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Teaming to create carousel creatures

Published Oct. 13, 2005

Joe and Connie DiNapoli keep a stable full of horses in a warehouse, and every one of them is a beauty: proud, well-muscled and full of spirit. The horses are for sale, but DiNapoli hates to lose even one. Every painted pony is a DiNapoli creation, a hunk of wood transformed into a steed fit to grace an antique carousel. And he has a creator's love for his creatures.

"If it were up to me, I'd never let an animal go," DiNapoli said.

The DiNapolis run the Brass Ring on Scarlet Lane just off Tampa Road, where they make carousel horses and other animals. The most impressive piece of work, the one that usually draws the most attention at crafts shows, is modeled on Aslan, the gold-maned lion-king featured in the children's books written by C.S. Lewis, the Chronicles of Narnia.

Mrs. DiNapoli's fascination with carousel animals dates back to her own childhood. "The carousel was always the first thing I'd ride when I'd go to the fair," she said.

Ten years ago, when the DiNapolis were living in California and building houses for a living, Mrs. DiNapoli decided she wanted a carousel horse of her own.

Modern-day merry-go-rounds use horses made of aluminum and fiberglass, but the couple tracked down an elegant wooden one made in 1908, and paid $1,800 for the antique.

When they wanted to add another wooden horse to their stable, however, they couldn't find one for less than $6,000, DiNapoli said. So he decided to carve one himself.

DiNapoli, 48, learned woodcarving when he was a boy, watching his grandfather create the gingerbread detail on kitchen cabinets. He so enjoyed carving his first horse that he decided to make another, and another.

The hobby evolved into a new business as the DiNapolis gave up houses for horses. About a year ago, they and the Brass Ring moved to Oldsmar.

Business was better in California, but that's not Florida's fault. At one time, the DiNapolis employed six other people, but the recession has forced them to reduce their payroll to one employee.

"Nobody's buying right now," DiNapoli said.

Still, he and Mrs. DiNapoli, 38, enjoy their current business a lot more than the old one.

"It's a lot of fun," he said. "It's not the daily drudge. People like carousels. People walk in and go, "Ooooooooo' and "Aaaahhhhh.' "

Each of his horses starts life as mere lumber, which is sliced into four thick layers of wood for each section of the animal-to-be, and pegged and glued together.

Then DiNapoli puts each section on a cutting machine to rough out the design, following one of the master designs he first carved out by hand.

After he roughs out each copy on the machine, he spends several hours adding the details _ the flaring nostrils, the taut muscles _ and sanding down the rough spots.

Once the heads and bodies are fitted together, the Brass Ring crew stains or paints the animal and adds a few glittering glass or acrylic jewels. To the front of each horse, the crew affixes a brass plate with the company's name.

The Brass Ring sells its horses to local residents for hundreds of dollars, but stores as far away as Detroit buy them and double the price, DiNapoli said.

He figures each horse requires about 20 hours of labor. "We take a lot of time," he said, "too much time, I'm sure."

The care shows in the details: the individual nails carved and painted into each horse's shoes, for instance. The couple used to own several real horses and do their best to copy from life.

Unlike their traditional forebears, DiNapoli's animals won't spend their time riding around in circles. He has turned some into rocking horses or gliders. Others are designed to decorate a living room with a bit of whimsy, or light it with a small lamp mounted on the horse's brass pole.

But someday, Brass Ring horses will ride on a Brass Ring merry-go-round. In his spare time, DiNapoli is restoring an 1898 French carousel _ putting in a new motor and sound system, carving new mirror frames and so forth.

Restoring the merry-go-round will require him to make 20 animals, and perhaps a couple of chariots as well. He's pretty happy about that.

"I've always wanted to carve some chariots," he said.

DiNapoli doesn't know what he'll do with the old carousel when he's done with it. Perhaps, he said, he'll set it up somewhere so a new generation of children can fall under the magical spell of a whirligig ride.