The Call of A Carousel

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This article is from Issue 11 of Woodcraft Magazine.

CARVER LAUREN BAKER labors to bring a horse’s features to life.

By Bohdanna Racette

Max Lemermeyer’s weathered hands caress the almost perfect arch of the horse’s neck and once again the pride of a creator stirs in him. He imagines the blur of his grandson’s grin as he watches the look-alike of the 1920s carousel spinning once it is unveiled July 1 in historic Fort Edmonton Park in Alberta. Max remembers this kind of carousel from his youth and chuckles at the flood of memories it evokes.  He bends down again and lets his chisel expertly lap at the soft wood grain. When finished, Sandy will be a fine horse indeed.

Sandy is just one of 32 hand-carved wooden horses, ranging from 36" to 48" chest to rump, which will encircle the machine in three rows — all as colorful, shiny and bejeweled as the imagination and artistry of their creators. Richly detailed chariots, rounding boards and upper and lower panels will add to the fanfare.

The carousel, encased in its own 70' diameter pavilion with glass doors, will be the centerpiece of the 1920s Midway and Exhibition at Fort Edmonton Park — a living memorial to the heritage of the city. Eventually, visitors to the midway will enjoy many more attractions, including a Ferris wheel and a carousel horse carving workshop.

Collaborative effort

Over the past several years, Max and 99 other volunteers between ages 11 and 82 have devoted thousands of hours of work in a collaborative effort to create carousel horses. “The Fort Edmonton Foundation never put out a call for volunteers,” Maryetta Harper, Carousel Project co-chair, explained. “Word of the project spread and people came to us. We have had to turn away volunteers at this point because there simply isn’t enough work to go around!”

Max and the other carvers labor in an old barn of a workshop where the smell of fresh shaved wood is in the air and the chatter of people enjoying their work mixes with a country CD sobbing from the player. Most of the 40 carvers are older men like himself who treasure the camaraderie and sense of purpose and artistry that they have found in the project. It is the distraction from retired life that they were looking for.


LINDA BOTTERIL carefully applies paint to Military who will soon carry riders on a 1920s-style carousel.

“I started carving when I sold the farm in ’89,” Max said. “Mostly, I did miniature animals in the round; you know, a cow and calf with a grandpa and little boy — this was from a book — a wagon pulled by mules, as well as a few pieces of chip carving. But like most of the fellas here, this is the first time I’m carving large animals.”

In fact, all of the carvers and painters have trained in three carving and two painting workshops sponsored by the Fort Edmonton Foundation — the charitable foundation charged with raising the capital to complete Fort Edmonton Park. The foundation bought each carver a $500 set of 12 chisels and mallets for the large-scale work. The group also accepted local engineer and carving instructor Doug Warren’s offer to serve as head carver and to coach and encourage carvers to achieve high-quality work.

“There is a definite sense that they are not carving/painting one horse but that together we are creating a carousel, and the unity of purpose is great.  This is teamwork in very real terms,” Doug said.

“On many occasions, if the ‘final’ product, leg, ear, tail, etc., did not match the standard set by the group, then the piece was cut off and a new one carved. There are several horses which had five or more legs carved, some had multiple ear jobs, a chest implant or a nose job as well to ensure that there is continuity across the stable of horses.” 

The insistence on excellence has produced results. Without it many of the carvers would have thought they were finished long before they completed the quality horse which they now prize.  

J.J. BOYD APPLIES primer to Buck prior to the final painting stage that will transform the horse into a carousel “star.”

Two sides of a horse

There are two sides to a carousel horse: the romance side and the money side.  The romance side faces the outside of the carousel and is heavily carved and detailed.  The money side, facing the inside of the carousel and not on show, has much less carved detail (it gets painted on instead).  Since it requires less work, the money side is where manufacturers used to make their money. In this case, with the carvers learning as they go, this isn’t always so.

“Often the carvers will practice the romance details by first carving them on the money side and then proceeding to the romance side,” Doug explained. “When they are done they have to carve off all of the hard work that they did on the money side in order to maintain historical correctness — a tough thing to ask of anyone.”

Historical accuracy is of paramount importance for Doug and the foundation. This carousel is not just any imagined merry-go-round — it is the re-creation of the Philadelphia Toboggan Company (PTC) #40 carousel style. Edmonton old-timers may remember this PTC carousel; it is the one Johnny Jones, an operator of the original Edmonton Exhibition, brought to the city during the 1920s. 

PTC horses had a style of their own.  According to the foundation’s Web site, “There appeared to be several elements common to most PTC horses. PTC faces were attractive, although heads were a bit chunky, with good-sized jaws. Eyes were expressive. Eyebrows had dimples carved above the eyes and were ‘A-frame’ in style. Most mouths had the second last tooth missing on each side of the bottom row. Flowing, uncomplicated manes prevailed.”

PAINTERS LINDA BOTTERIL, Kelly Johner and Doug Warren focus their attention on one of the many carousel horses.

Designed for adoption

Lauren Baker is one of the 40 carvers (nine females) and a painter, but her major contribution to the project is that she designed two-thirds of the horses. 

“Although the horses need to look like PTC horses from the 1920s,” she said, “they are not replicas of PTC horses as the company is still around today (they manufacture roller coasters), and we would be infringing on copyright.  So to create my patterns, I referenced photos of PTC horses from the 1920s, and created new, unique patterns for our carousel.”

As faithful to the style as the carvers are, each adds a unique touch to his or her horse. Lauren fondly recalls carving Lily. “Once I started to get the hang of the whole carving thing, specific carving details like the eyes and mane were difficult. Carving hair is a complicated thing, especially when you take into consideration that all of the hair on all of the carousel horses has to look similar (in terms of the shapes of the clumps of hair).  

“And the eyes ... they are the windows to the soul of the horse, and I wanted to make mine as perfect as possible. They carry so much expression that carving the eyelids in a certain way changes the horse’s mood just as much as the position of the ears! Lily is a little different from all our other horses in that we rolled the eye back on the money side — so that she is looking at the rider of the horse inside her.  It gives her a look like ‘I’m going to bolt any second now,’ which complements her wild mane.”

This variation in design has given the foundation a fantastic sponsorship opportunity. After all, the carousel will cost around $850,000, so what better way to include a larger community than to allow members to “Adopt A Pony.” Moreover, as many of the sponsors came forward with their own stories and sentiments, the designers integrated them into the look of the carousel’s stable of horses. 

Sandy, for example, was designed to resemble a horse that had been with his sponsoring family for many years. “She was the gentlest of gentle horses,” the couple told Lauren as she worked with it to design the relaxed legs and gentle face of the horse. Lauren also included an angel in Sandy’s design — a reminder that the family’s beloved horse would even stop when, on occasion, her rider fell off.

Physically demanding 

Carving on such a large scale and using only the tools that would have been used in the 1920s proved to be hard work for many of the volunteers. After all, one has to continually hit the end of a chisel with a mallet to remove large areas of wood. Perhaps because of this, women number only one to four among the carvers.  

“A lot of our carvers who have done more than one horse are having to wear wrist braces, so it is physically demanding, no matter what your sex,” Lauren observed.  “You do have to build up strength in your hands in order to carve for long periods of time because of the way you hold the chisel — the end is in the palm of your hand and the forefinger usually is extended the length of the chisel and pushes down. I also found it hard on my elbow.”  

 Duncan Ireland, a 10th grade student, had been teaching himself carving for two years before he discovered the carousel project about a year ago.  

“Just being around the carvers and seeing them handling the tools and the wood was worth the after-school hours spent sanding and buffing the horses,” he admitted. 

CARVER MAX LEMERMEYER labors to bring out Prudential’s unique “personality.”

Finishing touches

Doug claims that it’s the band of dedicated sanders like Duncan “who make the carvers and painters look better than they are.” While an experienced carver takes approximately 250 hours to carve an average-sized horse and even more for an outer-row horse like Sandy, a sander will spend another 50 to 100 hours getting the finish on it porcelain-smooth in between the carving and the painting stages, lavishing it with three to five coats of primer.   

It’s in the 150 hours or so of the painting stage that the horse becomes a star. The painters — most of them happen to be women — use a colored pattern and at least four coats of enamel-based paint to turn the stately white statues into exquisite fantasy toys. They stipple the paint on the wood; that is, rather than drag the brush, they tap it on the surface and blend the colors wet-on-wet. 

After letting it dry for at least two weeks, the painters clear-coat the horse — four coats all over and six coats on the saddle, nose, ears and any parts that stick out and are likely to get rubbed, bumped and touched. 

THE CAROUSEL HORSE TJ shows the beauty of these unique horses.

Historic legacy

“Why do we do it?” Painter Kelly Johner is surprised at the question. “Mostly because it gives all of us a good feeling to be a part of something that is bigger than ourselves.  This carousel will become a part of the history of our city as it has already been and now it will become a piece of ours personally as well.”

Bohdanna Racette

Bohdanna Racette is a freelance writer from Gatineau, Quebec. After a successful career in the museums industry, Bohdanna is focusing on human interest stories about hands-on creators - whether they be artisans, artists or scientists. 

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