Heartwood Rocking Horses

Leave a comment

Heartwood Rocking Horses in 2020

I have not posted in quite a while. I have been up to quite a few things lately besides rocking horse carvings. This is both exciting and sad at the same time. Here is a quick summary of what has been happening with Heartwood, and what my goals are for the future.

I have spent the past three years on a new career path, and am now a full-time medical laboratory technician at our local hospital in the blood bank. This means I no longer build rocking horses full time. It was a tough decision, but after speaking with other artists and business people, I realized I was not in the place financially to continue carving as my only source of income. I have heard of so many other artists with the same story, and I thought if I learned enough and became skilled enough I could be one of the few artists that can do what they love for a living.

What I learned, however, is that it takes more than willingness and skill to be a profitable artist. What it seems to take is a large amount of space, for one. Space to store tons of wood that needs to dry for years before use. Space for tools that allow me to build quickly so that things are affordable for people. Space to glue up huge pieces of wood for large carvings. Space to store so many beautiful rocking horses as they wait to be displayed. Space for all the things it takes to create those displays and transport the horses to various venues. Space to photograph the process and the finished product. And space for innumerable tiny bits of supplies and materials that are saved for future carvings and projects.

Space is one thing I do not have, and when I thought about the financial and emotional cost of creating more space and taking up more space in my life and in my environment, I just didn’t have the desire to expand. Rather, I have more of a desire to downsize and create fewer, smaller treasures that take up less physical space and less time out of the day. In the end, I think this means I would like to keep creating as a hobby rather than a career. I am sad to let the journey go, but also feel more free and able to enjoy all the other parts of life outside of the 450-square-foot garage which was my workshop.

So looking ahead, I do hope to update this site with any new creations that come along. I probably won’t be building any large rocking horses for a while. I do still enjoy creating small horse carvings, and am open to custom orders for special projects if there is not a tight timeline. I will see how this goes for the near future, and decide if I can do more or less carving as time goes on. I do have a few horses still available and posted on the Currently Available page, so if you are interested, this may be your last chance to find a Heartwood Rocking Horse for a while!

I create and maintain this website myself, so I also hope to chip away at it to reflect more of what I’m doing. Feel free to contact me with any projects you are interested in. Who knows, I may have some time and energy ready to create!


1 Comment

Power carving

So, some people may hear power carving and think, “that’s not hand-made, you used a power tool to make that!” Well, sorry to say, power tools are used in pretty much every step of many hand-carved projects. Tree removal, lumber milling, cutting out pieces, edge finishing, sanding….usually all power tools. Most likely anything made of wood was made with power tools, unless it is a specialty item with a special price tag. I have also been using a power carver for years, a Foredom flexshaft with a chisel handpiece. This is about the same as a mallet and chisel, but the tool provides the mallet work for you. It is easier, but not faster.

When making a rocking horse, there are so many steps and parts, it is a very time consuming process. Often, I get discouraged trying to shape a large horse body by how slow the process is. I can spend at least a day trying to rough out just the body of a small rocking horse. What I’ve learned is that most people, though they think they want something totally hand chiseled, actually don’t want to pay for the amount of time this would take. If you do, that’s wonderful! Please do! But most people seem to prefer a smaller price tag in exchange for a little help from electricity. The difference can be thousands of dollars saved by saving time.

The other day, I was getting completely bogged down trying to create the shape of a small horse from a 5″ wide glue-up. The wood is European Beech wood, which is wonderful but hard as a rock. So rather than burn the horse in a fire out of frustration, I went out and impulsively bought a chain-saw blade for an angle grinder. I’ve seen some of these in action, and we already have an angle grinder laying around. They are relatively affordable compared to all other woodworking tools, less than a single high-quality large hand chisel.

woman wearing dust respirator, ear protection, face shield, and sunglasses to protect face during power wood carving

Lookin’ good!

Safety is always important! You want to work outside with this tool, fine dust will be everywhere. Sunglasses, dust mask, face shield, hearing protection, check!

I tried the Lancelot carving blade first, with the angle grinder we had laying around. No guard, no handle, don’t know where they are. I used it this way for about 15 minutes, feeling more and more unsafe as the unguarded blade spun inches away from my hand. This is not the way to use this tool! You want a handle and a guard.

top view of lancelot chainsaw blade for angle grinder Lancelot chain saw attachment shown on angle grinder with no guard or handle.

But after just this trial run I realized I wanted to use this tool! I can remove so much material in minutes, which would literally have taken a day or two by hand. The finish left is somewhat smooth, easy enough to remove with 80 grit paper. But the initial sanding did end up taking longer than with just carving. You can see below the finish on the neck. Also, it is easy for the blade to get caught on an edge or in a grain direction change and pull itself into the wood. This left a few large gashes that I didn’t like, and also felt really unsafe. I took to You Tube to see how I could use this more safely. The answer: Guard, handle, and a different attachment.

The Lancelot is a King Arthur tool, and they also make a grinder called the Holey Galahad. I saw a cheaper version of this being used on you tube, and decided to give it a try. So, a trip to Harbor Freight successfully supplied me with a $30 angle grinder (with a handle and guard) and a $10 wood grinding attachment, seen below.

Seen above is the grinder, just a bunch of metal bits on a metal wheel. This works REALLY WELL, and removes material just about as quickly as the chainsaw blade, but more cleanly and is much safer. I could work in any direction, and even do some smaller areas on the face. You will also see above a rubber washer. I found that the Harbor Freight brand angle grinder didn’t hold the attachment very tightly. A rubber washer I had laying around provided some cushion and stopped the wheel from moving around.


After about 4 hours, I used the grinder to carve the entire body and all the legs. I was able to remove so much more material than just carving with the power carver. I would have gotten discouraged and given up, and ended up with a general shape that was too thick for what I really wanted. The finish is fine for rough-out stage, and the grinder attachment shows no build-up or wear after about 4 hrs. At $10, this attachment is the perfect solution for speed, accuracy and safety.


One sad note about the Harbor Freight angle grinder: After the four hour session, I discovered the plug had become fused inside the extension cord, I couldn’t unplug it! I hadn’t seen any evidence there was something wrong happening, but it definitely melted something inside and I had to break the prongs off the grinder’s plug to remove it from the extension cord. Fortunately, Harbor Freight has a 90-day return policy, and this one was returned. I opted for an up-grade, a Ryobi from Home Depot. At $40, this is still one of the cheapest woodworking tools I have obtained, and it ran much smoother than the H.F. brand, and held the attachment in place perfectly. I highly recommend it.

Final conclusion: I will be using this power carving system a lot in the future. I still finish carving all details by hand, it is only the rough shaping that I use the angle grinder for. But I really recommend trying this out if you have been thinking about it. Start with the $10 H.F. grinder attachment. The chainsaw blade seems better suited for bowls or other hollowed-out shaped things, or really large roughing out where a minor gouge isn’t going to ruin anything. Harbor freight actually sells one of these chainsaw attachments, too.

I can work so much faster, and the fast, fluid shape formation that takes place makes it easier to create what I have in my mind than working at a slower pace. I can’t wait to share the new creations I can make with this!

wood rocking horse placed on table, unfinished sanded beech wood

The parts put together, still more to be done to create final rocking horse

Leave a comment

My attempt to take my own photos

Wouldn’t everyone love to have professional photos taken of every piece you create? A professional makes something seem real, valuable, beautiful, and draws your eye to the best things about a piece. But, this would obviously be expensive, and I can’t be running over to the photographer with every 50lb rocking horse or every tiny carved wooden spoon that I create.

Taking your own photos certainly makes sense. It makes a huge difference when trying to apply for things or sell stuff to have semi-decent photos. I’ve been doing some research on how to increase my Etsy sales, and having good photos is a must. I watched a very basic but incredibly helpful video from an artist Jenni at Fuzzy and Birch   about taking photos with your smart phone. Basically I’ve heard the stuff before but never paid attention long enough or tried doing any of the tips myself. And I’m sure there are literally thousands of posts on how to take AMAZING Instagram photos out there. So, what’s one more? Here’s my experience.

Here’s what I started with:

hand carved horse head photographed on porch with peeling white paint. Side view of left side

I thought this image was kind of artsy, but maybe it just looks dark and dingy, and I’m sure the lines of the siding are distracting. So I’m going to try to get some better ones.

One big tip is to photograph your stuff on a plain background, like white paper. You can tape one piece to the wall and put one under it on the floor. I had some issues with this the first few tries. The trick is to turn up the brightness on the camera settings (I won’t go into everything because it’s all in Jenni’s post) to basically blur out the white background of the paper, which is supposed to hide the seam. It takes a few tries, and might work better on a sunnier day. Here’s a few examples where the seam is still visible, plus the walnut doesn’t look very rich or realistic due to the brightness setting:


Another issue I ran into was not having enough white paper in the background. I figured I could just crop the image and poof! You would just see bright white! But, as I discovered, if your camera angle is off, you may end up with little corners that you can’t crop out without cutting off your object. Or, you end up with a really long skinny image where you really wanted big white square space. Some basic photo editing programs could fix this in a flash, but who has time for that?! It took me 2 hrs just to take these basic photos and crop them in my phone!

See there? You will not be able to crop out that last little bit of porch wall on the left side of these images, or you would be cutting it really close to that wine glass.

But I did get a few images I like, which shows that this trick can be helpful with a little practice. The one with the wine glass is a little dark, so still need more practice:


So, back to improving my Etsy site…I wanted to get some good images of a small horse head carving that I have. I tried with the paper a few times, but couldn’t get it to fit. So, my next idea was to use one large piece of poster board. This eliminated the seam, was large enough to make cropping easier, and also is not see-thru, so I could move it out more into the sunlight. It worked great! At least for doing it myself.


This is the set-up I did. As you can see, really easy to throw something like this together. Poster board, one piece of tape, any old grungy space with some natural light, you’re done!

So, I’ve updated the images in Etsy, and supposedly I’m supposed to get more traffic for having better images, and also for posting a recent update. Just like google, Etsy search likes to see activity in your shop. I’ll let you know how it goes!

Final thoughts on taking my own photos: It is handy to be able to do this at any time, even a day like today when it’s cloudy and kind of rainy. But I’m still going to have kind of washed-out looking, blurry-ish images compared to any professional photographer. Maybe the next step would be to get a decent camera, or a tripod at the very least.

I feel like my time just vanishes instantly when I do things like this, which is why we pay photographers I guess. But really, I need to remember I would spend at least this much time if I had to bring my work to someone else to photograph.

Also, I haven’t  found a way to photograph my really large rocking horses. I guess it will just involve getting a really big white sheet and ironing it really good. Or investing in a photographer’s backdrop cloth. Probably not that hard to do, maybe I’ll get on that this year sometime! For now, check out the horse on my Etsy site, and maybe you’ll see some of those other small items show up there soon as well!




What’s happening with Heartwood Rocking Horses?

Hi all, I haven’t posted in a while, so I wanted to get something up to start the ball rolling for the rest of 2018. I have been busy making rocking horses and horse carvings, and am excited to be participating in a show at the Grovewood Gallery this fall. The theme is animals in art, so it is a perfect fit for me! Look for more sculptural pieces rather than rocking horses, and maybe a few other animals besides horses as well.

I hope to post a bit more regularly in the future. I often think of things while I work that would be great to post,  sometimes woodworking tips, like using Pam cooking spray to improve the life of my bandsaw blades, or how I thought I broke my planer by not oiling it. Or other times more philosophical thoughts, like how it seems many woodworkers are undervalued and not able to make a living selling one of a kind art…or is that just every type of one of a kind artist?

So, you may see a variety of topics here, and maybe I will focus in on something, maybe I will stay broad. We’ll see how it goes. Thanks for reading! Oh, and here’s one of my favorite projects that I finally finished after several years working on and off. I hope you enjoy! Which reminds me, I want to write a post about trying to photograph large art…

hand carved cherry wood horse standing with carved walnut saddle on walnut base. With carved bridle and rein over neck

Carved quarter horse with carved saddle

Leave a comment

How to make rocking horse stirrups

classic walnut 2015

foot pegs

This is an article about how to make your own stirrups for a rocking horse, but I admit that in the past I have been very anti-stirrup with my rocking horses. My goal is to make the horse very user-friendly, and small children never seem to have a lot of luck when trying to use actual rocking horse stirrups. This could be because their feet don’t fit, they require an unnatural leg and foot position, they are not at the correct length, or they just don’t provide a lot of stability. I have created an adjustable foot peg system that works very well. But for people looking for that traditional image of a rocking horse with stirrups, I have come up with a different method.

I have found that visually, people do enjoy seeing stirrups on the horse, especially if I make a leather saddle.  For my English style saddles, I simply order the smallest pony size metal stirrups for real horses. They are installed with regular stirrup leathers and are fully adjustable. The size may stand out as large relative to the horse, but this is the smallest size that will actually accommodate the shoe of a 5 year old. Here’s the end result…


heirloom wood hand carvved rocking horse with hand made saddle and bridle, brown and white paint horse, yarn mane and tail, glass eye

First stirrups, original but a bit chunky

I recently made a horse with a western saddle. I wanted to make the stirrups myself, and attempted to do so by joining pieces of wood together to create strength. In order to maintain the strength, the entire thing became a bit over sized. I was ok with it at first. But I came upon a post of another rocking horse created from birch plywood. This horse had stirrups as well, and I wanted to try this method myself for creating a more realistic stirrup. By gluing three pieces of plywood together, I create a very strong single piece that can be cut much thinner than simple wood on its own. Here’s images of the final product, plus a comparison with the first stirrup I created.

So I don’t have any photos of the process, but here are the basics:

1. glue up 3 pieces of plywood. I cut mine into an oval in the rough shape of a stirrup.

2. draw the outline desired for the stirrup.

3. drill a hole into the center of the stirrup with a wide drill bit.

4. use a coping saw or jig saw to cut out the shape.

5. with a saw and chisel, shave off a few layers of plywood on the cross bar of the stirrup to create a thinner cross segment.

6. sand everything down to desired smoothness.

7. finish with oil and shellac

I also was able to find cheap children’s sized western stirrups online, but using plywood provides an even cheaper method that is also hand made, and can be adjusted for size and shape.

plywood horseHere’s a link to the plywood-based horses, where I first saw this idea. RockingHorsesJaffa on Etsy. They are lovely! I don’t plan to use the plywood method for my horses so I don’t mind sharing these lovely horses with you.



Leave a comment

Hobby Horses!

So I have not had a chance to add a section on the website for these hobby horses, but I really love making them! I made several this past week to bring to an event at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, which is only about 45 minutes away in Mill Spring, NC . There will be a hobby horse competition this Saturday July 1st, where 18 (so far) young riders will be riding, jumping and otherwise showing their hobby horses in the show ring. In case you haven’t heard, this is a new craze, started in Europe, which allows anyone to enter the horse showing world with just their stick horse and their own two legs.

It is common for people to make their own hobby horse, but for those of you interested in something special, I have made these adorable, lovely horses ready to ride. They are wood, weigh 3 lbs or less, and are about 30″ – 35″ tall. Great for riders of all sizes to gallop through the woods or over some jumps. These horses are beautiful, durable, and you can customize them with a hair cut or braids, or your own hand made bridle or other accessories! Or, if you want to finish your own horse, I can give you the wood and you can paint, sand, and add whatever kind of mane you want. The options are as great as your imagination.

After much fiddling, I also came up with a really simple rope bridle that anyone can make. It involves only 2 types of knots and one length of rope. I made a simple video here showing anyone how to make their own adjustable, removable rope bridle with reins. A person could really get fancy and hand stitch a nice leather bridle, but if you just need something fast, cheap, and easy, this works great! You can make a bunch of them in all different colors! I am not very entertaining, but hopefully informative! Kind of embarrassing to hear myself on the internet, but I’ll sacrifice my pride for the good of knowledge.






1 Comment

Four days until 4Bridges Art Festival! And Heartwood in the AJC!

Until then, I’m excited to share this article from the Atlanta Journal Constitution. This was in the Easter Sunday edition, and was equestrian themed in preparation for the Atlanta Steeplechase and the Kentucky Derby. Thanks Linda Jerkins for including Heartwood Rocking Horses!

AJC_2017_04_16 - SM (1)

Leave a comment

Milk paint mixed with acrylics for more color

I’ve always used milk paint for any painting on my horses. It is non-toxic, natural, food safe, and doesn’t contain petroleum products. Plus I love the soft and rustic look of the colors. I have, however, had difficulty producing just a few crucial colors. For example, there is no real RED red, like a fire engine, radio flyer wagon red. It must be related to the pigments they use.

On this horse I really wanted a RED red saddle. I tried the straight red, and ended up with more of a brick red, brownish color. This color might be more red when painted on a white surface, I didn’t try this. Here’s an image of the first coat of milk paint red…

So I’ve used some acrylics in the past to paint dog portraits. Using straight acrylics wouldn’t work, they have a shiny, plastic look that wouldn’t work with the milk paint of the horse body. So after a bit of googling, I discovered that some people mix the acrylic with milk paint to get specific colors, but retain the texture of milk paint. I figured I’d give it a try.

Sure enough, with about a 1/2 and 1/2 mixture of milk paint and acrylic, I ended up with just enough red and still that silky, matte texture of milk paint. And unlike with straight acrylics, it took an oil finish very nicely, and a light sanding achieved a velvet smooth finish. It’s not a huge difference, but it was enough of a red boost for what I wanted.

Though I don’t like relying on a synthetic product to create the best colors, this is one option to keep the milk paint properties plus add some color. I’d be interested to try some other methods, such as using a white or yellow base under the red, or possibly trying another brand of milk paint to get the right red. But if you are wondering about the effects of mixing acrylic and milk paint, hopefully this info could be helpful to you! Let me know if you have experience getting a RED red with milk paint.

Leave a comment

Buy a bit, save a lot!

image of router bit 1" x 3/4"

old bit, over a year old and no fun to work with.

This short post is designed to encourage you to buy something in order to save time and lessen aggrivation. Though I rarely need encouragement to think about buying something, I try to resist whenever possible. But I bought a new router bit. What I didn’t realize is that it will save me time, frustration, wear on my router, and my sanity! My old router bit worked ok. I think it was over a year old. You can’t see it in the photos, but it had some burny marks on the tips of the blades.  I would use my jointer blade sharpener on its tiny blades to try to clean them off each time I used it. And it took me what felt like an hour to router out the angle on one rockin

New bit from Vermont American

New bit from Vermont American

g horse leg. I dislike this task a lot, because I have to wear the safety glasses, dust mask and ear protection all at once, and it’s really boring.  I also had a lot of resistance moving it through the wood, which will probably take a few years off my router. It was taking all afternoon to create the four legs of one rocking horse. Something finally urged me to buy a new bit. I don’t know what the general quality of this one is, a Vermont American brand from Ace Hardware. We’ll see if its better than the ones from the other big stores.  But for now, it’s wonderful! I spent one hour planing down all four legs. It moves so easily through the wood, I was able to remove much more at one time. I actually enjoyed using it to create the legs. I’m saved! I think I will be buying a new $10 router bit more than once a year if I can swing it. You should try it too.


How to use Gesso, or my experience with it

So, I’ve been curious about using a gesso layer under paint to aid in creating a smooth finish without cracks. I decided to try it out on a horse that I am repairing. The original finish had many cracks, and the joints of the wood had opened up. There were many defects in the wood surface that I hoped to fix. My hope was that  the gesso would help seal everything and prevent more cracking. The end result? I don’t think it helped much, at least not enough to do it again. I used an acrylic gesso, so maybe a natural old-fasioned gesso would be more effective. The traditional kind has plaster of paris in it, I think. It seems gesso does create a super smooth finish, if you don’t have cracks in the wood. In that way it would work really well for what most people seem to use it for- as a smoothing layer on painting canvas. But for wood, it just didn’t help me.

Here’s what I started with

I started with reclaimed lumber that had many flaws. Here are just some of the issues I hoped to overcome: Open joints, poor wood structure, bee holes that I tried to fill with wood dowels and glue…

I used Liquitex Basics Acrylic Gesso. It has the consistency of maybe yogurt? Pretty thick. I had high hopes that it would provide a good thick layer. It goes on fairly easily. I ended up with a thick coat with a lot of brush texture left in it. I planned to sand this out later, hoping a thicker layer would provide more filling of the cracks. You can see it does appear to fill in many of the defects with the first coat before sanding.

After allowing the gesso to dry 24 hrs, I sanded it by hand. This was kind of dusty and I wore a mask. After sanding, I was disappointed to see that many of the defects had already opened back up again. The gesso didn’t work as an effective filler the way I had imagined. Here’s some sanded images…If you can see, some very small seams were filled, but the large defects still stand out.

After this, maybe another couple layers of gesso would help? But I didn’t think it would, it doesn’t seem to act as a filler for cracks over 1 mm deep. I decided to use a wood putty that often works well for me, Durham Plumber’s Putty. It is a powder that you mix with water to create a paste. I applied this to the wood over the gesso. The result was that the putty didn’t adhere correctly. I think the gesso had a negative effect on it. In the future, I think it would be better to apply wood putty first to any major defects. Then maybe a gesso layer would aid in smoothing out the final surface before paint. Here’s my wood putty layer with another layer of gesso on top of that. Defects appear to go away, but after painting, it was another story…

After a final sanding, this did provide a pretty good surface. But again, I think the better process would be to use wood putty first, then sand, then gesso, then sand again. After I applied paint, many of the puttied areas flaked off. I didn’t get any photos of this, sorry. But I think the putty didn’t adhere well to the gesso, creating the problems after painting.

I continued filling cracks with putty and sanding to get a final surface that did hold paint. In the end, I still have open seams and some crackling areas of paint. I sealed everything with shellac to aid in keeping it all together. The result works, and kind of looks like an antique finish. It is stable and does not flake at all. But its not what I set out for. The area around the eye worked out well, but other areas still show the flaws:


What I may try in the future is to apply wood putty to areas that need it. Sand that smooth. Then possibly apply gesso, or I may skip gesso in the future. I don’t notice any benefits that a regular primer coat of my normal milk paint doesn’t already create. I think I will just stick with milk paint in the future.

Maybe I didn’t use the gesso correctly, or didn’t use the right kind, or shouldn’t use it with Durham Putty, or it doesn’t work well with milk paint. I called the milk paint company and they said it usually works great with gesso, so I don’t think that’s the issue. But for now, I just don’t see the benefit of using it. Let me know if you have had other success with gesso!