The Mystery of the Metal Patches

We’ve inherited a box of old badly damaged pony legs with
butted joinery which have been clad in copper and tin sheeting.
The tacking lines along the leading edges of the butt joinery are so badly damaged
by the tacking one must speculate about the advantage of such a repair
as it exacerbated wood substrate issues and nearly destroyed the legs.
We are reminded of the folk adage, “If the disease does not kill you, the medicine will!”

On the other hand, we do not know
what prompted repair people from long ago
to make these unusual repairs instead of
creating proper woodworking repairs.

A mystery!

We originally thought these broken legs were a thing
of the past, an anomaly, until we saw a teeny bright
bit of copper on our Buckskin Lily Hunter, right.
Once we had the eyes to see the shape of these
repairs under paint, we saw they were everywhere!

What is the origin of the cladding?
Was it placed on the horses at the time they were created as a way to create additional strength and smooth contours around a potentially weak joint of seam?
Was the cladding an addition to areas with breaks and erosion used as a stop gap measure by maintenance workers who did not have woodworking skills?
Was there simply no dollars within their budget to perform proper repairs?


1)  The creation of the horses were executed by skilled woodworkers.
The incorporation of complex joints into the knees and thighs speak to an understanding of how wood performs and what is necessary in creating a viably engineered structure.
We surmise no skilled crafts-person would incorporate such cladding as the tiny tacks would undermine the original structure, create a surface not in keeping with authentic carving and lead to finish/paint problems throughout the horse’s life.

2) Not all members are clad.  Some horses have cladding on several joints, like the Turquoise Parker Pony shown above.  Other horses have none at all.
Some horses have strangely asymmetrical cuts of sheeting with
an over-layering of thin straps over the top, shown above, left.
This is consistent with a “fix.”  This is clearly not part of the original engineering.

A number of horses have copper/tin wrapped around the tail stumps,
such as our Dappled Grey Water Horse, above.
The cladding extends up onto the rump like a patch,
then cuts in an irregular pattern around the tail proper.
Again, not all horses have tail repairs with this cladding,
nor is it applied in exactly the same way from horse to horse.


Sometime during their long life when maintenance was looking for quick fixes which would not require expensive skilled labor repairs, they did this.  Maybe it was a common repair with carousel people as we’ve heard it mentioned by others.

The cladding is contributing to the viability of specific joints,
but the downside to these patches is fracturing paint and
the unknown atrophy of surface wood beneath.
We suspect rot under the patching, but cannot tell the extent.
Dealing with rot means expert woodworking treatments.
Also, the tacking lines may have undermined the wood substrate
requiring additional repairs. How does one create a treatment plan
without having knowledge of the actual damage?

Facts From The Forge Master

An interesting bit our master blacksmith shared about certain copper sheet cladding:   Depending upon its thickness and blend of alloys; if the metal is subjected to high heat, then immersed in cold water, it will become pliable for a period of time!

In the case of the carousel horses, we surmise a pattern was taken of the area which was failing, strategically cut out with metal shears, then put beneath a torch or dropped into a forge until it was red hot.

Once the cladding reached a certain temperature it was immediately immersed
into cold water until it could be manipulated without burning hands.
The temporary molecular shift allowed the repair person to mold it around
the damaged member, much like aluminum foil, occasionally lightly tapping
it with a mallet to create necessary folds and contours.
In the end there was just enough time to penetrate the edges of the metal with a succession of box nails in order to assure the sharp edges were securely affixed into the wood.

After it cooled, they built the area up with a plaster mixture and painted
over the entire piece, essentially creating an exoskeleton or a barely visible
cast over the degraded element.  So we see very knobby knees and bulked tails!

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Written by Kate Powell  ©MPF Conservation.
May be printed for your own use ONLY, not for use on blogs without permission.

About MPFConservation

We are a conservation and restoration firm located in the Pacific Northwest, specializing in objects: furniture, but also other objects; wood, stone or metal furniture or objects; lacquered and painted furniture or objects; traditional finishes on furniture or objects; quilts, beaded objects, and some textile reparation and interior architectural elements, such as leather or upholstered walls. When you think about conservation, equate it to restoring the furniture or object the best way possible for the history, life and value of the object. We are fully qualified to perform museum-tectbook treatments, but also flexible enough to work with private clients to allow for daily use of objects. We work West of the Rockies from Canada to Mexico, and once in a while venture beyond the West for specific treatments. Kate and Mitchell Powell are partners in work and in life; we each have our specialties in work and in our marriage. Mitchell is the cat charmer in both! To see our work visit our official website:
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8 Responses to The Mystery of the Metal Patches

  1. loisajay says:

    This must be the fascinating part of the job, though–trying to understand why people did what the did.

    • Hi Lois,
      In some ways it is, and in some ways it is frustrating because sometimes we cannot for the life of us figure out why peeps did this or that.
      Sorry about the late reply; Mitchell is learning to respond and didn’t see you!

  2. Dan Antion says:

    Such a mystery. Given the extra effort required to prepare the metal, one really has to wonder why they didn’t properly repair the wood. I would guess it was to quickly get the horse back in service and the thought that metal would add strength. I’ve only repaired furniture a few times, and all I can say is I would prefer to be the guy repairing the first break, not the one following 2-3 bad repairs. Good luck and thanks for sharing this series.

    • Thanks, Dan, for your comments; they have caused me to delve a bit into why I think slip-shod repairs were (and continue to be made) on a whole range of cultural artifacts as well as, every day, functional decorative items. Sadly, these forms of repairs are not isolated to the novice. This things happen frequently in the case of upholsterers who abuse wood frames because they have no training in the crafting of wooden objects, but also I do also find it within case pieces where the repair person really should have known better. In a nut shell, I suspect the repair person is fixated upon one of several themes: getting it done (moving to the next object in line), collecting the fee, lack of training, deficit in self- confidence relative to effecting a proper repair.

      I also believe that many repair-peoples, handy-persons, etc., from past, simply did not connect with the idea that the piece upon which they are working may end up being special one day, or valuable aesthetically or monetarily. They may not have had the consciousness of such thought, or vision, which enabled them to visit into a future where these objects were honored; they may not have been “wired” that way. On thing I need to say about all this: what I am writing here is simply educated assumptions and hunches. There could be many more reasons for this form of behavior, but it is safe to say, these ‘repairs” invariably created more damage than they fixed!

      And yes, I am with you on your statement, “I would prefer to be the guy repairing the first break, not the one following 2-3 bad repairs.” Two or three fixes, down the road and it is often a mess which requires major work and a woodworker’s ability to “think outside the box” in order to create a repair which will allow for longevity and the ability for future repairs to be added without having to excavate important and irreversible parts of the historic object. It is the “curse” and the ongoing dilemma of the conservator who practices traditional woodworking techniques!

      Oh, woe is me, I think I’m going to have to ask Kate to insert a “Pain & Suffering” clause into our contracts on behalf of the objects! 🙂 Thanks for your interest and support, Dan; it is always a pleasure!

      Regards, Mitchell

  3. Richard Foster says:

    Thank you for sharing your progress on the Jantzen Beach Restoration Project. I’m concerned your personal bias are influencing some of your perceptions. The Parker horseshoes for example; you asked for information, which is all readily documented by Jerry Reinhardt, PARKER MUSEUM president. As it relates to Jantzen Beach, many of the horses have the number 11 on the shoes, extremely rare. Jantzen Beach to the best of our knowledge is a mixed machine, many spares and replacements from a three row machine. Parker had boxes of cast shoes and were adapted on how the carving of the hoof turned out. Many of the Parker horses have three or four different sized shoes on one horse. Why…because the most junior carvers made the legs and they were stacked in a pile and later adapted to a horse. When the Jantzen Beach Machine was refurbished in the 90’s many of the missing shoes were recasts from original shoes, a process Jerry Reinhardt developed at the museum.

    Finally, these grand machines were bought and run by carnival people, they were not skilled at preservation but they skill was making money and keeping their machinery functional. Be respectful of the history, park paint, repair techniques and the evolution of wooden horses to half and half, aluminum to fiberglass. Each nail, each copper cladding is a statement of its journey. Saying they didn’t know how to preserve is wrong and in the wrong context. Actually, they preserved their operational machine for many years past its prime, a credit to these great people.

    • I am not sure where your bias and commentary regarding our so-called bias originates.

      Regarding the mystery of the horseshoes, I wrote to the Parker Museum and was never answered on my questions. I assume they are terribly busy and running a museum is a difficult business and usually there are not a lot of spare minutes, so I do not fault them for that. This is also why I never mentioned it in the post.

      Regarding your second comment: “Finally, these grand machines were bought and run by carnival people, they were not skilled at preservation but they skill was making money and keeping their machinery functional. Be respectful of the history, park paint, repair techniques and the evolution of wooden horses to half and half, aluminum to fiberglass. Each nail, each copper cladding is a statement of its journey. Saying they didn’t know how to preserve is wrong and in the wrong context. Actually, they preserved their operational machine for many years past its prime, a credit to these great people.”
      Thank you for laying out the historical perspective for the readers may not know this; the history of the objects we work on is of utmost importance to us, which is why we document our projects including the unanswered questions.
      As long time conservators working with hundreds of objects from many centuries, we have seen many many unusual repairs. At no time have we disparaged the “carnival people.” As historic preservationists and loving the history of an object, we have a great interest in the various repairs done over a lifetime, and document them for our clients. Because of this comment, I went back and reread my post to see how one could come up with the idea that we disparaged the carnival people.
      “Proper woodworking repairs” is a term describing a set of skills few can perform, and it is not an opinion meant to disparage but a thing to discuss. We are not seeing proper woodworking repairs on the fifteen horses we are working with except in the mane of the Lillie Belle, which was repaired by a restoration company, and they did an excellent job of the mane, which was broken in half. This is fact, not opinion.
      As regards the cladding, the fixes are holding, which means that whomever did these — and we think these are carousel maintenance peeps from long ago — had some interesting skills on the fly. They did these in place of proper woodworking to repair the joints, and they have held in many areas, though the tails are loose under the cladding, and some of the knees are also showing damage now. We estimate these repairs to be 70+ years old! We give them credit for their ingenuity here and in the post, and we may be keeping some of these repairs if taking them apart causes more damage. We will see. Unfortunately we cannot see underneath nor test underneath to determine if there is rot — the cladding bars our exploration — and they may have done this due to rot.
      What has not held as well and/or caused many problems is modern maintenance, which has involved everything from carpenter’s nails to Gorilla Glue. While each nail may be a statement of its journey, to leave them as a statement of history at this point, will be to lose the horse’s structure and of course, its ability to continue as a viable object. Many of the haphazardly placed and extremely large nails are splitting the wood, and causing rubble in some areas, which was often covered up with putties, which, while they do no damage, they also do not do much toward the structural integrity. If the improper repairs of the carpenter’s nails and glues are not now carefully repaired, as we are doing, then they will continue to degrade until they can no longer be repaired, and this will be the demise of the horse. However, even these are documented, as part of the horse’s history.

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