Friday, July 12, 2013

Friday Featurette: Wooden Horses Part 2

As I mentioned in last Friday's blog post, the Breyer Racehorse bears a striking resemblance to the earlier "Whirlaway" model produced by Grand Wood Carving, a company that was located mere blocks from the Breyer factory near downtown Chicago in the 1950s. The resemblance is in fact too great to be a coincidence. The Breyer Racehorse was without a doubt copied from the GWC piece. (A number of early Breyer models were copies of pieces by other companies---the Western Horse (Hartland Champ), the Proud Arab Mare and Foal and Family Arab Stallion (Hagen-Renaker's Large Zara, Zilla, and Amir), the Large Poodle (Rosenthal), the Walking Hereford and Boxer (Boehm), etc---but that will be a subject for later post.)

GWC "Whirlaway" on the left, Breyer Woodgrain Racehorse on the right

The real horse Whirlaway won the Triple Crown for Calumet Farm in 1941, so we know the GWC piece must date to that year or later. Most of the GWC racehorses are portraits of horses from the 1930s-1950s, but they may have been produced after those years as well. I don't have any paperwork from the company unfortunately, so I'm not sure how long any of their horses were made. Nancy Young, author of Breyer Molds and Models, believed their heyday had ended by the 1960s.

Breyer's records from the 1950s are likewise pretty spotty. We do know that the Racehorse was the third equine model released by Breyer (circa 1954, preceded only by the Western Horse and Pony), and the mold was also one of the first to be released in woodgrain (circa 1959). The mold was undoubtedly copied directly from Grand Wood Carving's Whirlaway model as the comparison photo above attests, and I think that it's very likely that the distinctive woodgrain color with white markings was inspired by GWC as well.

 Tenite sticker on a Woodgrain Poodle

An interesting feature sported by some of the early Breyer woodgrains are gold foil stickers that declare them to be "made of tenite acetate." Glossy realistically colored models such as the Appaloosa PAM and PAF occasionally had these gold stickers as well. Presumably, they were to indicate and emphasize that the models were indeed durable plastic rather than wood (or porcelain in the case of the realistic models). The plastic models were also likely cheaper than their wood or porcelain counterparts while still looking the part.

Breyer eventually produced 29 different horse and animal molds in the woodgrain color. Some are just streaked brown with no painted details other than black eyes while others have added white socks, a white star, and black hooves. Most woodgrains are matte to semi-gloss in terms of finish, though some, often those found on the Dunning "Ranchcraft" lamps, have a high semi-gloss or even glossy finish. The last woodgrain in production, the Fighting Stallion, was discontinued at the end of 1973. 

In terms of collectibility, the woodgrain line includes some of the very rarest and most desirable Breyer models ever made. Seven of them are rare enough that only a handful of examples of each are presently known to collectors. They are the Buffalo, Donkey, Elephant, In-Between Mare, Polled Hereford, Proud Arabian Foal, and Walking Angus molds.

Woodgrain Buffalo Lamp

Both the Woodgrain Buffalo and the Woodgrain Hereford have only been found on lamps (to date) which suggests that they may have been special runs for Dunning Industries and never regular releases. (One Hereford does exist without a lamp, but the model has holes in its feet indicating that it was probably on a lamp at one time or was intended for a lamp.) The PAF was likely a regular run along with the PAM, but because of the copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Hagen-Renaker in 1959, we know that not many of them were sold before production was halted. The In-Between Mare, if it was actually released, was discontinued before very many were made. (You can read more on the HR lawsuit and the In-Between Mares here.) The others were possibly short special runs although no documentation on any of them has yet come to light. It's possible they were regular runs that were just never issued in large numbers for whatever reason.

Woodgrain Proud Arab Mare

Several other woodgrain models are considered very rare, and while they are hard to find, they do exist in greater numbers than the seven listed above. They are the Proud Arab Mare, the Fury, the Belgian, and the Stretch Morgan. Interestingly, though several dozen of each of these models are probably accounted for in collectors' hands, these four models are still highly desirable and command four-figure prices not far behind the rarest seven.

Most of the other woodgrain models are reasonably common, though several command multiple hundreds of dollars, such as the Mustang and the Walking Hereford. Others, like the Family Arabians or Fighting Stallion can be found and purchased at easily affordable prices, often less than the cost of a new Breyer.

Woodgrain Fury

The "graining" on Breyer's woodgrain models varies from model to model. Some, like the Fury above, have bold stripes of light and dark paint while others are more uniform in tone. The shade of brown used on these models also ranges from golden to dark chocolate. Many woodgrain Running Mares, Running Foals, and Fighting Stallions that came on the Dunning "Ranchcraft" lamps exhibit the dark brown coloration.

 Click to see a larger view

Besides the usual rubs and scratches other models are prone to, woodgrains sometimes develop bubbling as seen in the picture above. The exact cause is unknown, but it may be the result of exposure to heat and/or humidity. Woodgrains with semi-gloss or glossy topcoats occasionally develop a milky opacity to the finish, especially in the muscle grooves or other areas where the finish may have pooled. In my experience, both as a collectibility shower and a judge, in the show ring, only bubbling is generally considered a flaw.

Breyer has attempted to revive the woodgrain color twice since it was discontinued. In the early 1990s in Just About Horses, Breyer announced an upcoming special run series of new woodgrains. Unfortunately, according to Breyer historian Nancy Young, Peter Stone said the run was cancelled because the last Breyer employee who knew how to paint the distinctive color had left the company. Rumors have also circulated for years that the chemicals and/or paint used to create the woodgrain look were no longer legal. Then in 1999, Breyer released two woodgrain keychains, the G2 Andalusian and G2 Clydesdale, as a special run for Breyerfest. The models are dark reddish-brown with subtle darker striping, but they bear very little resemblance to the original vintage woodgrains. But given the recent success Breyer has had at duplicating some of their unique vintage paint jobs for the Vintage Club, I'm hopeful they'll try woodgrain again soon.

Next time: Hartland woodcuts!

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