My assignment seemed simple: come up with a rocking horse that was modern, easy and inexpensive, yet still offered something new to make construction interesting. When I began my research, however, I found that when it comes to rocking horses, just about anything that could be done has been done already. So, in an effort to come up with something original, I decided to revisit a favourite technique of mine—kerf-bending plywood…but with a twist. Geared toward smaller riders, this horse sits 16″ tall to the top of the saddle and includes removable footrests for little legs. As your child grows, removing the footrests means your little cowboy or girl can continue to ride into the sunset for a couple more years.
The main part of the horse is made of two 2' x 4' sheets of 11-mm-thick Russian birch plywood, a 48" length of 11⁄4"-diameter hardwood dowel and some hardwood scraps. Your first step is to mark out a grid of 1" squares on the ply. Draw the body, as shown in the plans on page 34, on one sheet of ply, then one rocker on the other sheet. You will need four rockers in all, so plan their placement accordingly. Orient all these parts so the grain extends along the length of each shape.
With the shapes drawn, it's time to make the body. Using a tablesaw, cut the body piece out so it measures 20" x 28". (Don't make the cutouts for the legs yet. There's still work to be done to the plywood and it will be safer working with four straight edges.) The next step is to mark the centre line of what will be the horse's back and make additional marks 2" out from there on either side of the centre. These marks indicate the start of the kerf cuts that allow you to bend the plywood, but there are crucial details you need to have straight before continuing.
Lay a scrap piece of 11-mm-thick plywood alongside your tablesaw blade, and raise it until it is just under the top layer of this plywood. Spin the blade by hand to ensure that you are cutting up to but not into that crucial top ply, which needs to stay intact. Make a couple of test-cuts in scrap, just to be sure. There really is no room for error here. If your cuts are too deep, the top ply will split when you try to bend it; if they are not deep enough, the wood will break. Take your time.
Set your fence to cut just on the outside edge of the lines you drew earlier. Cut the first kerf across the board, turn the sheet by 180° and repeat the process on the other side of the centre line. You should now have two 1⁄8"-wide kerfs spaced 4" apart. Move your fence in toward the blade by 1⁄4" and repeat the procedure until you have six kerfs per side, each 1⁄4" farther away from the centre of the workpiece.
Now, it's time to cut the curved portions of the body and to drill the 11⁄4"-diameter dowel holes in the legs. Be careful when handling the plywood at this stage; there's only one layer holding it together.
With the body cuts done, it's time to do the risky part—bending the ply. What you're bending is really just a thin, single layer of solid wood, and water and steam are the keys to bending without breaking. I saturated a towel with water and laid it over that part of the plywood with the kerfs beneath. Then, I proceeded to steam the wood with a hot clothes iron. This efficient method of softening traps steam underneath the iron and forcesit down into the wood. As you iron, start to bend the ply gently, adding more heat and moisture as necessary until you have full 90° bends. Clamp the assembly lightly and allow the wood to cool and dry for a few hours.
Here's the "twist" I was talking about earlier: the horse's body is now bent, but that single ply of material isn't strong, especially once a child starts riding the horse, so you need to reinforce the kerfs. The easiest way to add strength is with hot-melt glue.
Carefully unbend the body piece and lay it out flat. Next, lay a bead of hot-glue into each kerf. The glue will cool and harden long before you've managed to cover each kerf, but that's OK. To re-activate the hot glue and re-bend the ply, use a heat gun on the low setting and move the hot air back and forth across one group of kerfs, slowly melting the glue. Take your time and keep the gun moving to avoid scorching the wood.
Once the glue is hot, re-bend your sides and hold them until the glue has cooled fully (about two minutes). That's it! Your bends are now permanent and strong. There is going to be some squeeze-out from the kerfs, but don't worry—it will all be completely hidden inside the horse after final assembly.
The horse needs four curved rocker pieces, as each rocker is made of two layers of plywood laminated together. Carefully cut out one rocker with a jigsaw or bandsaw, keeping it slightly oversized. Finish the workpiece by sanding up to the lines. Use this rocker to trace three more, and cut them out the same way. Now, you can sand each of these up to the lines as well.
Another faster and more accurate way to duplicate the rockers is by using a technique called "template routing." Fasten one completed and sanded rocker to one of the rough- cut blanks with two-sided tape. Using a bearing-guided flush-trim bit (also known as a “template bit”) in a table-mounted router, rout the rough piece while the bearing rides against the finished rocker. Once completed, separate the two now-identical rockers and glue each of them to the remaining rough blanks with wood glue. Once the glue has dried, repeat the template- routing process to end up with two identical laminated rockers. At this point, you can drill the 11⁄4"-diameter holes at each end for the rocker-support dowels.
Make the remaining smaller pieces of the horse—the head, tail, saddle back, footrests and body end caps— from whatever scrap you have lying around the shop. I used hard maple, but any hardwood will do. Draw the head shape on 11⁄2"-thick stock and the tail on 11⁄4"-thick material. Trace the two body end caps, saddle back and the footrests on 3⁄4"-thick material. Cut these pieces out and finish-sand them. You'll want to cut the body end caps oversized, as they will need to be placed temporarily against the ends of the body, and then scribed for an exact fit.
Next, cut your hardwood dowel to length. You'll need two 18"-long pieces for the front and rear rocker supports, and another piece 7" long for the handle.
With all these pieces cut, you can finish or paint them. I chose lacquer for the head and tail, and a few coats of enamel from a spray can gave the dowels, footrests, saddle back and body end caps colour.
Before attaching the body end caps, you may want to create 1⁄2"- deep notches at the front and back of the body. I made these cuts by passing the body of the horse over my tablesaw blade and removing the pieces with a handsaw. This notching operation is completely optional, so if you don't feel comfortable doing it, the caps can be attached directly to the ends of the body without notching. Finally, apply a finish to the body and rockers.
Attach the head and saddle back to the body using pan-head screws driven from underneath through predrilled holes. Next, slide the 18"-long dowels through the holes in the legs, ensuring equal overhang on each side. Friction should hold the dowels in their proper positions, but lock them there anyway by driving 11⁄2"-long finishing nails through predrilled holes in the bottom of each leg and into the dowels.
The body end caps are next. Attach them using a combination of glue and finishing nails or countersunk screws. Fill any holes, then touch them up with paint.
Now, you have one more piece to make: the bottom panel. Measure the space between the end caps and cut another piece of plywood to fit. Slide the panel into position and secure it with a few finishing nails or countersunk screws driven through the sides of the body, keeping them toward the centre of the body so they will be covered by the foam saddle.
Slide the rockers into place, securing them to the dowels with more finishing nails driven through predrilled holes in rockers and into the dowels.
The foam saddle is an 81⁄2" x 11" piece of craft foam with the corners rounded before being glued in place with spray adhesive. The eyes are circles of black adhesive vinyl, although paint would work as well. If you are installing footrests, determine the best position for your child's size and attach the footrests with a couple of 11⁄2"-long pan-head screws for easy removal later.
That's it. An inexpensive trip to the home centre and a weekend of shop time adds up to a fun project that kids will love.
|Part||Material||Size (T x W x L*)||Qty.|
|Body||Russian birch plywood||11 mm x 20" x 28"**||1|
|Rockers||Russian birch plywood||22 mm x 7 1/4" x 32 1/4"**||2|
|Head||hardwood||1 1/2" x 10" x 10"**||1|
|Tail||hardwood||1 1/4" x 3 1/2" x 8 1/4"**||1|
|Body end caps||hardwood||3/4" x 2 3/8" x 6 1/2"**||2|
|Saddle back||hardwood||3/4" x 1 1/4" x 4 1/4"**||1|
|Footrests||hardwood||3/4" x 2" x 3 1/2"**||2|
|Handle||hardwood dowel||1 1/4"-dia x 7"||1|
|Rocker supports||hardwood dowel||1 1/4"-dia x 18"||2|
|Bottom panel||Russian birch plywood||11 mm x 5 1/2" x 19 1/8"**||1|
|Saddle||craft foam||8 1/2" x 11"**||1|
|**Dimensions not final. Piece requires futher shaping|
* Length indicates grain direction