Monday, September 7, 2015

The French Farmhouse: Milk Cow Blues

The French farmhouse was always meant to have a cow in the barn. I wanted my cow to be a Guernsey - a gentle-mannered breed that makes excellent milk cows. Guernseys were a prevalent breed in 19th century rural France, (as my research assured me) so I felt confident in my choice. Until I started my search for a Guernsey cow.

Miniature cows were in short supply - or at least Guernsey-looking cows were in short supply. I looked extensively online but found only cows that weren't quite right for one reason or another. I did find one practically perfect cow, but the perfection stopped at her cost.

I had to have a cow; I built that barn for the purpose of housing a cow. The farmhouse family needed a cow. So - when no other choice presented itself, I bravely stepped forward to save the day.

"I will make that Guernsey milk cow myself!" I declared. And so the fool rushed in.

My first step was to build an armature of wire. That should have been a two-alarm clue. The armature definitely had more equine features than bovine.

I found some good models: an English cow print - (Mr. J. James' Guernsey Cow. "Valentine the 3rd.") And a molded resin cow from my grandchildren's collection. Although the molded cow wasn't a Guernsey, I would have borrowed her (permanently) for the farmhouse; unfortunately, she was much too small. 

I bought white Sculpey clay and started building up bits of clay on the armature. As the layers of clay grew, the "cow" alternately looked like a horse; a sheep; a polar bear; and a Saint Bernard dog. The thing only barely started to bear any resemblance to a cow just as it was time to stop working on it. So I bundled it up in plastic until the next work session.

When I'd "gone about as fer as I could go" and the clay started to look more or less like a cow, I put it in the oven and roasted it for a while.        

I actually had high hopes until it came out of the oven. It came out looking decidedly unhappy - and with good cause. The legs were way too short and thick and the udder was way too far forward. I did sort of like her bony back, but that hardly counted for anything. I lost some sleep over my misshapen creation, but I came up with a dubious middle-of-the-night idea. It might be possible to lengthen the cow's legs, which might prove to be a big mistake, but I had nothing to lose. (Time counts for nothing.)

But before going ahead with a salvage operation, I decided to paint the thing, just in case the paint had magical properties that could turn a creature into a cow.

So I painted it to look like a Guernsey milk cow and put it in the barn........Nothing. That paint did not work one bit of magic! Except that now the thing looked a bit like a bull dog.

My plan was to cut off all four hooves, lengthen the wire armature, then add more clay to make longer, thinner legs. The hooves needed to be preserved at all costs because I did not want to make them again - especially that projection behind the hooves, for which I don't know the word. (What is that thing called?) After the legs were lengthened, the cow would need to be baked again. A potential problem was the existing paint. What harm would the oven's heat cause? Would the paint run? Curdle? Gum up? Explode? All of the above? None of the above?

All four hooves have been removed; this cow was prepared to reach new heights! But an unexpected problem arose when I tried to lengthen the wire armature. I couldn't make the new wire stay attached to the old wire. No matter what I tried. I thought that it might work to use new wire that was not attached to the original armature, but that made the cow very unsteady on her legs. So I made new legs without an armature; I couldn't make them as thin nor as long as I wanted because the clay was too soft without any support. I reattached the hooves and baked the cow for fifteen minutes. 

The paint came through the ordeal without much harm; there was only some discoloration of the white paint. But one of the new forelegs was bent during baking, and when I tried to straighten the leg, it fell off. I left it bent and glued it back on.

The freshly-baked cow also developed a listing posture while in the oven, but I couldn't determine exactly why. I handled the hooves and legs so much, trying to find the problem, that one of the hooves fell off. I glued it back on.

Then one of the ears fell off. I glued it back on.

I really, really wished that I had bought that really, really expensive cow that I found online!


I was in an antique store in a nearby town and just happened to see a set of four lightweight plastic cows -  three small ones (they are not calves, but full-blown cows) and a large one that was a perfect size! They were the wrong color, but I was thrilled to buy them anyway. (For cheap!) I gave the small ones to my grandchildren for their animal bin, and I kept the perfectly-sized large one. I forgot to take a "before" photo of the large cow, but after I gave her a Guernsey makeover - Voila! 

The farm family are now the owners of a beautiful, gentle, Guernsey milk cow!

I must admit, though, after everything that the clay cow creature and I had been through together, I couldn't discard her. But I did place her in the darkest part of the barn.

Now that the barn finally had a cow (or two?) I needed to make sure that there was plenty for them to eat so that the Guernsey milk would be the best possible. First I needed something to hold the hay. (Or whatever those cows would be munching on.)

I designed a simple hay manger for the barn and cut the pieces of balsa wood that I needed.

After I aged the wood, I began to assemble the pieces. First, the cross pieces for the two ends of the manger.

Then I glued on the flat bottom piece. So far, so good.

Two of the side slats were glued on. Things became a bit wibbly-wobbly at this point, but Robert helped me hold it all together until I could get it stabilized. I persevered and glued on the remaining slats.

I applied two coats of a dark stain to the manger - and suddenly it looked just the way I had envisioned it!

Dinner is served!

After nearly three years of construction, which entailed many trials, much tribulation, slip-ups and stumbles of one kind after another, the time had come for the Fun Stuff! (Not that it hadn't all been fun, in spite of the above troubles.) I hope you'll drop in next week for a brief preview of some of the farm family's favorite possessions. They don't possess many things, mind you, but they take care to preserve and cherish their few belongings, just as their forebears did, being ever mindful of the passage of time and of the future generations who will occupy the farmhouse.


  1. Hello Marjorie,
    What an ordeal! I must say your cow did not look bad at all in the pictures, but I understand completely the need to have things perfect, especially with the precision of your workmanship on the house. I myself tried some sculpting and have decided to leave it to the professionals in future! I actually think you did a really good job and I am happy you kept her in the barn. The cows you purchased are great and will really add a lot of life to the project. The "food" in the feeder is wonderful. I am so excited and can't wait until your next post. Keep up the amazing work, You just keep on raising the bar each week!
    Big hug

    1. Hello Giac,
      Yes, the cow project was an ordeal - but an interesting one! And actually I have a professional sculptor in the family, but I did not ONCE think of him until I read your comment! One of my sons-in-law is an art teacher at Lincoln's Arts and Humanities school and is a talented sculptor, although he works more with paper mache than clay - but a paper mache cow would have been wonderful! (I cannot remember whether he saw my clay cow. Maybe he took one look and tiptoed quietly away.) Thanks for that reminder, which I'll remember in the event of future sculpture needs. Heaven forbid. Thank you for the nice comments on my "cow" post!

  2. Привет Marjorie!
    Я с удовольствием прочитала ваше сообщение. Вы сделали большую и сложную работу. Мне нравится ваша корова. Вы имеете талант. Вам нужна практика. Все получится, если есть желание.

    1. Hello Tatiana, and thank you for your very nice words! I may someday try again to make a cow. (A much better cow!) You're so right - it takes much practice, but it would be very satisfying to try and succeed!

  3. Your saga of the cow made me laugh : D I admire your patience and your courage. I have yet to try any sculpturing. I think your cow turned out rather nice. Now you have two sweet cows :)
    Hugs Maria

  4. Hi Maria,
    Thanks for your nice comments about my cow adventure! It was fun to try, even if I didn't exactly meet my own expectations. Maybe I'll try again another time. (Or maybe not.)

  5. This was Hysterically funny and I enjoyed every minute of your discomfiture, which I know must sound odd but I mean it in a Good Way! :)) I must say Marjorie, you are a Braver soul than I in attempting to sculpt your cow! What Courage, and even though she has been supplanted by a new arrival and placed at the back of the barn at least you didn't put her out to pasture!
    Now the family has 2 cows which of course, is twice as nice! :D

    P.S. Your new cow is a Terrific find and you have repainted her PERFECTLY and I am sure that you must be very relieved to have such a Happy Ending after all :D

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