Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Loose Wagon Wheels

I’ve closely studied almost every aspect of 19th century American wagons and the associated industry for almost two decades.  The process of examining thousands of pieces of early literature, photos, and correspondence has yielded many benefits; not the least has been the opportunity to learn from the original masters of the trade.  Contrary to some perceptions, this industry – and its products – was exceptionally complicated and vast in scope.  As we’ve shared in so many previous posts, it’s a subject that closely parallels America’s westward growth. 

As part of that study, I’ve encountered a number of unsubstantiated perceptions in the field; perceptions that have been repeated enough times that they’re sometimes wrongly accepted as truth.  One such experience centers on the design function of a wagon wheel.  For instance, I’ve seen individuals shake a wheel on a wagon and if it moved side to side, declare the piece to be worn out and unsound.  To be sure, wheels can wear in the hub boxings, thimble skeins, spokes, felloes, etc.  Overall, though, a typical wooden wagon wheel (non-roller bearing) is actually intended to have some lateral movement.  There is a strong purpose for that action and perhaps, it’s most appropriate to let one of the most historic and legendary wagon-making veterans explain the reason.  Below is a quote from Louis Espenschied, founder of the famed Espenschied Wagon Company in St. Louis.  The excerpt comes from his 1878 patent on Vehicle Axle Lubricators.  I’ve placed some of the text in a bold and enlarged manner to help call out the function of a typical wagon wheel on a thimble skein.
“This invention is an improved mode of lubricating the thimbles of wagons through the knocking action of the wheels in their playing on the spindles; and consists in a grease reservoir or box constructed to have its opening through the hurdle or collar of the spindle, and coming flush against the hub of the wheel.  The play that the wheel has longitudinally on its spindle when in motion causes its hub to knock against the collar or hurdle, thus thereby forcing the grease before it through an opening communicating with it, and coming out at the top of the spindle to be distributed over the same and the box of the hub.”
It’s a bit of a wordy segment in the patent but it does a wonderful job in describing how the side to side action of the wheel working in a back and forth action along the skein actually functions to distribute grease and help the vehicle run smoother.
So, if some longitudinal movement is necessary, how does a person know how much slack is appropriate?  That’s where the experience of today’s skilled wagon makers is helpful.  Craftsmen like Doug Hansen of Hansen Wheel & Wagon Shop in Letcher, South Dakota have decades of experience and can be especially insightful with answers.  In a recent conversation with Hansen, he shared that there are many factors that come into play.  “Unless you’re talking about a new or unused new-old-stock piece, there will be at least some wear on a wagon’s skeins and boxings,” said Hansen.  “The wear on skeins is easier to measure since it occurs predominantly on the lower sections while the boxings will wear on the full circumference.  The skeins and boxings can wear both laterally and radially with each type requiring different evaluations and corrective actions.  If a wheel is radially out of alignment by a half inch or so, it’s going to be noticeable and create problems beyond the added drag to the draft.  It will, ultimately, affect the soundness of the rest of the wheel.  Wheels with a quarter inch or less of lateral and radial movement are typically still within original tolerances.”  Reinforcing that statement as well as the quote from the Espenschied patent, the photo below shows a period new-old-stock (never used) skein with a boxing allowing 3/16 inch of lateral movement. 
Our conversation with Mr. Hansen was extensive so we will likely cover more on this subject in a later blog.  Suffice it to say that from wheel-making to the fitting of skeins on axles and a whole slew of patented wagon innovations, truly understanding these early vehicles requires a willingness to devote oneself to documented study.  Ultimately, that commitment to research and recovery of so much primary source material is a founding principle of our Wheels That Won The West® Archives.  It’s a focus that not only helps to separate fact from fiction but continues to help uncover some of the rarest wheeled history in America.