Woodworker restores sleigh at farm (photos)
Sled bought from antiques dealer may date from late 19th century
BALLSTON All Chuck Curtiss’ sleigh needs is a couple of horses and some snow and it will be good to go.
That same thing couldn’t be said a little over a month ago, when it was brought to LaRue Woodworking, rusty and rotting.
“It was really bad,” woodworker Will LaRue recounted. “Nothing was salvageable other than the metal.”
Curtiss, who owns Willow Marsh Farm on Hop City Road, bought the sleigh from an antiques dealer about three years ago and put it on display at his farm. Its age and origin are unknown, but LaRue said it’s a type of sleigh known as a bobsleigh or bobsled, likely built in the late 1800s.
“It had been stored indoors, and since I had it for those three years, it was outside as part of our entrance decoration to the farm and it got pretty rough, and I needed to do something with it,” Curtiss said.
He asked LaRue to restore the sleigh.
An experienced woodworker who takes on custom projects ranging from creating picture frames and bedroom sets to restoring antiques, LaRue, 38, has a woodworking shop on his family’s farm in Ballston.
Inspired by his father, he started dabbling in the profession at the tender age of 8.
The sleigh is the largest restoration project he’s ever taken on. So far, LaRue and his staff — one full-time and one part-time employee — have devoted between 140 and 160 hours to it, and there are still a few loose ends to tie up.
LaRue used the sled’s rotting oak boards as templates and replaced them with new red oak ones. The fresh boards were first cut using an electric saw, but all of the shaping was done the old-fashioned way — with double-handled draw knives. The work was done on a shaving horse — a low, worn, wooden workbench that sits off to the side in LaRue’s workshop.
“That’s been in the family for we don’t know how long,” he said, gesturing toward the shaving horse. “We’ve been here since 1774. It could have been one of the pieces that they built here or they could have brought it with them in 1774, when they came from Freehold, New Jersey.”
All of the steel parts from the sleigh were reused, except for some of the fasteners.
“It had all blacksmith-made bolts and screws and they were [forged] before they standardized the thread. Each blacksmith had its own thread,” LaRue explained.
He took pains to ensure that the new bolts looked as authentic as possible.
“I took new bolts, reforged them, put the carbon in them — that gives it the black color — and then they’re all hand-hammered, to give that original blacksmith look,” he said.
All of the bolt holes were drilled in the exact same spots as in the original boards.
“So if something was a little crooked originally, it’s crooked on this one as well. We tried our hardest to put it back to the original,” he said.
The sleigh didn’t come with the apparatus necessary for horses to pull it, so LaRue is creating that, using as a template an antique pole once used for pulling wagons on his farm.
The body of the sleigh has been painted to match the teal color it bore when Curtiss purchased it, and the wooden runners, like the original ones, are red.
The sleigh seats four, on two raised wooden seats. LaRue has found someone to re-create the leather seat coverings, but getting the horsehair to stuff them with has been an issue, he noted.
The back seat of the wagon is removable.
“You have the first version of a pickup truck, with a tailgate,” he said, setting the second seat aside and flipping the sleigh’s hinged back panel down. “You would use this to haul hay, straw, feedbags, wheat, whatever.”
Once the sleigh is finished, Curtiss is considering displaying it beneath a small pavilion outside the creamery he’s building on his farm. But if it snows, before the plows come by, he just might round up some horses and take it for a spin up and down Hop City Road.