Heartwood Rocking Horses

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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.




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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.






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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)

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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.

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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!

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Homemade oil and wax finish for wood

So there’s some info out there about making your own oil and wax finish for your wood products. This has been a great finish for me, once I figured out what ratios to use and how to apply it. It is all natural, food safe, and contains no petroleum products. Here’s what I’ve discovered…


There’s plenty of differing opinions about how much oil and how much wax to use in the mixture. I’m not sure if there’s a right or wrong answer to this, but I’ve found something that works for me. I use a 1:2 ratio of wax to oil. You might like more or less wax, depending on your process. What I like about the 1:2 ratio is that it is a soft solid at room temperature. It can be scooped up by a rag and smeared onto the wood surface without much effort. You don’t have to heat it to get it out of the jar. This makes it easy to work with, and it doesn’t run everywhere. There are a few tricks, though, more on that at the end of the post.

I mix everything in a 1 pint jelly jar, which happens to have little markings on the side…I think some of them are in ounces. So I fill it with 2 oz. melted wax, and 4 oz oil. Here’s how.


I start with solid bees wax. You can purchase this from many bee keepers at a market, online, or in various stores in various forms. Just be sure to look for 100% bees wax if you are trying to stay natural and non-toxic. You also want it clean and filtered. I have a little candle that is wax that I’m melting down to use for my mixture.

You need to melt the wax in a water bath. This is to avoid direct contact of the jar or the wax with the stove, which would be dangerous! So, just place a pan of water on the stove and put your jar in it. You can use enough water to cover about half the jar to aid in heating the wax. I don’t use more because I don’t want water to get in there. Bring the water to a boil and use fairly high heat to speed the process along. You don’t have all day, right? This takes about 10 minutes.

how to make an oil and wax finish for wood

Some people like to shave the wax, but I find this takes longer and is messier and more difficult. I just sit the candle in the jar and use high heat and it melts pretty quickly. As it melts, I occasionally check the amount of liquid that is accumulating by removing the jar and the candle and looking at the side of the jar. The wick from the candle makes this super easy to just lift the candle out and check the volume of the melted wax. When the liquid reaches the 2 oz mark on the side, I’m done. Remove the rest of the solid wax and save it for next time. You should be left with just plain liquid wax in the jar.

Add the oil

Next you want to add oil to the mixture. I use linseed oil, and I use all natural polymerized linseed oil from Tried and True brand. It’s their natural danish oil that has been partially dried, so it contains more solids and dries faster. You can use raw linseed oil, but I figure the more dry, the better. If you want to stay non-toxic, don’t use boiled linseed oil, it has heavy metals in it. And don’t use mineral/baby oil, it’s made from petroleum. But walnut oil, almond oil…other oils are fine. I’ve stayed away from orange oils because I’m not sure how skin friendly they are. They are used as a degreaser, so they might irritate the skin. Or they might be fine, I’m not sure.

*Side Note: If you have time, you can also “polymerize” your own linseed oil. Start with raw oil, which is greenish in color and will take ages to dry on your wood. Leave it sitting out in a wide container like a 9x13x3 baking pan, so that it can air dry. You have to leave it out for like a year, people, this takes a long time. But you don’t have to do anything with it. After a while, the oil will change from greenish to light honey brown. It is ready to use now and will dry faster when applied to your wood. I use one 32 oz. jar for one year while my next jar is drying for the next year, so I never run out. Or I just order Tried and True polymerized linseed oil that’s ready to go.

Ok, so, pour in enough oil into the jar with the melted wax to reach the 6 oz. mark, so you’re adding 4 oz of oil, creating a 1:2 ratio of 2 oz. wax to 4 oz. oil (right? that’s how ratios work, isn’t it?).

The mixture will be cloudy at this point because of the cold oil, and it isn’t fully mixed. You will need to heat everything together so that it is uniformly incorporated.

how to make an oil and wax finish for wood

Just put it back on the stove in the water bath and stir for several minutes. It shouldn’t take long…how to make an oil and wax finish for wood

You can add more water to heat it faster, just keep it out of the jar. Here you see the solids are just small pieces. Keep stirring till everything is completely liquid.

how to make an oil and wax finish for wood

Once you have liquid, you’re done! Just take it out to cool, and the whole jar will become solid again. It has the consistency of hard butter. A soft solid you can still scoop out from the jar. You shouldn’t need a knife, I usually just scoop it out with my finger and a rag. how to make an oil and wax finish for wood

How to use an oil and wax finish

So this is just what I’ve found to be quickest, and most effective against wood cracking. First apply 1 to 3 coats of oil to your wood piece. Again, I use a natural, polymerized linseed oil. Allow each coat to dry 24 hrs and wipe away any excess after an hour, or 10 minutes if you are impatient like me.

After those oil coats, scoop out some wax mixture and wipe it generously into the wood. (I’ve done this immediately after applying one coat of oil, with good results, but more oil will be more protection). It will look like goopy clear butter, and you should see some excess built up on the wood. I used to try to wipe everything in really well, and wait for it to dry naturally. This doesn’t work! It will take like a year for this to dry, and you will have a tacky, icky waxy finish. What I learned was to wipe it on heavily, like I said. Just be messy. Then, here’s the trick: Use a hair drier to warm the wax and melt it into the wood. The heat will draw it into the wood, I think, and also thin everything out to a uniform covering and dry it. While it’s hot and liquid, wipe off any excess with a dry cloth and buff rapidly for several seconds, by hand, until you feel the surface become slick and dry. That’s it! It should be dry and soft to the touch. I think this heating process just makes the wax thin enough so that it will actually dry quickly.

This finish has worked well for me in preventing the wood from drying out, cracking, or getting moisture damage. You can use a few more coats of wax if you want more protection. You can also rub more oil in each year to maintain the finish, though I’m not sure the oil makes it through the wax into the wood. You hopefully are just building up beautiful natural layers of oil to your natural finish. I’ve been thinking of using more wax in the mixture, just curious what that would be like. Experiment for yourself!

The best thing about all this is it is safe, you can just use your bare hands and apply everything inside the house if you want. No fumes, no sprayer, easy!

I hope this works well for you! This has been a long post, but really this is a super fast process. It takes about 10 min to create the mixture, and about 1 minute to apply. Besides waiting between coats of oil, the whole thing is super fast and super effective! Let me know how it works for you!