Restoring a Schoenhut Wood Doll

While researching the history of early American dolls for my book, Through Their Eyes – The American Doll’s View of History* , I came upon the story of the early wooden dolls. While most of the American made wood dolls came from New Engand, like the Joel Ellis and Mason & Taylor and other jointed wood dolls, it was the large multi-jointed wooden dolls made by Albert Schoenhut in Philadelphia PA that really drew my attention.

In 1872 Schoenhut established the A. Schoenhut Company and made toys and pianos. In July 1909 Schoenbut applied for a patent for a jointed figure, which was the basis for his spring loaded joints of the now famous Schoenhut doll. While the bodies were wood, the heads were either machine carved wood or molded composition. Eyes were both inset and indaglio. The elder Schoenhut died in 1912, a year after his now famous doll appeared. His son, Harry E. Schoenhut continued the manufacture of the doll until around 1924 when Japanese manufactured dolls forced many American and European doll companies out of business.

I was determined to have a Schoenhut in my collection, but I soon learned that they are rather costly, ranging from $150 to $600 and even more depending on condition. There was no shortage of Schoenhuts for sale online, most were out of my price range until I found a seller that was offering one in pretty bad condition. The paint had almost all worn off the head and some of the features like the nose and lips were chipped away. This is not surprising as most the Schoenhut doll heads were composition. Fortunately the body was not bad although one lower limb had broken off.

In a way the broken leg gave me a glimpse into the leg joint of the doll…otherwise all the other joints including the feet, hands, elbows, shoulders were really tight (See photos below for the original condition of the doll.)

Normally I like to do minimal restoration on dolls, but this poor doll really needed a makeover. Shown below are the various steps I took to restore my Schoenhut…using various tricks I have learned over the years!

Original condition of the Schoenhut showing the badly worn head and broken leg.

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Paint badly chipped from composition head

First, with a damp cloth, I removed the surface dirt…no soap or solvent…just water.

Next I chipped away the rest of the paint from the head. Using medium grade sandpaper I smoothed some of the rough spots…on both the fully exposed head and some areas on the body.

Using a water based wood filler, I re-sculpted the lips and lower nose area. Using a dremel with a very small grinding head I cleaned out the eye area, reshaping the eye ball and socket.

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Next I made a slurry from the wood filler and “painted” the entire head…filling in all the small cracks and fissures. I sanded the head again and applied another coat of slurry. I let this dry overnight to make sure the wood filler was completely dry.

Next I applied a coat of gesso…used by artists to prepare their canvases. Gesso also fills in small cracks. Time for a coat of paint. I used a flesh tone acrylic, but here’s a tip. Most regular acrylics will change color as they dry. The acrylics used to paint glass and metal surfaces however dry true to color. And while they cost a little more, it is worth it as not only does the color dry true, but it also flows on evenly and brush lines are nearly invisible. One more check for any rough spots and then a second coat of paint.

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As the original paint was so “oranged” I decided to paint the entire body. Note I attached a velcro “splint” after inserting a rod to hold the two parts of the leg together.   While the leg will not bend at the joint, the doll will stand as it designed to do.

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Using a picture I downloaded from on-line, I copied the eye features, and lip shape. The teeth is a line of white too small to sculpt, but visible. I sealed the entire body and head with a satin acrylic, using a gloss for the eyes.

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Next the wig and clothes…I know my restoration is very self evident, but as I noted above, the doll was in really poor condition and I am more interested in having a doll that’s nice to look at than a really beat up ugly one.

Here is my finished Schoenhut

…along with a surprise I got for Mother’s Day…a second Schoenhut!

Now my 2 Schoenhuts stand side by side…a wish doubly fulfilled!

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*My book, Through Their Eyes – the American Doll’s View of History can be ordered directly from me by sending $19.95  to Lynn Nalven, Mountain Artisans, LLC, PO Box 64, Obernburg, NY 12767.  Shipping is free

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