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I am renovating my childhood wooden rocking horse. I took it all apart, sanding it off, will be priming and painting it later.

Even though it spent over 25 years in a damp cellar, it's in great shape.

However, I have a problem with the head. The head is screwed down to the seat. However, it seems that my dad did some sloppy repairs back in the day, using oversized screws, which made a huge gap, made the screw holes too loose, and destroyed the wood around it.

I am looking for reliable ways to fill this hole, bring the shape to what it originally was, and have it ready, so I can screw it together again (and it will hold) to the seat.

These screws take quite a load, because when a child is swinging he's holding on to the head of the horse.

Here are bunch of photos:

https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1I2-YHgd9HlC3_qKyRIyismNU-JQJnspD?usp=sharing enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here enter image description here

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    It would be best to have photos of the relevant parts of the horse here in the body of the Question rather than in an off-site link (which some people won't look at) but mainly because they could go stale at any point, rendering this far less useful for future searchers.
    – Graphus
    May 3, 2022 at 12:08
  • Anyhoo, I expected I'd be able to direct you to an existing Q&A since we've had numerous queries on filling holes in various contexts, but not with plywood that I recall. This being plywood makes this much trickier. Don't think your dad really did anything wrong, ply is innately weaker edge-on and near a corner a screw could almost be guaranteed to work loose over time and take a lot of wood with it. Overall I think this is a repair best left to a professional I'm afraid, as the repair I envisage requires mid-level or better woodworking skills.
    – Graphus
    May 3, 2022 at 12:16

3 Answers 3

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Alternatively, have you considered remaking / replacing the head?

After considering feedback and your desire to put the horse back into use it might not be possible to satisfactorily repair the original head and have it safely handle the loads of a playful child.

It appears the piece is a single piece of plywood; a piece of baltic birch of equal dimensions should be easy to cut to match. The decorations look like they might be permanent marker, and the patina could be partly matched with some sanding with steel wool or a fairly fine sandpaper on a soft block.

While it wouldn't likely be a perfect match it would be stronger than the original piece and remove the concern of it detaching or being re-broken.

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  • +1 completely new piece is definitely one of the (two?) best options IMO, although I suspect the OP doesn't have the requisite woodworking experience or tools. Re. matching the worn aesthetic, "I took it all apart, sanding it off, will be priming and painting it later.".
    – Graphus
    May 4, 2022 at 14:21
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    Keep the original head as a memento/souvenir. Maybe mount it on the wall - either flat as a simple decoration, or sticking out like a trophy mount (if one has a bit of a sense of humor). Just don't put it on the kid's bed... ;)
    – FreeMan
    May 4, 2022 at 14:30
  • definitely keep the original! Looking at the photos I think all that would be needed would be a project panel with the original shape traced onto it and cut our with a coping saw or jigsaw--and a hole of the appropriate size drilled for the handle
    – STW
    May 4, 2022 at 15:58
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The plywood is pretty badly compromised. Restoring a mess like that is a multistep process. I would proceed as follows:

  1. Clean all the loose, chippy pieces of veneer out of the blown apart plywood, until you've got only solid, attached wood remaining.
  2. Infiltrate the gaps between expanded veneers, but where no wood is actually missing, with a good epoxy. It'll be a bit futzy getting good coverage, so I would use a medium setting epoxy, not something super fast. Once you've done this, clamp the plywood back together using flat cauls to distribute the pressure. Your goal is to get the plywood back to it's original thickness uniformly (except where wood is missing, of course). Be sure to cover your cauls with epoxy-resistant tape, like brown plastic packing tape, or you'll end up with the cauls glued to the piece. Let this harden completely.
  3. Patch the missing outside veneer along the edge with a similar colored wood. Take a look at some furniture restorers youtubes (Tom Johnson's are great) if you need some teaching on how to cut a veneer patch and match it into a piece. Trim and plane the patch to match the original piece after the glue is fully set.
  4. You'll be left with some major holes in the piece where significant wood was missing, and where the screw holes are. You can fill these either with a pre-mixed epoxy putty, or with regular epoxy mixed with with wood shavings and sawdust (this technique gives a very tough, resilient "composite" fill.) Overfill by a bit, being sure to get a void-free fill. After it's fully set, you can plane, cut or sand down to final shape.
  5. Mark and carefully drill appropriately sized holes for whatever screws you're replacing the originals with. You're still screwing into plywood end grain, so if you don't properly match the pilot hole to the screw diameter, you'll likely blow the plywood up again.
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  • I discounted commercial epoxy putty immediately for the fill here given this has to take a screw that then has to withstand repeated, unpredictable levering forces. It's not just the unsure cohesiveness of the epoxy itself (although this is a potential worry — I've used multiple commercial epoxy pastes and putties that were far weaker than advertised) but the hold of the epoxy in the void, which is notoriously less strong than hoped for. I would have no hesitation in preferentially recommending a homemade fill instead IF the requisite fine hardwood sanding dust/wood flour were available.
    – Graphus
    May 3, 2022 at 19:05
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    @Graphus. I agree that epoxy plus wood fill is better. I do this regularly using plane shavings mixed sanding dust. You don't need something as fine as wood flour, and using shavings in the mix adds long fibers that strengthen the composite considerably. As for the screws - I can't emphasize enough the importance in an application like this of matching the pilot hole to the screw so you get complete thread engagement, without significant expansion pressure. The threads will hold if you don't wreck the integrity of the substrate. May 4, 2022 at 0:09
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    Well wood flour — or the sander-made equivalent :-) — is the default filler for many using thickened epoxy in boatbuilding, which is some recommendation. The 'aggregate system' formed by particles of multiple sizes on the other hand can't be ignored, since there's some evidence the principle applies at all scales. As far as I can tell from my uses a significant portion of the dry mix being fine dust or fibres (generated from MDF or hardboard) is v important for strength, versus all coarser stuff ≈ actual sawdust and coarser. But there are too many variables to track for me to be sure of this.
    – Graphus
    May 4, 2022 at 1:05
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It looks like there are two problems, and could be addressed individually.

The hole that's too large is an easy fix using a dowel. Buy a dowel and use a drill bit of matching size (see note below) to drill out the hole to match--then glue the dowel in to fill the hole. After the glue is dry cut the dowel off flush, drill a fresh pilot hole, and you're all set.

Or, if the hole is just a little too large, you can dip a toothpick (or a couple/few) in wood glue, put them in the hole and cut them flush, then install the screw. The toothpicks and glue will reduce the size of the hole and add some fresh wood for the threads to grip into.

The plywood repair has a few options. The simplest would be to use something like a wood filler epoxy, like Abatron WoodEpox. That's a product I use quite a bit and is nice because it's something like a play-doh consistency so it's easy to push into gaps without it oozing out, and after curing it sands well. The downside is that it won't look like plywood--when you look at it edge-on you'll see the repair as a homogenous patch. You could consider covering both the patch and the rest of the edge with a banding veneer, or painting it solid to hide the repair.

Another option for the plywood repair might be a little harder to source, but visually match better. It would involve replacing the missing portion of each broken ply--if you measure the thickness of an individual ply and can source a sheet of stock of the same thickness you can create a custom plywood plug (or, if you have a table saw, rip some very thin piece to match the thickness). It doesn't have to perfectly fill the cavity, just cover the hole. But give this looks like fairly thin ply and a small hole sourcing this might be a challenge and going the putty route might be fine.

Note: dowels are often smaller than listed -- e.g. a 1/2" dowel might be more like 7/16" diameter. Use a piece of scrap wood to figure out what drill bit matches the dowel.

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    Given this has to take a screw subject to repeated, unpredictable levering forces I discounted epoxy immediately for the fill here, the main issue being the notoriously poor hold of epoxy fills to the surrounding wood. Also, dowel repairs for holes for screws subject strain are not the best fix; the hold of screws in end grain is only slightly weaker (not way weaker as commonly thought) but the insertion of the screw tends to chew up the dowel far more than is desirable, and that's if the hole is well supported by surrounding wood which is definitely not the case here.
    – Graphus
    May 3, 2022 at 18:59

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