Carousel carver brings joy to many

Friday, March 2, 2007
A close-up of Silver, the lead horse for the Eldridge Park carousel and one that the Pefferly's replicated. Silver is sponsored by Tim & Paddy Welles.

Picture the smiles on children's faces as they go around and around and up and down, on top of majestically carved animals on a carousel, with the lights flashing and music playing merrily.

Larry Pefferly, a local master carver from Cornersville, knows all about the simple pleasure riding a carousel can elicit. Since 1986 he has been prolific in his carving, which includes relief carvings, the combined totaling close to 100 pieces. He works in his studio using just a handful of tools passed down from his father, an accomplished sculptor in his own right.

"I enjoy doing it, it's kind of relaxing and others would enjoy doing it if they knew how, and that's what prompted me to write the book," said Pefferly of his hobby and the book he published in December 2006 titled, "Complete Guide on How to Carve and Paint a Carousel Horse," which also has an accompanying DVD.

When Pefferly first began carving horses they were mostly to adorn private homes, however he and his wife Jerry, who hand paints all of the animals, became well known in the business when a complete operating carousel that they constructed and carved was used by Neiman Marcus Co. for a fashion shoot in their 1998 Christmas Book.

Pefferly, who didn't start carving until his mid-forties, constructs the magnificent carousel animals in pieces. The heads are carved first, followed by the legs, and then the body is glued together in pieces. From there the tiny details are carved with small chisels, sanded, and then the animal is primed and handed over to Mrs. Pefferly for her expert transformation using oil paints mixed with liquin. Lastly, glass eyes and other jewels are added for embellishment.

"It doesn't require a lot of tools," commented the soft-spoken Pefferly who says he generally needs to use only a set of five chisels and two mallets, plus a chisel sharpener, to create his masterpieces, which weigh about 120 pounds each.

The carvings average about 5 feet tall, and are about the same size in length, but it varies based on the animal, he says. Pefferly has carved an assortment of animals in addition to horses, including lions, tigers, goats and rabbits. He explains that he looks through books for ideas for animals and their adornments and then "kind of make my own."

"Tradition" was the name of the first carousel horse Pefferly carved and he gave it to his brother for his home. The Pefferly's had kept several horses around their home, but they were sold last year to Eldridge Park Carousel Preservation Society, who commissioned him to replicate all twenty of its outside row of animals for their refurbished Eldridge Park carousel, located in Elmira, New York (

The Eldridge Park project turned into a 3 year journey that culminated in the Grand Opening in May 2006, with 20,000 of the town's 30,000 residents in attendance, including native Brian Williams of NBC Nightly News.

In all, Pefferly carved 26 of the 56 animals for the Eldridge Park carousel and reproduced many of the original animals (which were sold at auction in 1989) by looking at photos from the auction catalog. The photos only showed one side of the animal, so he and his wife had to use their expertise to match the originals as closely as possible.

"Sebastian," a 7-foot long lion with an open mouth and baring his teeth became one of Pefferly's favorites, along with the longhaired goat who he says "was kind of cool."

Pefferly shared some interesting facts about carousels, which have been around for about 300 years, while showing photos of his animals on his website. The outside row of animals is usually more elaborate and ornately carved because everyone sees them. Most often they do not move up and down, either. The middle and inside animals are less ornate and most do move.

Many of the carved carousel animals are constructed in "coffin style," meaning the bodies are glued together so that they remain hollow. This procedure was adopted mainly to lighten the weight of the animal which made them easier to transport, as carousels were often moved from fair to fair. Also, it is a tradition to put something inside of the animal, similar to a time capsule.

Individuals and families who sponsored some of the animals of the Eldridge Park carousel chose many sentimental items to put inside of the animals. Additionally, at the Grand Opening a memorial ride was held in honor of three people connected to the project who passed away before its completion.

Jim Dulin was a Lynnville neighbor of the Pefferly's and he helped pack and ship the animals, which were sent individually to Elmira one at a time in a specially built crate. Unfortunately, Mr. Dulin was killed in a tractor accident on May 25, 2004 before the completion of the carousel.

"By the giving of his time and keen support, Jim Dulin was a welcomed part of Elmira, New York's carousel project," commented Pefferly.

The interest in carved carousels is increasing, according to the Pefferlys, who note there are probably about 200 in operation today in the United States, up from about 180 15 years ago. After the Depression, many carousels were dismantled and the animals, carved by talented immigrants, were sold at auction, some of which today can fetch from $70,000 and up.

Currently there are organizations dedicated to preserving old carousels and Pefferly is working to promote the hobby of carousel carving via his book and DVD, website (, and monthly column in the magazine "Carousel News & Trader." He notes that many women are taking up the hobby, which surprises him.

Saying he's a bit "burned out" from the Eldridge Park project, Pefferly is taking a sabbatical from carving carousel animals and plans to try his hand at sculpting in clay. However, the joy he has brought to thousands of people with his carved marvels remains close to his heart.

"Adults, I find, get more enjoyment out of riding them than children, or certainly as much," he commented.