Part 1 |  Part 2 |  Part 3 |  Part 4 |  Part 5 |  Part 6 |  Part 7

The Painting of Rooster

Part One of a Seven Part Series by Bette Largent

Checking a Horse or a Watermelon?

Rooster - Before Restoration
If it thumps, thuds or sounds scratchy when tapped, buyer beware. For the next few columns I will take you through the process of restoring "Rooster", a Herschell-Spillman circa 1925 carousel horse from the Wheaton, Maryland Merry-Go-Round. In picture 1, the before of Rooster, he looks pretty good, considering his age. All the legs are attached. The paint is worn and there are only a few obvious seams showing in the back inside hip area.

The inside ear was broken and nailed back on. The first clue! The second was the sound. He sounded punky (a term for rotten deteriorated wood) in the cantle area. He had a hollow sound when tapped in the saddle and rear area. There were warning sounds when tapped in the knee and hip lap joint areas. These sounds were telling us that what was below the paint was not good. In the next few columns I will explain how he went from this stage to Picture 2, an assemblage of pieces and parts in pretty poor condition to the finished Rooster, Picture 3.

Pieces and parts in poor condition
In order to paint a carousel animal, the most important part is the foundation or the condition of the figure and the quality of the restoration. In the case of a new carving, the construction and primer are just as important. There is nothing more disappointing or frustrating than to do a marvelous, outstanding paint job only to have it crack and peel or to have the wood components of the figure open up, separate, expand and contract and thus destroy all the work you have put into it.

If there is moisture in the wood it must come out, often through the seams, and your paint will crack. If you have used chemicals to strip the paint, these also must leach or evaporate out of the wood. You can not prime, paint and seal the wood until these chemicals have dissipated. Otherwise when they do come to the surface, your paint will lose it's hold on the surface and pop off.

If you are buying a restored figure it does not mean it has been restored properly. Even in primer coat it can hide improper restoration. A good restorer will supply you with photos of the process. He will be proud to! There is no one specific way to do a restoration. One person's method may differ from another's. There can be different methods used and still be correct. There are, however, some definite wrong ways of doing it. If you know the incorrect way, it is much easier to spot a good restoration, or to do one.

Rooster - Restored!
Stripping - if the carousel figure is in "park paint" your first decision will be how to strip and how much to strip. If you have no history of the figure and there is a large build up of paint layers your first clue to what needs to be done is the manufacturer or carver.

All Philadelphia and Coney Island styles have a good track record of dowel and glue construction. The original carving was very sound when created. Placed on operating machines, they may have been properly repaired through the years. Look for obvious repair areas. If none is seen, it is usually safe to only strip the paint down to the original paint layer. Or you can cut windows, small patches of paint removal to the original layer, log the colors, and then sand the surface smooth. Minor dents or patina can be filled once sanded and the original colors can be placed on top of the paint.

The advantage of this method is that you have left the layers of very, very hard paint on the figure as a protective coating. You have not had to deal with removing layers of lead based paints which require certain safety equipment. You will end up with a figure in original paint colors when you complete the painting process. The drawbacks are that you don't know the condition of the structure, and that you may have a figure that has so many paint layers that the carving lines are obscured.

In cutting in your windows to find the original colors, you will be able to judge how many paint layers you have. If there are many, many coats of paint a stripping down of these layers is recommended. Methods that can be used are a heat gun and cold chemical stripping. Both can be controlled to the point of only removing layers of paint. Both require special safety masks and ventilation during the process.

You also have to consider that the standards of repair and restoration have changed considerably through the years. Considered originally as an amusement ride, not a work of art, any means of repairing the figure and getting it back on the carousel where it could again earn money was accepted.

If it was designed with legs that made perfect ladders for children to climb aboard or adults to rest their feet during the ride, chances are that it will have been repaired a few times. Looff jumpers were notorious for this design flaw. If it is a stander and the carousel was not properly leveled and maintained, the vibrations and the grind of the operating platform would slowly grind away at the hip joints. Many of these problems may have been improperly repaired during the years and then camouflaged with layers of filler.

Some of the things we have removed from perfectly good looking leg and hip joints have been lag bolts, 6 inch screws, large nails, finishing nails, silicone, silicone mixed with saw dust, wood putty, plastic wood, Bondo and Fix-All. In most cases an ordinary wooden dowel and wood glue would have repaired the break properly. I've also come across legs with so many dowels drilled into them that when cross cut, the leg looks like a honeycomb with barely a skin of original wood remaining. All were hiding below the paint surface.

To be continued next month......

Part 1 |  Part 2 |  Part 3 |  Part 4 |  Part 5 |  Part 6 |  Part 7

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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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