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Carving a 2nd career in rocking horses Former teacher's Victorian steeds are handmade.


In a world where a well-carved duck can bring thousands of dollars, Robert Donovan doesn't think it would be out of line to ask $3,200 for a horse.

And what he's offering is not just your common sort of horse, but a hand-carved, Victorian-style, dapple-gray rocking horse -- just like the ones that sell for even more at the venerable Harrod's in London.

The fact that he has yet to sell his first horse doesn't bother him.

"Carousel horses, for example, which are basically the same thing," he says, "their prices are going very, very high. I ran across a fellow last year -- he's from western Pennsylvania -- and you're talking $7,000, $10,000 for one of his horses."

So it is with high hopes on a June morning that he stands over a chunk of basswood, slowly transforming it into the head of a wild-eyed steed.

For more than six months, he has been out nearly every day in the garage workshop next to his Randallstown house -- a house he built with help from his three sons. He wears the same faded blue shop coat he wore before retiring from his job teaching industrial arts at schools in Massachusetts.

With a gouge he shapes an ear, then flares a nostril. With a file, he grinds down an eyebrow. Taking up a curved shard of broken glass, he starts to plane down the depression below an eye.

"Glass," he says. "That's one thing I use that a lot of people don't even know about. It was probably some old cabinetmaker I ran across who told me about it. But it's like a scraper, and you get a very smooth finish using glass. Naturally you have to be careful that it doesn't split in your hands. But when it gets dull, you can throw it away and get another piece."

He made his first horse, out of solid mahogany, just for the joy of building it. He liked it. His family and friends liked it. So he built another, and another. Then he decided to see if he could turn it into a second career.

He admits that it will take a special person to buy one of his horses, which require 3 1/2 to four weeks to build, including the time it takes to hand sew the leather saddles.

Mr. Donovan, who is 59, has printed brochures about his rocking horses and is planning to take them to horse shows and upscale saddleries to find buyers.

He plans to customize each horse and take photographs and a videotape of the construction. Inside each horse is a cavity he treats like a time capsule, enclosing a copy of a current newspaper and one of his brochures. A customer can request other mementos be included.

It takes discipline, he says, to work alone.

"When I was teaching school, you always have 15, 20 children around. I really enjoyed teaching. I taught junior and senior high."

"The last few years," he continues, "we started having girls in the class. They were very, very good. . . . better than some of the boys, in fact. One girl . . . her father come up to me and said, 'What the hell are you doing to my daughter?' I say, 'Why?' He says, 'She wants to become a carpenter.' "

He is thinking of getting back to some informal teaching someday soon. "A lot of people can't even use a simple tool," he says. "I have this shop, and I could teach people the techniques. Because when you work with your hands and you're done, you have something tangible to show for it."

He has finished five of the horses and has three others in various stages of completion. "I've got heads all over the place," he says.

The larger ones, which he is offering for $3,200 ("less than the $3,900 ones at Harrod's") are 5 feet long and 4 feet high. The smaller ones, just under 4 feet long and 3 feet high, are $2,800.

Considering the time and skill involved, he thinks they are more than worth the price. "Some people are still looking for quality merchandise," he says.

"It's the type of thing where if a child got one, he'd remember it the rest of his life."

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