Making rocking horses

 19 September 2012

Tony Dew wanted to work with wood. But he didn’t just want to accept any kind of wood work, so it was rocking horses or nothing. Find out what attracted him to revive an old craft.

Tony's biggest rocking horse is 16ft high and 24ft long - it took a year to make!
Tony's biggest rocking horse is 16ft high and 24ft long - it took a year to make!

Getting into wood carving

Tony Dew has always enjoyed making things. After several years as a seaman, travelling the world, he came ashore and worked as a joiner making windows, hanging doors and fitting skirting boards. Then he went to college as a mature student to study art, including wood carving.

As a course project, Tony made a rocking horse and found that he liked working on a big scale and doing something connected with children and movement.

“Making the rocking horse involved wood carving and wood turning. But also included regular joinery, as well as leather and metal work for the bridle and saddle. It was quite a challenge and I found that really interesting.”

Rocking horse making was 'a bit of a dead craft' at the time, but Tony hoped he could revive the craft. He has now made over 17 different designs, both traditional and modern, and runs his own business.

Starting a craft business

Like many craft workers Tony sold his first rocking horses to family and friends, but as he got more skilled he started selling outside the family circle. Early on, he chose to specialise in rocking horses and not do just any kind of wood working. 

“Some relevant experience is useful, but they don’t seem to teach craft work at school now."

“There’s a temptation to diversify when you start, because you’re worried that the work isn’t coming in and you feel you ought to take any work you can get. But I stuck to my guns.”

Tony’s determination paid off and now he works only with rocking horses: making new ones, repairing and restoring old ones, selling designs for people to make their own and teaching people how to do it. As well as selling accessories such as saddles, bridles, glass eyes, tails, manes and stirrups.

“We also do a made-to-measure renovation kit, so that people living far from my shop in York can repair their horses, mend leather or add new hair without having to send it back for a complete renovation.”

Making a rocking horse

It takes about a week to make a rocking horse. Most of the horse is made from tulip wood, a north American, plantation-grown hardwood.

“It’s stable and strong and very good for carving. Most of our rockers and stands are made out of ash but we use oak and chestnut as well.”

Traditionally, the body of a rocking horse is a hollow box with up to 25 pieces of wood, glued and pegged together. This is how Tony and his craft workers do it.

“We have patterns for the head, neck, legs, body parts and so on. Once we’ve cut those out we’ll start gluing the horse together. We carve the head before it is attached as it’s easier to handle that way. Then we put the head and neck onto the top of the body, the legs below it and do the carving on the body.”

Decisions need to be taken on how the horse will be finished. Traditionally, rocking horses are painted, the favourite colour being dappled grey, but Tony also makes horses that are stained or varnished to allow the beauty of the wood to show through.

“Most of our horses sit on swing iron safety stands, so that the horse moves on its stand rather than on traditional rockers, though we occasionally make those.

“Then we add the finishing touches: hair, leather – we have our own leather shop and we make our own bridles and saddlery – and any other bits and pieces the customer has ordered.

"Most of them are finished with real horse hair and leather but we do have a ‘vegetarian option’ if the customer prefers. We have several horses at different stages at any one time, but we’re not a factory here. Everything is a one-off and it’s a personal service. We don’t sell to shops. All our orders are for individuals.”

Skills and experience for wood work

If he was looking to add to his workshop team of nine, Tony would want someone who is enthusiastic, interested and keen to learn.

"The biggest difficulty for people going into crafts nowadays is that they don’t have much leeway to fail."

“Some relevant experience is useful, but they don’t seem to teach craft work at school now. I can teach them what they need to know.

“We took someone on who had some wood working experience, but had never done any of the things we do here. The person he’s replacing had been here about ten years, straight from school, and he learned everything he knows by just doing the job.”

Tony still loves to make things whenever he can get away from the computer. He likes resolving problems which crop up in the workshop and every so often he’ll have a new project to work on. He once made a replica of the world’s oldest wooden rocking horse which belonged to Charles I (now in the V&A Museum in London).

“I knew about it for a long time. It’s very fragile but it was wonderful to see it, do sketches and take photographs of it and then think myself into being a 17th century artisan to make the replica.”

Challenges for running a craft business

Over the years Tony has developed his shop and workshop into a thriving business – though he says he’s never going to be rich.

“I’d like to have known more about business, but I just learned as I went along. The biggest difficulty for people going into crafts nowadays is that they don’t have much leeway to fail.

"You need to be able to make mistakes because you learn from them. It’s difficult to see your way past all the rules and regulations at times. It’s a seasonal business, too, we’re always very busy coming up to Christmas, but despite all that, I really enjoy it.”

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