Home > Featured Woodworker
This months feature woodworker is Russ Jacobsohn. Russ is the first professional woodworker that we've had the chance to interview. He makes his living sculpting rocking horses. To call them just rocking horses is like calling the Mona Lisa just a painting. Russ' rocking horses are truly a work of art. Horses are just one of the animals that he sculpts. In his shop at any one time you could find a tortoise and hare or a giraffe or a swimming pelican. I enjoyed getting to know Russ and talking to him about his chosen profession. As you will read he talks about how much he loves what he's doing, but I was able to hear it in his voice. In a world where so many people dread Monday morning, it's refreshing to hear somebody who actually looks forward to it.
If Russ looks familiar to you it may be from the HGTV show Modern Masters. Russ was featured on the show a few years back and was actually the first time I had ever heard of him. The show has since been canceled but I think that it reruns from time to time. It would definitely be worth catching if you can find it. Keep reading to learn more about this artisan in wood.
When did you first become interested in Woodworking?
Russ- When I got out of the Navy in the mid 60's one of my first woodshops was a area not as big as most walk-in closets. It was about 4 feet by 4 feet. My tools consisted of a belt sander and an electric drill with a drill stand. Under these circumstances you look at what you have and think what can I accomplish with these tools? Eventually I ended up in Philadelphia and apprenticed at a woodworking shop where the owner made mostly flat cocktail tables. He bought me lunch and paid me $5.00 a day.
So you didn't find an interest in woodworking until your adult years?
Russ- No, in my youth I was more interested in what trouble I could get into and wondering if the girl across the dance floor would dance with me.
When did you first realize that you enjoyed working with your hands?
Russ- That started very early. Like a lot of boys I was interested in taking things apart to see how they worked. I liked to build models in my youth as well. Sometimes a model of a ship would end up a plane and visa versa. I would look at parts and see other things than what it was designed for.
Why did you chose wood to work with for your medium?
Russ- It's really what was available to me in the beginning. Working with wood is mostly taking away all the wood that doesn't belong to get at what you're aiming for whether it's a table leg or a tiger. I've always been good at figuring out how to do things and seeing what inside a piece of wood. I can't sketch at all, I can barely draw a stick figure. But I can look at a piece of wood and it's grain and see what kind of animal wants to come out of that.
How long have you been a professional woodworker?
Russ- I sold my first piece of sculpture to a famous DJ in the Philadelphia area while working at the shop I talked about earlier. Forty-five years later I still remember that first sell like it was yesterday.
Woodworking is something that's not easy to make a living at. I was probably 35 or so before I was making any real money at what I was making. Money is something that I care little about. It's nice to have but it's not why I do what I do. If I were to lose everything to a fire, I would start the very next day rebuilding so that I could get back doing what I love doing. And that's doing my own thing making rocking horses. One time I got a phone call from a gentleman that wanted 1400 rocking horses. I told him no. He said do you know how much money we're talking here? I said it's not about the money it's about happiness. I make them one at a time and I'm happy doing it. You want me to start a production company and that's not what I want to do. I would end up just running a business instead of doing what I love. JcPenny does a fine job at selling mass produced rocking horses that are a piece of junk. Why would I want to go into competition with that?
Where did the idea come from for building rocking horses?
Russ- I was making little boxes, tables, and other furniture. Then one day a friend of mine ask me if I could build him a rocking horse. I thought now that's going to be hard figuring out, getting it to balance, I probably don't have enough tools, etc. He whipped out a hundred dollar bill an said would that get you started? I said sure (laughs). The first ones I did didn't have saddles, they were just bare wood. Here I am 30 years later and I still have that feeling that each and every piece I do has to be better than last or I may as well give up and retire.
I know that each day is different and varies, but what is a typical day like for you in the shop?
Russ- As close as I could get to explaining that would be to tell you what I'm doing today. Today is a good day. I've been building several pieces. Working on one, letting the glue dry, assembling, then going to the next piece gluing parts together and letting that piece dry, etc. I've been working on some swimming birds one is a duck and one is a pelican. The base is made from bent popular plywood about 30 layers thick. It takes a lot of clamp pressure to make sure that there's no voids between the pieces. I've been at this for the past couple of months. Well, today is the day that I get to mount these giant birds on top of the plywood. I've carved this plywood to look like water. The plywood is bent to look like waves and then I've carved away with a 4 1/2" angle grinder and carbide burs and sanded for days. Now all these things have been oiled and joined separately, and today is the day that I finally get to see the birds on the water. A lot of these days that you don't get to see things finished is satisfying, I mean the work itself is satisfying. There are certain landmarks in everything I do. When the carving is done and all the sanding and that first coat of oil goes on, that's a important mark for me. That's the first time you get to see all the beauty of the grain pop out. The oil dries for 24 hours and this goes on for about a week. Then you start assembling. My rocking horses consist of a body and four legs and the rockers. I put the first coat of oil on the body and legs before they are ever assembled. Today I get to put the body on the legs, which is another landmark. I then will put the eyes, bridle, and saddle on, that's another landmark in the process. So today will be a great day as opposed to many of the past days leading up to today where it's been a lot of grunt work.
How long does it take for you to build a typical rocking horse from the design process to the finished product?
Russ- This can be a difficult question to answer. Do I tell about the time it took to go and get that log, mill it up on my saw mill, the years it sometimes take to dry the wood? If we ignore all that and just skip ahead to the part where the first board enters the planer until the rocking horse is complete, it would probably take a month for a small horse and two to three months for a large horse.
What tools do you use in making your rocking horses?
Russ- I have probably 15 corded drills and every cordless drill you can imagine. And I'm a master when it come to using the belt sander (laughs). I also use one of the new impact drivers; best tool I've bought in 10 years. I also use an inflatable pneumatic drum sander, probably one of my most important tools. I use a 4 1/2" angle grinder to do most of my carving. I don't have a table saw, I do almost all of my cutting using a bandsaw. I must admit that shopping for tools now isn't as much fun as it used to be, because I already own everything (laughs). Sometimes I'll be looking through a tool catalog and see something and say I've got have that, then it hits me, I already have one of those (laughs). I don't need another one, I've not used the first one yet! Surprisingly, toothpicks are one of my most useful tools. I use them to stir glue, hold pieces in place, filling a hole, separating two pieces, the list goes on and on. I probably use 20 to 30 toothpicks a day for odd jobs.
How do you finish your rocking horses?
Russ- Watco oil. Watco oil is tung oil mixed with heavy metals. The heavy metals help the oil soak into the wood. Thirty days later the heavy metals polymerize which basically means they just go away making it completely safe. After several coats of that, which is a penetrating oil, I use a top coat oil which is call Watco rejuvenating oil which doesn't penetrate it just sits on top. I'll put four or five coats on of that.
What types of woods do you usually work with?
Russ- I work with mostly American hardwoods. But if you were to ask me which wood is my favorite, I'd say what ever kind of wood I'm working on at the moment. I like poplar, mahogany, maple, walnut, cedar, cherry.
For someone just starting out learning to work wood what advice would you give them?
Russ- Just do it! If you have the money and time find a good school that teaches the style of furniture you want to make. I'm not a school person. I'm a hands-on learner. Someone like me would do better to go and find somebody that's already doing it and apprentice under them.
How do you sell your rocking horses?
Russ- Mostly through juried art shows. The better the show is the harder it is to get in. Some of these shows have 150 to 200 spaces and 3500 artisans are trying to get in. Some shows I've been trying to get in for 20 years but I still send in my entrance fee every year.
The Art Fair Source Book lists every show that's worth listing in the entire country. It lists them from 1 to 10 with an arrow pointing up or down. If the show is marked a seven with the arrow pointing up it means it's a show that's on it's way up. You might consider doing that kind of show. If it's a 6 or 7 with the arrow pointing down it means that it's on it's way down for whatever reason. It tells you what kind of food is at the show, it tells you if it's easy to get in or out, if you can unload directly to your both or if you have to carry it in for three blocks. It tells what you need to know before you go.
If you hadn't gone the path you chose with woodworking what might you have done instead?
Russ- If I had been the type that could have stayed with school, I would have liked to have been an architect. Nothing stirs my sole more than looking at great architecture. Deco buildings in Miami, town houses in any big old city. I just love that sort of thing.
I love doing what I do though and wouldn't trade it for anything.
That's all that I have Russ, is there anything that you'd like to add for our readers?
Russ- Just this, life is short, get out there and do it. My brother was 42 when he passed away. He was one of the countries premier antique clock repairman. He had a shop in Beverly Hills, CA. You never know how much time you have. You can't always wait until your 65 years old to do everything you've always wanted to do. Do it now. Do whatever it is that you need to do. In your spare time, instead of watching another hour of idiot TV, do it.
If you would like to learn more about Russ and his work or are interested in having a rocking horse built go his website at www.wildhorsesinc.com. There you can also see his wife's work who is a gifted ceramic sculptor. Russ doesn't care much for e-mail so if you want to contact him call (931) 738-9006. He also said that if anyone would like to ask him a woodworking question or even how to get into the woodworking business that he would be glad to talk to them. Some people just say things like that but with Russ I know he really means it.
Here's some more pictures: