Beautiful wooden rocking horses made in Nantwich

Gallopers and Rocking Horses

Gallopers and Rocking Horses - Credit: Archant

Woodwork isn’t just a reason to horse around for talented Jennifer Gater from Nantwich

Jennifer Gater

Jennifer Gater - Credit: Archant

On Christmas morning, the last thing that Jennifer Gater wanted to do was to make her mother cry. ‘I just didn’t expect it,’ laughed Jennifer, ‘When she unwrapped the gift, she finally realised it was crafted for her.’

During the months leading up to Christmas, Nantwich-based professional master woodcarver Jennifer had been creating a wooden horse and sleigh as a surprise present for her parents. They were under the impression the project was a commission destined for somebody else and she tells me it’s this reaction of joy that fulfils her with pride about her job.

‘Each piece I create is tailored to individual needs and tastes,’ said Jennifer, who runs company Gallopers and Rocking Horses. ‘So all the hard work and long hours you put into working on an item is worthwhile when you see how happy it makes people.’

Jennifer created her first carved rocking horse aged 15 for a GSCE design technology project and has gone from strength-to-strength ever since, setting up her own company aged 18. Her love for rocking horses and woodcarving stemmed from her family, as her uncle was a master ship carpenter and she has been riding horses since the age of three.

Gallopers and Rocking Horses

Gallopers and Rocking Horses - Credit: Archant

‘It all came together quite nicely,’ she said. ‘I wanted to do something different from all of the other students in the class who were making items such as CD shelves, and luckily it worked for me.’

Aged 29, Jennifer is now one of the youngest professional master woodcarvers in the country. For a craft that is hundreds of years old, it could be seen as unusual for someone so young and female to take up something so traditional and extremely specialised as a career. ‘People sometimes question my competence and skills as a female woodcarver,’ Jennifer added. ‘But my master has been fantastic. I am more than capable and more often than not people celebrate and support me in this craft. It’s a myth that women can’t do it!’

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Jennifer’s woodcarver master is Malcolm E Gibbons, owner of GEM rocking horses in Shropshire. Malcolm is the 13th direct descendant of the highly celebrated wood carver, Grinling Gibbons, who produced carvings for King Charles II and Christopher Wren, the architect of St Paul’s cathedral in London. Jennifer said that she met Malcolm on her 21st birthday, on a visit to Blists Hill Victorian Town at Ironbridge Gorge in Shropshire. His workshop is based in the working Victorian town and this is where Jennifer spent seven years training as an apprentice before qualifying as a master in September 2013.

‘I just stood talking to him for hours at Blists Hill, so I had practically passed the interview stage!’ laughed Jennifer. ‘Being self-employed, I had the perfect opportunity to take up the offer of training with Malcolm. It was an amazing experience and you don’t stop learning, especially when the history of the craft dates back to the 1400s.

Jennifer Gater

Jennifer Gater - Credit: Archant

‘The only negative aspect was I had to dress in full Victorian costume each day and act ladylike while hauling planks of timber around!’

The demand for Jennifer’s work is constant all year round; however the interest in rocking horses rises considerably at Christmas. Typically, it will take up to 120 hours (the equivalent of three weeks) to create a 51” rocking horse. This means Jennifer can only produce around 13 large horses per annum alongside her other items, which range from clocks and carousels to miniature horses and restoration work. As well as the woodcarving and building, Jennifer also designs and paints the finished pieces.

‘Orders for Christmas tend to come in around June and July,’ said Jennifer. ‘This means we have to make sure all of our summer orders, such as the trophies for Cheshire Polo Club are complete in time for the transition to festive work.’

The commission for rocking horses comes from a wide range of people, and Jennifer was keen to stress that they’re not just for children. She said some people have wanted a rocking horse since they were little and as each one is unique, it is such a special thing to receive one at Christmas or a birthday.

‘They’re not just toys for children. They can be an accent for a room and even some horse riders have requested for them to be carved to look like their favourite horse,’ said Jennifer. ‘Receiving something like a rocking horse at Christmas adds another member to the family. It’s not just a monetary investment, it becomes an heirloom for generations.

‘People are drawn to them. They can’t resist running their fingers through the hair or tipping them to make it move.’

For Jennifer, her next step is to create her own studio at home in Nantwich. Despite passing her apprenticeship last year, Jennifer was taken ill with double pneumonia and this set back her plans dramatically. ‘It was a very frightening experience and I am only just getting back on track with the business now,’ said Jennifer. ‘Being in hospital gave me the time to look at what I want to do and also gave me the drive to continue my passion of woodcarving. The last thing I wanted the consultant to tell me was that I had to give it up!’

Now home, happy and healthy, Jennifer is looking forward to the future. ‘I feel it’s vital that professions like this continue in to the 21st century and beyond,’ she said.

‘Once I have set up a larger workshop, I plan to take on young people and teach them to become woodcarvers. I feel I have been very lucky to receive tuition from one of the finest carvers in the field it would be great to offer that opportunity to others.’