Cross sills, sideboard cleats, straddler staples, running boards, sliders, sway bars, bunters, fifth chains, standards, circle irons, brake shoes, reach boxes, box straps, boot ends, bolster iron extensions, box tighteners, rub irons, sand board plates… The list can go on and on. Clearly, there are a lot of technical-sounding terms used when referencing wagons, coaches, and other western vehicles. Beyond the obvious advantages in allowing easier communication with others, understanding these designations is the first step to gaining real insight into the purposes of the designs themselves. To help grow knowledge of many of these near-forgotten terms, a few years ago, we created a first-of-its-kind illustration of wagon parts and made it the centerpiece of our Making Tracks limited edition print.
For the sake of discussion here, we’ll cover just a few of the designations mentioned above. ‘Cross sills’ on a wagon refer to the hardwood supports attached beneath the box floor. Positioned transverse to the box length, the more cross sills a wagon has can be one indicator of the original expense of the vehicle. Beyond the added cost of the material and time to install it, wagon boxes with more cross sills were often more desirable because they tended to be more stable and solid – all things being equal with other box designs. The old adage, “You get what you pay for,” was just as true a century ago as it is today.
‘Box tighteners’ are typically placed over or mounted onto the sideboards of a farm wagon. To get a clearer picture of these devices, we need to understand their purpose. First and foremost, they are engineered to help pull the sideboards tight to each other. The intent is to seal any gaps between the sideboards, thereby helping prevent the loss of smaller grain and seed. There are a variety of different designs that do this. Some also work to help eliminate gaps between the lowermost sideboard and the floor while also stiffening the sides of the box. Often, these ‘tighteners’ were used in conjunction with metal flashing between the boards to help further prevent spillage.
Some time back, I received a question about rub irons. On a wagon, these are the metal bars or plates positioned behind both front wheels on the lowermost sides of the box/bed. They can be shaped a number of different ways for different reasons, but their primary purpose is to shield the box from damage caused by a wheel turned too tight. Beyond their protective purpose, many aren’t aware that each iron is built to be able to be used twice. In other words, when the abrasion from a wheel’s metal tire eventually cuts through the iron, leaving it too worn for effective use, the piece is designed to be unbolted, turned around, and switched to the other side of the wagon box. This is an important distinction I’ve seen misinterpreted numerous times.
At the end of the day, the best advice for any involved subject is… Don’t be afraid to ask questions. We all have to learn sometime. Getting to know proper vehicle nomenclature and design purposes will help minimize challenges from miscommunication and give you an even deeper appreciation for the original builders of these vehicles.