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Ride a Cock(ington) Horse

PUBLISHED: 12:50 22 September 2010 | UPDATED: 15:12 20 February 2013

Jack in his workshop

Jack in his workshop

Jack Bowman makes tomorrow's heirlooms at his workshop in Cockington; each of his rocking horses has a time capsule in the body cavity, tailored to its new owner

Jack Bowman makes rocking horses by hand, appropriately, at Cockington Court, where his workshop is a converted stable. His style is traditional and so are his hand tools and materials: solid hardwoods, horse hair, leather and brass.



Rocking horses are Jack's second career. He began as a craft apprentice and rose to be a sales director in Suffolk. Disenchanted with the rat race, he and his wife escaped to fulfill a long-held dream, running a hotel in Cockington. Over five years, they developed a successful business, but when they sold the hotel, Jack had time on his hands and soon became bored.



"One of our favourite guests at the hotel made rocking horses in his back garden. He brought photos of what he'd done and his enthusiasm rubbed off onto me. We spent many happy hours talking about rocking horses. He suggested I have a go. I was an old hand at carpentry and restoring furniture - it was my hobby. Capitalising on this and my old craft skills, I took a woodcarving course at Torquay Grammar School with Malcolm Beech, a fantastic carver with great teaching ability and a lot of patience.



"The next step was to find a workshop. When Cockington Court offered me one I knew I had something special; it's a magical place, with a very supportive and friendly community of craftsmen. Ruby was my first fully carved horse. A classic Victorian, she's on the cover of my brochure and has a regular place in the workshop for children to ride."



Tomorrow's heirlooms


As well as being lots of fun, Jack's rocking horses are tomorrow's heirlooms. Each one has a time capsule placed inside the body cavity, which is tailored to the new owner. It can include photographs, birth certificates and any other memorabilia a customer asks for.



"Most of my new horses are made to Tony Dew's patterns. Tony's the rocking horse guru, President of the Guild of Rocking Horse Makers, of which I'm a member. I buy my accessories from him too, either made-to-measure for restoration jobs, or as complete kits for new horses. They're top quality, with a tail and mane of real horse hair, leather reins, saddles and bridle, plus stirrups and bits in solid brass.



"As I usually make horses to order, customers sometimes ask for a particular wood, but most people prefer the painted finish for which lime is ideal. It's easy to work, relatively soft with a lovely straight grain and very few knots. North American tulip wood, a type of sustainable poplar, is excellent for horses, with an oil or varnish finish. It has all the attributes of lime, plus a beautiful sweeping grain and subtle blending of colours. English ash is perfect for the stand.



"I've got a full set of carpenter's hand tools, plus a special range of gouges for carving. As for electric tools, I've got a bandsaw for cutting out the rough shape of the horse, a planer/thicknesser which trims woods perfectly, a sander, a pillar drill and a lathe.



First steps...


"The first stage is to cut out the various pieces for a horse using the templates, bandsaw and planer/thicknesser. It's like a huge jigsaw puzzle, with eight pieces for the head and neck, the four legs, and the body in two halves. The muscles are defined with extra sections - without them the horse would look very flat and lifeless.



"I spend between three and five days carving the head. I like to take my time, making it properly symmetrical. I also carve the legs at this stage. Usually, I leave them fairly chunky because they're stronger that way, but I can carve the knees and muscles in detail if customers want. The legs are jointed into angled recesses in the lower body half and secured with large screws and glue.



"At this point, the horse is all squares and sharp angles, so the next stage - the most enjoyable - is to carve it into shape. Now the horse really comes alive. Some makers go on to make their horses real works of art, with delicate joints and straining sinews.



Others keep their horses simpler, more chunky and robust to take the wear and tear generations of children will give them. I take a middle course.



Finishing touches


"Altogether, making a horse takes around eight weeks - but a lot of that is drying time for the glue and paints - a horse needs fourteen coats. The first eight are gesso, a very old recipe of rabbit-skin glue and gilder's whiting. It gives a finish almost as smooth as porcelain. Then three coats of paint are needed, plus three coats of varnish. Dapple grey is the most popular colour.



Each coat has to be rubbed down. Finally, I put the tack on."



As well as making new horses, Jack also makes rocking chairs, doll-sized rocking horses, hobby horses, go-karts and wooden toys, such as spinning tops. However, restoring old rocking horses is a much larger part of his business. Some are family treasures and have been ridden by generations of children.


"I still get great pleasure from taking an old and very often beloved horse and restoring it to its original finery. There's a great affinity between children and traditional wooden toys - plastic just hasn't got the same soul. I love watching my grandsons play and seeing their imaginations grow.


"Restoring or making from scratch, I love every second of my job. The looks on the faces of both children and adults when I deliver a horse is worth more than money can buy. This really is a dream come true."


ROBERT HESKETH




Jack welcomes visitors at his workshop, the Old Stables, Cockington, Torquay,



or contact him on (01803 607968,



www.cockingtonrockinghorses.co.uk


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