Besides having little experience in wood carving I had even
less knowledge of carousel horse carving. I made this
sculpture back in 1984, long before the Internet was a
resource. I had no idea when I chose the subject matter
that there was a “correct” way to carve a carousel animal,
even apparently a miniature one.
Before attempting this carousel horse I had only a
smattering of experience in carving wood. I had done two
woodcuts for wood block printing back in college. That was
only a two dimensional relief type carving made with gouges.
My 3 dimensional carving efforts had been limited to a few
small birds of simple form and no detail. Those were made
from balsa wood, carved or whittled with a utility knife which
was the only tool I had that I could keep sharp enough to get
to the end of the job.
I'm sorry about gifting the horse and even sorrier that I lack
any good photos of it for this project post. I should have
spent a little more time tinkering with photography. I actually
did take a whole roll of pictures before I gave this sculpture
away but the pictures didn’t come back until later and none
of them turned out. The only cameras I had access to back in
the early days were little Brownies or Instamatics. They did
not take good pictures under the best of circumstances and
couldn’t take close-up pictures at all. The reason I have this
picture is that my friend Dan, who made the stand and pole
for my carving, took it with his Polaroid, the only camera of
the past that could take instant pictures. Even if you owned
a Polaroid, poor folk like me couldn’t afford to buy the film
packs. Here is some more advice to artisans who spend a
multitude of hours creating anything that will leave their
possession through giving or selling… make sure you have
good photos of it from every angle for your portfolio.
This is the hand carved, hand painted carousel horse I
designed and made as a gift for, who was at the time, a very
special man in my life. The man and the horse are both long
gone now, and I’m really sorry about losing the horse. Here’s
a little advice to the tinkerers, artists and craftsmen who
read this... lovers may, and do, come and go… make sure
your original art doesn’t go with them.
1984 H – 5 ½” x W – 7” x D – 2 ¾
In coming back to review this piece now, so many years
after I made it, and with a great deal more knowledge of
carousel animals, my eye is more critical. It is evident that I
had a greater interest in, and knowledge of, the
conformation of real horses than that of carousel horses or
in duplicating any style of the old world carousel-carving
masters. Having been in the horse business for over 20
years a horse was a natural subject matter for me to choose.
Actually it was carving this horse sculpture from which my
interest in Carousel horses sprang.
While the original carousel horses are beautifully carved
with great attention to detail, they were, above all, built to be
amusing and were about fantasy and fun. They were never
intended to be equine anatomical studies but rather
idealized caricatures of a horse. The original Carousel
horses are much more stylized and exaggerated than is
shown in my interpretation. Some of the old carvers carried
this stylization to great lengths with elongated backs,
disproportionately large heads and faces showing fierce
almost frightening expressions. There was obviously no
real concern for the reality of the horse, no doubt too banal
to be entertaining. Others carvers did take greater care to
make more realistic representations within the confines of
the box they had to work with.
If you are a horse enthusiast you will notice, after looking at
enough carousel horses, that there is no actual breed
represented but are a breed unto themselves. There are
some hammerheads and roman nosed horses seen. Most all
of the original horses have their ears laid back and almost
every one with ridiculously long necks curved liked swans.
At the time I made this sculpture I was training quarter
horses which strongly influenced my work. It is obvious in
the rounded hind quarters, the muscular sholders, thick
short neck, dinner plate jowls and the overall shorter,
stockier nature of the breed. While it is a fairly good
representation of a quarter horse, it is still just a quarter
horse dressed up in carousel finery, lacking the magic and
drama of a true carousel steed.
All full-size carousel figures made back in the late 19th and
early 20th century were produced in basically the same
manner. Planks of seasoned basswood were glued together
to create a hollow body box. This was done to reduce
weight and to minimize cracking. Head, neck, legs, and
wood tails were carved separately and attached for the final
cleanup and finishing. The shape of the body had to be
contained within this box form so rump and shoulders were
of the equal and narrow width. These horses were not
meant to be viewed from the top and you will rarely see a
picture of one from that angle. If you were to view one from
above you would see that a carousel horse never do lose
this basic elongated box shape.
If you do choose to carve a carousel figure, there are a few
basic guidelines that should be followed to make your
figure believable as carousel art.
Carousel animals are either a horse or a menagerie animal
which is any figure that isn't a horse. The menagerie figure
can be a wild animal (i.e. tiger, lion, giraffe, elephant, bear,
panda), a domestic or farm animal (i.e. cat, dog, goat,
chicken, pig) or a fantasy creature (i.e. sea monster or
hippocampus). A hippocampus is from Greco-Roman
mythology. Hippo is Greek for horse and campus Greek for
fish. It is also called a hippocamp and eventually became
known in English as a Seahorse. In mythology this half
horse half fish creature drew Poseidon's or Neptune's sea
chariot. As you can see your choice of carousel subject
matter is not confined to a horse but is virtually unlimited.
All carousel figures are executed in one of 3 styles or
positions. There is a Stander, a Jumper or a Prancer. A
stander is standing up on its own with 3 or 4 feet flat on the
ground. He looks as if he is standing still or with one foot
raised to take his first walking step. The Jumper is
suspended in the air by the pole with all 4 feet off the
ground. A Prancer has his front 2 feet in the air and his
back 2 feet flat on the ground as if striking or pouncing.
My horse was carved from a solid block of basswood, the
most popular wood used by wood carvers and hobbyists
because it is soft and easy to work with. There is little or no
grain pattern to basswood so is not really appropriate for
use with a stain or clear finish but perfect for this project
since all carousel horses are brightly painted and covered
with a high gloss finish.
Even knowing the old world technique used by the purists
to build all sizes of carousel horse, I can not see how
carving a horse as small as mine in pieces could have been
done. In doing the research for this article I found a man in
West Virginia named Patrick Wentzel of Classic Carousel
Carvings who makes up and sells more than 45 different
carousel figure carving kits. His kits include a photograph
of the actual carousel figure you will be trying to reproduce,
detailed instructions, a layout drawing and
all needed precut basswood components. I still can't
imagine how I would carve the tiny pieces but if I currently
owned a rotary tool I might give it a try. For the really
ambitious who carve 12 of his 1- inch scale figures he even
sells plans for building a 24 inch in diameter working
carousel. Mind boggling.
I have to confess that I am a danger to myself with a knife in
hand. I even slice my fingers when I cut a mat. When I took
my drawings and carving to show my friend Dan and he saw
all the band-aids, he loaned me his rotary power tool or I'm
sure I would have given up the whole project. I still did
some rough cutting and rounding with a utility knife but after
that all the work was done with his power tool and all its little
attachments. If I remember correctly, it was a Craftsman.
For those of you who wish to try a single piece basswood
sculpture I will explain my more elementary method that can
be used regardless of your subject matter.
American carousels travel in a counter-clock wise direction
while those made in England turn clock wise. The side of
the figure that faces out toward the spectator is known as
the romance side and is heavily decorated with intricate
carvings and often glass inlaid jewels. The side facing
toward the center is plainer with fewer trappings.
TRANSFER OUTLINE DRAWING TO WOOD BLOCK - Transfer
the line drawing which shows all leg positions to both sides
of your block. Make sure the drawings are placed so that
the figure is heading the same way on both sides.
Remember your romance or decorative side is the side
where the horse's head is on the right side or heading off to
the right. You can transfer your drawing by using carbon
paper but I don't know if anyone has that around anymore or
even if it is still made. I applied my outline drawing to the
wood block by means of simple pencil transfer. This is done
by using the side of a graphite pencil to shade darkly on the
back of your line drawing. After you have shaded the back of
all your lines, affix your line drawing to your block of wood
with tape, shaded side next to the wood. Trace the outline
drawing with a dull pencil . Press hard enough so that the
graphite you applied to the opposite side is transferred to
the surface of your basswood block.
SIGNING YOUR WORK - If you intend to sign your work you
should think about how you will be doing this. The original
carvers never signed their creations but some
manufacturers would incorporate their logo into the
trappings or decorations. If you wish to do this it must be
worked into your design. I integrated a chest medallion with
my carved initials onto the front of the horse's breast collar
that mimicked the logo of the Philadelphia Toboggan
Company. You may wish to be more subtle and sign or initial
your work on the bottom of a hoof or on the belly of your
horse in the center of the girth.
MAKE DRAWINGS AND PLANS - Make a detailed colored
drawing of your figure. Include all trappings and intended
glass jewel placement.
MAKE OUTLINE DRAWINGS - You will need a right and left
facing transfer drawing and guide drawings of all 6 sides of
your figure clearly showing that side's view. You will need
them constantly in front of you for reference after you begin.
I am a firm believer in the 5P philosophy. (Prior Planning
Prevents Poor Performance. )
- Make a simple outline drawing that includes all trappings
that will be cut into your sculpture.
PUT IN YOUR DETAILS - Using your rotary power tool
equipped with an etching bit, carve your details. Carve the
horse's facial features, nostrils, lips, teeth, eyes, ears, mane,
tail, and forelock as well as all the figure's decorative
trappings. Don't forget your horse's hooves and shoes.
CHOOSE WORK SPACE - When you have the outline
transferred you will be ready to start cutting. Before you
begin choose an appropriate work space. Remember that
woodcarving is a messy pastime. There will be chips and
sawdust everywhere so please keep that in mind. I suggest
drop cloths throughout the room where you will be working.
Wear a dust mask to keep from inhaling the sawdust you will
ROUGH CUTTING - Now it is time for you to do your rough
cutting or the roughing out of your piece. This means you
will be removing as much of the scrap excess wood as
possible with a saw. I used a small coping saw. You don't
want to be timid and take too little and never get to the true
form, but neither do you want to be too aggressive and
hack off something you need.
ROUNDING - Now start rounding your edges and begin
pulling your figure out of the wood block by cutting away
everything that is not part of your figure. You will be using
all of your drawings at this point to decide what wood goes
and what wood stays and working on the piece as a whole
sculpture. Look at it from the top and bottom from chest to
tail and not just at the front and back sides. I carved away
large areas with a utility knife. I like utility knives because
you can constantly replace the blades to keep them razor
sharp. You will begin using your Rotary Power Tool at this
point of your work. The grinder attachments can take off a
great deal of material quite quickly and efficiently and there
is less chance of over-cutting. Over-cutting is taking off or
gouging off a hunk of wood that you needed. Once you
begin using the rotary tool, the chance of over-cutting your
figure or cutting yourself drops significantly.
DO FINISH SANDING - All surfaces must be as smooth as
possible. You will use your rotary tool for this too. It comes
with many sanding attachments.
PAINT- Spraying your finished figure with an enamel primer
will provide the smoothest painting surface for your top
coats. Be sure to allow your primer coats to dry throughly.
Paint your top coat with acrylic paint.
APPLY HIGH GLOSS FINISH - Spray coat with a clear gloss
wood sealer or finish. I personally like polyurethane for its
durability. I don't know why but a high gloss finish is
characteristic of every genuine carousel horse.
ATTACH FIGURE TO POLE AND STAND - The pole on this
horse was made of three twisted brass wires with a ball nut
on the top. Putting your horse on its pole requires drilling a
hole through your horse. This step can be done before
painting the horse if you choose. The hole should be just
ahead of the saddle and should be very snug so that the
horse does not slip up and down on the pole. A plain
wooden mounting plaque can be used as the base and
purchased in the wood section of your craft store.
ATTACH RHINESTONES - Inlaid rhinestones are often seen
integrated into the decorative trappings of carousel figures
adding sparkle to the fantasy world they inhabit. You can
purchase rhinestones for your figure at your craft store.
They come in a multitude of colors, shapes and sizes. Some
are made with flat backs for easy application or in the
traditional conical or raised back that much be inlaid into
your horse. The horse in this project has inlaid rhinestones.
I drilled the holes into the horse twisting a drill bit by hand.
Remember you should only use rhinestones on the romance
side of your horse.
Don't hesitate to pencil draw your
different sides directly on to the
By cutting and grinding to your pencil
outline you will establish the highest
points or outside parameters of your
Left and right transfer drawing.
View from all 6 sides of horse.
Notice the use of glass
jewels on the armor head
of this horse by Looff,
characteristic of the
flamboyant Coney Island
Arts and Crafts
Painted Ceramic Bisque