Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Wagons & the Way They Were Built

I’ve shared a number of times that every part of a period vehicle can hold clues related to its provenance.  From age and use histories to maker labels and design standards, paying attention to construction details can make all the difference in what we know to be fact versus mere beliefs or speculation.

Some time ago, I had a discussion with a friend about the way floors were placed in early wagons.  There were several techniques employed by period builders of farm wagons.  The most frequently seen style in surviving vehicles is tongue and groove. This type of interlocking construction works by fitting a grooved slot from one side of the board into a protruded ridge from another board.  It offers great strength and long-lasting sealing characteristics. 

 This image shows a wagon with the more commonly seen tongue and groove floor.

A second method of placing boards in a wagon floor is by simply butting the sides of the planks together.  While simple to install, one of the primary challenges for farmers was the difficulty in keeping the boards sufficiently tight in respect to each other.  Over time, gaps between the boards would almost certainly appear, allowing loose grain, seed, or other small items to fall through. 

As can be seen in this image, laying boards side by side invariably left gaps making it tough to seal the floor of the box.

A third approach to installing flooring for a box is similar to tongue and groove.  Referred to as a shiplap floor, this design pulls the floor together by over and underlapping adjoining boards.  As with tongue and groove boards, shiplap construction allows for dimensional movement of the wood while also retaining longitudinal strength.  While the design is effective at closing gaps, it may not seal quite as well as tongue and groove and sometimes can be more susceptible to splintering and warping.

For some modern day collectors, the process of shiplapping a wagon floor may be tempting to view as a faster but less effective way of finishing a box.  However, that opinion was clearly not shared by some well-known wagon makers.  Over the last decade, I’ve encountered several instances of original wagon boxes built in this way.  In each circumstance, the wagon was known as a premium quality brand with an unquestioned national reputation.   

Period wagons with original shiplap floors are not commonly found today.

As we work to understand why certain builders did things in a particular way, it’s important to remember that major vehicle manufacturers didn’t (and still don’t) typically rush into cheap alternatives in the design of their products.  Hard-earned reputations for quality have too much to lose by ushering in unproven creations.  While all builders looked for efficiencies that made good business sense, there is a balance between saving time and money while continuing to deliver excellent products.    

Even with the use of shiplap floors by multiple dominant manufacturers, the practice does not seem to have garnered wide-spread acceptance.  Nonetheless, I recently uncovered a catalog from yet another prominent brand touting the preference of ship lap floors.  The firm claimed that these floors were “…much stronger than ‘tongued and grooved’...”  It is known, however, that this same company did eventually switch to the tongue and groove method.  Why did they ultimately switch?  Product availability, consumer preference, warping, splintering, or even sealing issues may have had something to do with it.  We may never really know as I have also seen warping and splintering in tongue and groove floors.    

The true take-away from this information goes beyond which method proved to be best.  It comes down to the need for enthusiasts to be acutely aware of differences and prepared to understand what each area can tell us.  Alertness to these details can be extraordinarily useful when determining timeframes of manufacture, rarity features, originality levels, and brand identities. 

In the end, the subject seems to share some similarities with early claims related to the upsetting (tightening) of tires on wooden wheels.  As with the case of tongue and groove floors, some makers seem to have stuck predominantly with one method of tightening tires while others experimented with two or more different directions.  We’ll take a closer look at this topic in an upcoming blog as well.

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