Intro: Retrofitting a Retro Rocking Horse
Growing up in the late 60's / early 70's toys were in a transition may were a combination of plastic and steel but without today's safety features. When I was a kid my sister and I had a "Spring Horse" we loved to play on this but the steel springs were dangerous, they had sharp edges and when they expanded little fingers could easily get pinched. Also if you fell (or got pushed) off there were four steel poles sticking out that you would land on.
When I saw one of these spring horses come up on Craigslist I knew I had to buy it and restore it for my god-daughter. When I went to see it it was in a lot rougher shape than I had hoped (missing two legs with a third broken off and also missing an ear along with various cracks) but I enjoy a challenge and knew I could fix it so I loaded it up and took it home. Of course as I was getting out of the elevator the door ended up closing on the horses head and the left side of his face just crumbled. :-(
So here I was owner of a brittle crumbling plastic horse on a dangerous metal stand and a little girl with her 2nd birthday coming up (with her mother being super protective!). But my stars were aligned and I get a text from the little girls mom on their vacation with her little girl riding on a carousel, she loved it and went back 3 times that week. So what do I make? My brain churned and I figured I could fix it & improve it by adding wooden rockers and turn this horse into a sophisticated rocking horse!
Step 1: Tools Materials & Safety
Just basic DIY skills are needed along with some painting ability, there is nothing in this project that should stop anyone at any skill level from recreating this. To make the project easier you can start with a horse that is in better condition and then it just becomes mounting it to the rockers with no fixing or painting actually required.
- Sander /sand paper
- Work bench
- Painters tape
- Air Brush
- Vintage Spring Horse (from craigslist or someones garage)
- Wood Rockers (rescue from an old rocking chair or Make your own - I had mine CNC cut through an online service)
- Spray foam insulation
- Wood Dowel for leg supports
- 2 Part Epoxy (for recreating missing parts & glueing cracks)
- Casting compound (to make molds of missing parts)
- Misc screws to attach horse to base
- Black Base
- Purple metail for saddle (airbrush paint)
- White for highlights / eyes etc. (airbrush paint)
- Clear coat sealer (for wood and plastic body)
- Read safety instructions on all materials (especially epoxy and paint as fumes can be hazzardous)
- Make sure you have a secure work surface to work on
- As this is meant for a child to use, take extra care in sanding and joining parts so that there are no sharp edges or objects exposed
The total cost of this project was approximately $250 with $125 coming from the custom CNC cut rockers. If you have the required woodworking tools or can reuse parts from an old rocking chair the price would be cut in half. The horse cost me $30 (it should have been free based on its condition but I really wanted it!). The rest of the cost was for paint and supplies.
Step 2: The Find
Starting with memories of a childhood spring horse shared between me and my sister I found a vintage one on Craigslist in less than pristine condition. It had one good leg, plus one broken off piece and two totally missing. The tip of its right ear was gone along with the whole left ear. There was also a crack down the mane on the left side.
Step 3: Body Repair
The first thing that I needed to do was to reinforce the body as the plastic was pretty brittle after all these years. I decided to fill the body with spray foam insulation. I chose the most rigid available, taped over the holes and filled the cavity with the foam. This not only reinforced the body but it also give a base on which to rebuild the missing face. The other plus is that with the foam I now have something stable to attach the new legs into.
Now the legs... In looking at the existing legs I noticed that they were ssymmetrical here was not much difference between the right and left legs. In my closet of "stuff" I had a mold making kit so I took the drastic step of cutting off the only good leg and using it to make a mold (I had taken pictures of this step but they were lost in a computer crash). Basically the process is to mix up a batch of molding material and place it in a plastic container that will hold the leg. Once this has cured, I split the container and the fflexible old allowing me to pull out the leg. I then taped ttogether he mold and mixed up a batch of 2 part epoxy. I filled the mold with the epoxy and waited overnight.
Once the epoxy cured I took it out of the mold and had a perfect copy of the leg. I repeated this process for the other missing leg and then placed the "half" leg in the bottom of the mold and then filled this with epoxy along with filling the "good" leg with epoxy as well.
In order to attach the legs to the body I saws the leg opening straight (where the old legs had broken off) and then cut the new epoxy legs to the correct length. In each leg I drilled a hole and inserted a dowel "bone" which I glued in place. I then carved out the foam in the body where the legs were to be attached. Placing the body upside down I filled each leg opening with epoxy and then inserted the new legs with the dowels into the foam/ epoxy. These were taped into position in order to line up the new legs with the body.
I formed a new ear and ear tip out of "play dough" and repeated the mold process. These ears were then epoxied in place. Any cracks and holes were also filled with epoxy to add strength.
Where the face was missing I was able to save the broken "Eye", once the foam was covered in a couple of layers of epoxy I placed the eye in position and spread "semi-hard" epoxy in order to create the contours of the horses face. Once everything had hardened for a few days so that it was fully cured I used a dremel to more finely shape the epoxy joints and face.
Step 4: Rockers
With my lack of woodworking tools and the need for precision in building the rockers I decided to use Ponoko.com and have them CNC cut out of a 2x4' - 3/4 inch sheet of Baltic Birch. This is more costly than making it yourself but the parts would be exactly sized. I searched online for rocker plans and found the plans shown in the second image. I used this as a guide for my design mostly for the length and curve. Since I was getting them computer cut I decided to use a one piece rocker and uprights. I would use an angled cross member to create the angle of the legs so it would have a very stable base.
(Another option that I considered was to use the rockers from an old rocking or glider chair so that it would be an entirely recycled piece but I was not able to find a donar chair or the correct size..)
My thought was to have the fit so tight that I would not need to use any screws except for attaching the horse to the base. I had "keys" cut that would be hammered into the cross members where they passed through the rocker to hold them securely. As it happens my thought did not turn into reality. When I measured the height of the base I did not take into account the legs being positioned over the cross members when calculating the height of the risers. When I dry fit the assembly I needed about 3 inches additional to have the legs clear the cross members. :-( Luckily for me since this was the first time using CNC cut wood I had some extra pieces made with the extra space available on the plywood sheet (see drawing).
I used the 4 extra "keys" and screwed them to the top of the risers to add the additional required height. These were then pre-drilled and the wood dowels (that originally hooked to the springs) were cut to fit.
Step 5: Finishing the Body
Using a Dremel I smoothed as much as possible but since the epoxy is clear it was hard to see the spots that needed to be shaped. I ended up spraying the legs and repaired areas with the primer paint which highlighted the inconsistencies. I then sanded those areas until shaped and smooth. The primer also filled in some small scratches in the original plastic. Once I was happy with the shape I put two coats of primer on the horse.
Step 6: Sealing the Rocker
Since the rockers were plywood and cut with a CNC machine they needed a bit of sanding to remove any sharp edges and splinters. After sanding I used clear low VOC "green" varnish in order to seal the wood but yet keep the inherent beauty of the high quality Baltic Birch giving it the look of mid century modern furniture. I also sanded and sealed the original "handle" and horse support dowels.
Step 7: Painting
Since I kept the rocker a natural wood finish I wanted the horse to contrast so I decided on classic carousel colors of a Black & White horse with Purple with Gold accessories.
After the horse was painted with a black base I taped off the saddle and sprayed a base purple undercoat. I then pulled out an air-brush (I picked this up for under $20 at a country auction and since I have never used one before I practiced on some cardboard for a while). I top coated the saddle with some metallic purple and then taped off the hooves and face to apply the white highlights. In the mouth, nose and ears I added some pink for realism. Finally I hand painted the eyes and gold bits on the bridle and saddle.
Step 8: The Reveal
On the big day the horse was wrapped and ready to go.. The birthday girl opened her gift under a perfect blue sky and loved it so much she even ate dinner on the horse!
The perfect end to a great restoration project! This horse was saved from landfill, fixed and improved so that it is now loved by the next generation of kids...
Third Prize in the
Fix & Improve It Contest