by Bette Largent

The carved side of a chariot before restoration
It's time to restore and repaint the chariots on Spokane's 1909 Looff carousel. An examination shows that the top of the head of each chariot's dragon is extremely worn and damaged. The older teenage riders as well as adults use the head of the chariots as a foot rest while they are riding the neighboring giraffe or tiger.

For one chariot the problem is addressed by placing a metal stirrup on the pole of the giraffe. Because the other chariot is placed next to the sneaky tiger, a stirrup was not an option. We will have to solve the problem by maintaining the clear coats and paint to protect the wood and carvings underneath.

The carved side of a chariot during restoration
The inside of each chariot will be finished in a faux finish that matches the upholstery material. This will add continuity to the piece and will make it much easier to touch up any new scratches and worn paint. A base color of red enamel is applied and once dry, a deep brown-black stain is applied. This very thin stain is then dabbed with ordinary wads of newspaper while still wet. Due to its size, it is done in sections as you have to work quickly. The final result is a perfect match to the red cordovan leather material.

The flat side of a chariot with its 70's paint job, and the unrestored giraffe in the background
The next section to be tackled in the flat side of the chariots. Painted in the seventies with gold metallic paint and black outlines, it did not match the beauty of it's carved twin. It was painted and shaded to match the image on the carved side. This will be reflected in the surround mirrors as the ride is twirling.

The completed chariot components all received 2 coats of clear polyurethane. The top edges and the heads, alias foot rests, received four coats.

Chariot scenery panel, with its original paint covered with yellowed varnish
The scenery panels on the backs were discolored and chipped and had paint splatters from previous paint jobs. They were, however, the original paintings and would be cleaned and preserved. A black, chipped rod ran across the back which stabilized the top of the chariot sides. This would be sleeved in brass. At one point, someone had repainted this rod and slopped a black stripe of paint completely across the painting behind it.

Chariot scenery panel, all cleaned up and as good as new!
By removing the old, yellowed varnish and paint spots the bright colors were revealed. This is the most tedious step of the restoration process. Considering the age of the carousel, the varnish probably was not applied until years after the carousel was created. It was not as dark as the aged varnish on other pieces on the carousel prior to restoration. It may have been painted on to preserve the paintings.

The removal of this varnish layer must be done inch by inch in order to not damage the painting underneath with the special solvents. Once cleaned, a method called in-painting is done where necessary after filling in chips and gouges. This brings back the paintings to their original beauty. Each had been outlined by a distorted black line. A frame of painted gold braid and ornamentation is added which brings attention to their existence. This coupled with the new brass sleeve makes them even more attractive and noticeable.

Removing the upholstery from the seat panel proved to be the most interesting. Five layers of vinyl or plastic was removed. It was like going through the history of this synthetic material. There was the burgundy red of the fake cordovan layer of the 70's, the bright red marbleized layer of the 40's and 50's found on every chrome diner stool and the more primitive plastic of the 30's. The last layer was black oil cloth, the original covering of 1909. Under this was a white muslin top and a pad made up of long, carving slivers of elm which were the thickness and length of straw.

Below this layer was a curved muslin pillow stuffed with smaller wood chips. They had recycled the most abundant waste material they had on hand...wood! The pillow cushion was still usable. We simply shook it out and redistributed the chips to the original shape. We then covered it with 4" of modern foam and found new upholstery material that perfectly matched the sides. Samples of the previous materials were saved for our growing collection of historical material.

The Completed Dragon Chariot
The new floor boards were adjusted to allow for the modern day wood measurements. When the carousel was originally constructed a 1 X 12 was actually one inch by twelve inches. They are then sanded and finished with several coats of hard-wood floor finish. The chariots were then reassembled and placed back on the carousel. This was done just in time for the grandparents of the bride and groom to ride in after a beautiful evening wedding in the Spokane Looff Wedding Carousel.

An Evening Wedding at the Spokane Looff Wedding Carousel

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Bette Largent is a professional carousel horse restoration artist from Washington State, and the author of Paint The Ponies, a guide for those who are interested in learning the art of painting carousel figures.

Click Here for information on ordering her book.

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