Somebody saw Art’s work, and asked him if he could do a carousel figure. A rabbit. Art said sure. When the customer picked up the finished carving, he shook his head and said, “It’s too bad you can’t build carousels anymore.”
Around the turn of the century, building carousels had been big business in the United States. At the end of almost every trolley line, there was a picnic grove where the new leisure class whiled away its weekends. Many of the groves had carousels. Kids loved them, and they were big moneymakers.
European craftsmen were coming into the country by the boatloads, so there was plenty of expertise to create the expressive, finely crafted horses and other creatures that people loved riding, up and down and up and down, to the spirited carnival music. There were carousel makers all across the country, from the famed Dentzel in Philadelphia to Parker in Kansas. It seemed every city and town in America would soon have a carousel of its very own.
For more about Carousel Works – including photos of their carousels around the country – visit carouselworks.com
If you’d like to see carousels in the making, Carousel Works is hosting an open house on May 6 and 7, 2011 in celebration of their 25th anniversary (and raising money for school art programs).
Then the Depression knocked the hell out of everything. Carousel companies shut down. Craftsmen shifted to “meat and potatoes” jobs, if they could find them. Many carousels fell into disrepair.
Which brings us back to Art Ritchie. Being the determined character he is, he asked himself “Why CAN’T we build carousels anymore?” He started to get excited. Then eventually, he teamed up with his pal Dan Jones and started The Carousel Works in Mansfield, Ohio in 1986 – an amazing operation that designs and builds old-fashioned, deeply carved wood and brass carousels from scratch. Carving, woodworking, pattern making, casting, engineering, machine shop, artistic painting – all under one roof.
Think your shop is something special? Wait’ll you see the one at Carousel Works: it’s a 22,000 square foot woodworker’s wonderland with over twenty craftspeople doing the work they love. You’ll see traditional horses in the works, or any of almost 150 other animal, insect or reptile figures.
So how do you carve a rearing, whinnying horse? It starts with a sketch, and a whole lot of basswood. The basswood blocks are laminated together to form the shape of the horse – head and neck are typically solid wood, while the body is hollow. There are several key parameters – for instance, a carousel animal is usually not more than a foot or so wide, so little riders can stay on even with the centrifugal force of the machine.
Once a master has been carved – say, a rearing horse with a body 42” long – it can be reproduced on a carving duplicator.
“It’s not like a Xerox machine,” says Art. “It’s a complicated piece of machinery that takes a lot of expertise to operate. I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, the old guys didn’t do it that way,’ but we’ve got a carving duplicator here that was patented in 1862. That WAS the way the old guys did it.”
Much of the art and life in the animal comes from the fine finishing work done by the carvers and painters, adding expression and detail with just the right chisel, gouge or brush, making it that much more memorable for every child that rides.
Art, Dan and their crew have created 45 carousels so far, with many more orders in the hopper. They also do restoration work for carousels like the one in New York’s Central Park – stripping off 30 or 40 layers of paint, replacing worn carving work, strengthening weak joints, priming and painting to bring an important part of America’s past back to its original state, and delight a whole new generation of children.
We ask Art if he has a favorite, out of all the carousel creatures he’s created. “The next one,” he says. “You see something in your mind’s eye, and if it looks like that something when you’re done, you’re satisfied.”