Garrett Park, Md.
A: Figuring out the best way to restore your sleigh and who should do it are challenges similar to those faced by owners of many historically intriguing objects. There is no automatic “right” answer. It’s always a balancing act based on the item’s existing condition, the owner’s goals and, of course, the budget.
“There’s a whole laundry list of questions,” said Richard Patnoe, who tackled one complete rebuild of a sleigh as owner of Wooden Restorations in Hamilton, Va. (703-577-8417; woodenrestorations.com ). “You have to take a look at it and assess the shape. And find out what the owners want to accomplish: Conservation? Restoration? Do they want to hook a horse to it?”
Assess the condition first because that may narrow the options for the other issues. The sleigh brought into Patnoe’s shop had been out in a field for decades. “Everything 18 inches off ground and below was rotted away,” he said. Conserving the original wood wasn’t possible; that sleigh needed new wood and even a few new wrought-iron parts. The owners mostly wanted to display the sleigh in their home, not take it out in the snow or put it in a museum, so Patnoe found time-efficient ways to re-create the original look. Instead of steam-bending thin pieces of wood or plywood for the sleigh’s curving body, he bought bendable plywood, a type that has the wood grain in all layers running in the same direction. (Regular plywood is stiff because the grain of the layers runs in alternating directions.) Using bending plywood eliminated the need to build custom forms for steam-bending, which might have added a week of work and $2,000 to the project. Nevertheless, the bill came to $6,000.
In your case, though, the wooden parts appear to be in good condition, at least from what’s visible in the picture you sent, said Patnoe and two other people experienced in working on sleighs: Leah Murray, project manager at Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop in Letcher, S.D. (605-996-8754; hansenwheel.com ) and Brett Schroyer, owner of Greenfield Woodworks in Mercer, Pa. (724-967-1785; greenfieldwoodworks.com ). Schroyer said you are fortunate, because curving sleigh bodies are vulnerable to splitting when they aren’t maintained. Two sleighs in his shop need to be completely rebuilt, which he will do by steam-bending one-eighth-inch-thick layers of Baltic birch plywood and then gluing them together after they cool. Using thin pieces of poplar or basswood, the original materials, usually isn’t feasible because of the materials available, he said. “When these were built, they used wet wood, so it bent more easily without cracking.”
When a sleigh has most of its original parts, all three of these experts recommended a conservation approach: stabilizing and protecting the original components and replacing only the missing pieces, rather than going all-out to achieve flawlessly smooth surfaces, shiny new paint and ornate details such as gold leaf pinstriping. “The less you do, the better,” Murray said. “It’s like with car restoration. You usually are not going to get out of it what you put into it. But if you do a basic restoration, you’d be closer.”
Your sleigh is missing the upholstery that cushioned the original sleigh riders, so even a light-touch restoration would probably include that. Wool broadcloth was the traditional option, although Hansen sometimes substitutes less expensive fabrics when a customer’s budget is especially tight, Murray said.
She recommends keeping the existing finish, rather than repainting. “It would keep most of its value if you maintain as much originality as possible,” she said. Coating old paint with clear varnish freshens the look, but varnish tends to chip over time, Murray said. So, when existing paint is being preserved, Hansen usually uses an oil-based wood preservative, either TWP Total Wood Preservative (twpstain.com ) or Cabot Australian Timber Oil (cabotstain.com ). “It soaks in and goes over the top,” Murray said. “It won’t leave that shiny, glossy appearance, but it does brighten the finish and gives the look of the original finish.”
A simple sprucing up, including new upholstery, might cost several thousand dollars, Murray said. A very involved job, including fabricating numerous new parts and new paint with gold-leaf detailing, might run as high as $20,000. Hansen does about 100 projects a year, always including at least a few sleighs and typically including about a dozen major restorations. Trucking a sleigh boxed on a pallet from the D.C. area to the shop in South Dakota costs about $500 each way, plus the cost of building the protective plywood box.
What’s a sleigh worth today? The Hansen website shows two single-seat cutters for sale: one that’s been restored (meaning rebuilt) priced at $3,275 and one still in original condition (the conservation approach) priced at $3,850. Both are Albany cutters, which have bodies that curve out on the sides as well as bending from front to back. Your sleigh, which Schroyer said is a Portland cutter, is a little less elaborate, bending only front and back.
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