloth, smoothing it out as I went.
The strap, screwed in with three screws, is to hold the stirrup leathers.
The saddle is made of soft leather, stuffed with horsehair and staple gunned to the horse.

These are the saddle flaps, with decorative trim glued on.

The finished (almost) saddle, with decorative rondel.
I still have to shorten the stirrup leathers and put a couple more studs in the saddle flaps.

Saturday, 6 October 2018

Zaphod's tack

I'm lucky to have a brilliant leather and metal sundries shop near me in Islington, J.T. Batchelor Ltd, in a Victorian building in a narrow mews. I went there to buy leather and buckles for Zaphod's tack. I found this hide in Havana Brown, with matching soft leather for the padded saddle.

I also bought some brass buckles, stud rivets and link pieces.

I've ordered solid brass stirrups from Wirral Rocking Horses. I must say the brown and brass go beautifully together.

Zaphod would have had a nailed on bridle, and perhaps that's what I should have made him - but for now at any rate he has a removable one.

Mane and tail

Zaphod had a brown mane and tail (I know as I found two bits inside his body cavity) so that's the colour I used. These are cured horse tails, which you soak overnight to soften the hide, and cut to size from the hide side with a stanley knife. You then nail the mane to the neck, with a separate bit for the forelock, and allow to dry. The bridle will cover the join. Some horses have a groove so you don't see the hide on the left side - rocking horses' manes traditionally fall to the right - but I didn't carve Zaphod one. I don't know if he would have had a groove originally.

I forgot to mention that I gave Zaphod three coats of satin acrylic varnish. I chose this after some thought rather than an oil-based varnish as it won't go yellow.

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Dappling Zaphod

I've started work on Zaphod again. To my shock, I realize it's been ten years nearly to the day since I last worked on him and posted to this blog. What have I been doing? Mostly writing in my spare time rather than rocking horses. Plus the usual life gets in the way stuff.

I've dappled Zaphod, as you can see, and painted his teeth and round his eyes. Dappling is done with black paint and an almost dry stiffish brush, and it's important to hold the pattern in your head and get the fading at the edges right. Being a jeweller, I'm way too perfectionist about this. I'm pleased with how his eyes look. Next step is varnish.

(This is not the tidiest corner of my workshop - note the mousetraps, bottles cut into vases with my new bottle cutter, charging Kindle Fire, 'useful' timber oddments and the offspring's unicycle. I'm decluttering, but haven't reached this bit yet.)