I can’t escape some stories. You know the ones. Those tragic tales of antique vehicle neglect, oversight or just a plain lack of understanding that allows a piece to deteriorate… those accounts can make us all cringe. Not long ago, I had another person share about an early horse-drawn wagon he had purchased that – at least when he first saw it – still retained a significant amount of original paint. The seller, though, thinking he would do the buyer a favor, decided to ‘clean’ the wagon up a bit before the buyer arrived. Taking a high pressure water hose, he blasted the entire vehicle. Of course, once the buyer arrived to pick up the purchase, he noted that the wagon looked totally different. The pressurized water not only took off the stains from mud dauber nests and bird droppings but, also stripped the wagon almost bare of its paint and logos. It’s yet one more reminder than the presence of an original painted finish cannot be duplicated and is therefore irreplaceable. I’ll cover more on this element of ‘originality’ in a later blog or feature article as it is increasingly part of collector and enthusiast conversations.
Not to be outdone, it seems vehicle owners from the late 1800’s also needed to be reminded of the importance of proper care of wood-wheeled wagons and carriages. Throughout the Wheels That Won The West® archives, there are regular reminders from manufacturers and industry experts as to how to preserve and protect the looks, functionality and resale value of a set of wheels. With that as a backdrop, we thought we’d share a few common recommendations distributed by multiple 19th century makers as to how to best care for a horse drawn vehicle in use during that time. We’ve added some additional thoughts in italics after several of the itemized points.
1. The vehicle should be kept in an airy, dry coach house, There should be a moderate amount of light; otherwise the colors will be affected. The windows should be curtained, to avoid having direct sunlight strike upon a carriage. (Extended direct and even indirect exposure to light can have significant and irreversible effects on original paint and logo transfers)
2. There should be no communication between the stable and the coach house. The manure heap should also be located as far away from the carriage house as possible. Ammonia fumes crack and destroy varnish, and fade the colors both of painting and lining. Also avoid having a carriage stand near a brick wall, as the dampness from the wall will fade the colors and destroy the varnish. (Dampness and ammonia can have even more devastating effects than the impact mentioned here on paint and varnish. These elements will also work to rust, pit and erode most every part of an early wood-wheeled vehicle)
3. Whenever a carriage stands unused for several days, it should be protected by a large cotton cover sufficiently strong to keep off the dust, without altogether excluding the light. Dust, when allowed to settle on a carriage, eats into the varnish. Care should be taken to keep this cover dry. (Dust-free environments are almost impossible to achieve. Recognizing the enemies of a collector-grade vehicle is the first step to preserving it for generations to come.)
4. Never allow mud to remain long enough to dry on a vehicle or spots and stains may result.
5. While washing a carriage, keep it out of the sun. Use plenty of water, taking great care that it is not driven into the body, to the injury of the lining. Use for the body panels a large, soft sponge; when saturated, squeeze this over the panels, and, by the flowing down of the water, the dirt will soften and harmlessly run off.
6. The directions just given for washing the body apply as well to the under parts and wheels, but use for the latter a different sponge and chamois than those used on the body. Never use a spoke brush, which, in conjunction with the grit from the road, would act like sand paper on the varnish, scratching it and of course removing the gloss.
7. Never allow water to dry of itself on a carriage, as it would invariably leave stains. Hot water or soap should never be used in washing a varnished surface.
8. Enameled-leather tops, and aprons should be washed with very weak soap and water. No oil should be put on enameled leather. (a dilution of Murphy’s Oil Soap with distilled water works well)
9. To prevent or destroy moths in woolen linings, use turpentine and camphor. In the case of a closed carriage the simple evaporation from the mixture, when placed in a saucer (the glass being closed,) will be found a certain cure.
10. Inspect the entire carriage occasionally, and whenever a bolt or clip appears to be getting loose, tighten it up with a wrench, and always have little repairs done at once. Should the tires of the wheels get at all slack, so that the joints of the felloes become visible, have them immediately contracted or the wheels may be permanently injured.
11. Examine the axles frequently; keep them well oiled, and see that the washers (for carriages) are in good order. Pure sperm oil is considered the best for lubricating purposes; castor oil will answer; but never sweet oil, as it will gum up. Be careful in replacing the axle-nuts, not to cross the thread or strain them.
12. Leather top carriages should never stand long in the carriage house with the top down. After raising the top, "break" the joints slightly to take off the strain on the webstay and leather. Aprons of every kind should be frequently unfolded, or they will soon spoil. (In similar fashion, it’s important to remember that wood will expand and contract with variations in temperature and humidity. Beyond efforts to maintain the proper atmospheric conditions when caring for an antique wagon, it’s good not to overly tighten the box rods to allow for slight flexibility during inactive display or storage).