End of Summer Project: The Wooden Horse

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, September 01, 2010 |

Growing up involves the continual testing of belief. There are the big lies we all eventually recover from: Santa Claus. The Tooth Fairy. The American meritocracy. Then there are those other sweetly-ridiculous yet honorable beliefs of children that are challenged as they venture out into the world: Nothing beats mom's cooking. My dad can beat up your dad. In my daughter's case, one day she's going to have to come to terms with the fact that her dad can't make her anything that she might want out of scrap plywood, a handful of nuts and bolts, and his pile of junk in the basement. 

I never stopped believing that about my dad. When I was very young, my dad quit his job teaching voc-ed classes and started his own auto body shop in our backyard. He still works back there; at some point he started only restoring antique cars. Sometimes the cars are so old and rare that important parts no longer exist anywhere, so he builds the machines he needs to fabricate replacement parts. A guy who can make the machines to build a fender for a 1912 Oldsmobile can make pretty much anything.

With the end of summer approaching, the girl wanted to work on a project with me during the time we had each afternoon while her brother naps. This had become a special time each day when the house quiets down, when we read chapter books or cook something or draw some pictures. She's been drawing some epic pictures. This one involves some sort of convention of mummies and flying unicorns:

The flying unicorn is a favorite subject:

When I asked her what she wanted to make for our project last week, she hadn't had a horse lesson for a month because her instructor was traveling to various horse shows out west. She told me she wanted to make "a horse that she could ride, out of wood, sort of like the Trojan Horse." She then drew me a picture of what it would look like:

I hate drawing horses. I still draw horses based on the seven-step method I learned from Ed Emberley's Drawing Book of Faces (1975):

So I figured if I could draw a horse out of triangles that is how we could make one out of wood. I drew her a picture (based on her sketch) of the kind of horse I thought I might be able to make. She then added herself (and her brother) riding it:

We got out a big book of newsprint and drew up some plans. I know I could have found an actual pattern or some instructions online or in a book, but I was pretty sure I would have been scared off by the skill level or materials required. Besides, sometimes I prefer figuring things out for myself. It demystifies the whole process. Sometimes the hardest part of making something is just sitting down to actually make it. Figuring how I'd fit various pieces together and using equations I hadn't thought about since tenth grade was actually kind of fun:

While I was working out a plan, the girl was sitting next to me with her own piece of newsprint, plotting out the pieces we'd need and giving them names, and even adding a bunch of numbers she called "her measurements":

She came to the lumber yard with me, helped me pick out the wood (three sheets of top-grade plywood, 18" by 36") and she picked out a stain at Busy Bee while I dug up the hardware we'd need. Back at home we traced out the pieces of the pattern on the wood and then I made her watch from inside the house while I cut out the pieces with a basic circular saw and a reciprocating saw. She was not happy about that part, and I was reminded of how to this day my dad won't let me cut anything on his table saw. It's times like this that I wish we really had a garage or a workshop (I had to do all this on the sidewalk). They were pretty rough cuts, but working with straight lines made it easier. Once the pieces were all put together, we sanded the hell out of the edges. We made a saddle out of some old upholstery foam and leather, both of which I'd picked up dirt cheap at the Herman Miller factory store. Here's what the horse looked like when it was all put together:

All the wood, hardware, leather and stain together cost less than $20. The horse has some secret features that the kid would love to show you. The first is hidden along the top of the horse's head:

Voila, this is no ordinary horse! It can also be a unicorn. The bolt connecting the ears to the head passes through the horn, which I cut to fit between the two pieces that made up the face. The unicorn horn is useful for scaring away neighbor kids with overprotective parents as well as clumsy vampires:

The ears, when pulled forward, also reveal this unicorn/horse's other secret: it has wings. I struggled with how to attach the wings, ultimately settling on hinges. The wings are held in place by the ears when she wants it to be just a plain old horse.

I'm not super happy with the angles of the wings and it's something I'm going to work out when I do some other adjustments. After we sanded all those edges together, we stained the wood. She had already named the horse "Oatmeal" and so she choose the color "driftwood" which might as well have been called "dirty." Personally, I would have chosen a more traditional light stain, but hey, it's not my horse. She drew the lines where the bridle should go (something she knew from grooming and bridling a real horse before her lessons) and I covered her lines with small strips of the leather. I painted the eyes and she painted the nose. Then we added reins:

Eventually we'll add a tail and a mane made from a hair weave, but the wig shop in our neighborhood recently closed. I guess we're just going to have to walk a few extra blocks to the next wig shop over. Still, even a hairless horse can be a lot of fun.

The wheels were the last challenge. The hooves were too far apart to use the Radio Flyer wheels on their existing axles. I wanted wheels that could be easily removed, and I remembered the casters I had in the basement that I bought long ago without any actual project in mind. It took me a few days to figure out a way to connect them:

I bought a couple of brass towel rods and cut them in half, attaching them with a brass plate and a couple screws to each leg. The bolts on the wheels fit up in there nice and snug, but she can remove them herself whenever she wants Oatmeal to remain stationary:

She doesn't ride him with the wheels on, but she likes leading him around. He rolls around the neighborhood like a crazy shopping cart.

* * * * *

Someday she's going to have to come to terms with the fact that her dad can't make her anything that she wants. But for now, she still believes it, and I'm happy to do whatever I can to keep up that illusion (even if it means having a goofy-looking angular horse around the house). Last night, I was reading Andy's blog Storkbitesman and came across the story of the sculptor David Smith making a horse with his daughters:

Rebecca Smith remembers it: ". . .the best project we made with him was an amazing life-scale horse. Little girls love horses, and what could be better than making a realistic, life-size horse with your dad ? It was a great thing, made of plaster, which was really messy. He welded the armature out of metal and we made the plaster. Certainly, the fact that my father was an artist validated art making in my eyes as a child. Most adults, especially fathers, are doing something you don't really know about, because it's very often out of the home. To have someone doing something where you live, that's also what kids spend a lot of time doing, is really interesting, because it shows the worlds of adult and child overlapping. And what is it about that grown-up who doesn't do a regular grown-up thing? I saw him as very different from other grown-ups. Art making wasn't an official grown-up thing. . ."

Now I'm not an artist. I don't really know what I am. But I know that seeing my dad working at home doing what he loved made a very strong impression on me. The horse we made might be an amateurish piece of junk. It might be kindling before the snow flies. But we had a lot of fun making it.

And those silly beliefs that kids have. . .about all the things their parents can do? Sometimes they can almost convince you to believe them yourself.

I know some people will be worried about all the sharp angles and stuff (I'm so certain of it, I almost didn't share this project). We've grown so accustomed to our lawyer-vetted overprotective and boring plastic toys that we don't even realize how much fun and imagination we've sucked out of childhood. Didn't anybody ever play in a treehouse? But you could have fallen! I'm just the kind of guy who prefers to see my kids playing with the goofy-looking sharp-cornered wooden horse I made than with some V-Tech Dora the Explorer MobiGo Learning System or whatever. The latter seems far more dangerous to me. I'm leaving comments open because I'd love to hear about any memorable things your dad (or mom) built for you, but if you can't control your inner fussbudget, please just send me an e-mail about it.