How they were made- an account from 1851
The first job is take a pine plank and form it, by gluing and jointing it, into a block (it used to be made from solid timber but jointing is a better process). The block thus prepared is reduced by the plane and drawing knife to the shape of the horses body. It is then what we call bevelled and morticed, to make the holes into which in which the legs of the horse are glued. The head is shaped out of solid pine, after a pattern cut out of paste-board or thin plank, but we have merely the outline supplied by the pattern; with what may be called the anatomy, with the nostrils, the eyes, the skill of the workman being directed altogether by his eye. The legs (of beech) are shaped without pattern, the skill of the workman again having no guide beyond his eye; and the 'tenant' is then cut in the leg - the tenant being a portion of wood left on the top of the leg to be fitted in the mortice hole made for that in the body. Next the head is affixed, being jointed and gluedby a great nicety of adjustment to the body of the rocking horse, and then the toy in its rough state is complete.
After that it is what we call 'worked off' - that is, each part has to be duly shaped, so that all may be in accordance: body, head, legs. Without that there would be no symmetry. The 'working off' is a four hours process (taking the average sizes), and very hard work. The first layer of composition (gesso) is then applied and left to dry, which takes from eight to ten hours. The rasp is then used over the article, and then another layer of composition is added, and then a third: this is done to get a smooth level surface. The last application is sanded down with glass paper.
The horse is then painted, and the legs are screwed and fitted to the 'rocker', or frame. It is then harnessed - we do the saddlers work ourselves: and after that the mane and tail are affixed. Then the rocking horse is complete, unless glass eyes have to be put in the head, as is often the case.
These days my restoration or manufacture is virtually identical except I use hardwood and it gives me a sense of history when I make these horses.
A few notes about the makers.
FH Ayres are considered to be the Rolls Royce of rocking horse makers and are superbly finished and carved to make a lovely useable heirloom horse for the future. They were made in London from 1864 to 1940 and are identified by 4 bolt stand brackets, distinctive carving and stand pillars. There were plain carved and extra carved variations and are some of the best rocking horses ever seen.
G and J Lines started in 1850 and the family split into Lines Brothers then Triang and their horses were sold in all the big British stores such as Gamages, Hamleys etc. Their horses were also a lovely quality horse, usually with three bolt brackets and distinctive shape and pillars and make superb heirlooms.
Collinson rocking horses were made from the 1830’s untill 1993. These tend to be basically carved, often tack eyes rather than glass with very heavy bold dappling. Though saying that the early horses were very nice with glass eyes. The stands were made from pine, nailed together with diamond shaped pieces of hardboard covering the top rail nail heads.
This is a very quick precis of a few of the more common makers but there are many more.
Please Note, timber shrinks / swells across the grain during the seasons with hardly any movement lengthways. This means where the long grain of the legs meets the cross grain of the body and where the neck meets the body movement is inevitable and will show as minor cracks.
Restorations are potentially a problem as bodies are normally made from softwood and old glues do deteriorate. Also it depends where the unrestored horse has been previously, a damp shed for example is not good for glues and also as timber moves when it dries.
This is minimised by good working practices, dry storage during work but also by keeping your horse away from extremes of heat and humidity. When cracks appear they will not affect your horses integrity or safety.
All horses have this problem to varying extents and some people just call them feature lines.
Please see as well my process in restoring your horse. Click Here