Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Collecting Wood Wheeled History

Since I publish this blog on the same day each week it’s inevitable that, as the years pass, some postings will land on Christmas, New Year’s Day, the 4th of July, and other notable dates.  This week, the blog post happens to occur on April 1st.  In the U.S., most know that as “April Fools’ Day.”  The 24 hour timeframe is frequently filled with innocent tomfoolery and other gags played on unsuspecting souls.  Rest easy, I’m not planning any tricks today but, it did seem like a good time to talk about things that can cause us more than a little chagrin with early vehicles.  Maybe, by sharing some of these stories, we can help reduce unfortunate experiences down the road. 

Caveat Emptor

One of the environments that can sometimes invite regrettable events is that of an auction.  While these events can be enjoyable, getting caught up in the atmosphere of competitive bidding has left more than one person with a serious case of “buyer’s remorse.”  Years ago, I was at a sale and ran across a man who had just bought what he had hastily assumed was an original, framed John Deere sign.  He had won the piece in aggressive bidding, only to discover the advertisement was a much cheaper (and common) modern day print.  The last time I saw him, he was trying to unload the short-lived prize for almost anything anyone would give him.

A similar story from another sale centers on what appeared to be a mint condition spring seat for a major wagon brand.  It had gotten my attention as I surveyed the different items scheduled to run through the ring.  Upon closer inspection, though, the seat was not exactly what it appeared to be.  The paint was not original but had been completely re-applied with slightly better than average attention to detail.  For those not focused on the intricacies of originality, it carried the feel of a rare find in premium condition.  The reality was that it was nothing more than a partially restored seat with non-original paint and semi-adequate stenciling.  Yep, someone bought it and paid a hefty sum.  The only explanation I could imagine for the final price being so high was that at least two bidders felt the seat was truly original.  Those instances are hard to watch.       

On a related note, it always surprises me to see a post-1900 vehicle portrayed as an 1800’s piece with no supporting documentation.  Instead of immediately accepting what may well be an honest belief about a set of wheels, it’s important to know the vehicle is being properly represented.  Countless wood-wheeled wagons were built well into the 20th century and some brands were never built in the 19th century.  Reinforcing those points, no major western wagon brand produced vehicles exactly the same way throughout its tenure in the 19th and 20th centuries.  Because of that reality, we’re often able to determine timeframes of manufacture without guesswork.  It’s a significant reason we’ve worked tirelessly over the last two decades to assemble such a large amount of literature in the Wheels That Won The West® collection. Those materials and other period documents and imagery have helped us avoid much of the conjecture surrounding construction dates. 
Ultimately, the best advice I could give any collector is to get to know the vehicle you’re interested in.  Not everyone is going to take the same amount of time studying that set of wheels and the extra attention on your part could save you time, money, and disappointment.    

Vehicle Care

I’m regularly asked how to best care for an antique, wood-wheeled vehicle.  Most times that question comes with preconditions like… I don’t have a dust-free, humidity-controlled, temperature-monitored, and UV-restricted facility but, otherwise, how should I care for my vehicle(s)?  First off, these folks should be commended because they’re asking before – not after – something negative has been done to the vehicle.  That said, of the four environmental points mentioned above, each is important to recognize and do our best to attain. 

One of the more common questions I’m asked is, “Is it okay to re-paint the vehicle?”  That’s a touchy point in that there is a lot to be evaluated first.  For instance – How rare is the piece?  What condition is it in?  How much original paint is still on the vehicle?  What levels of originality does it possess?  What is the vehicle’s history or provenance?  Has it been evaluated by an authority on early vehicles?  What is the objective and purpose behind re-painting?  What level or quality of re-painting would be attempted?  Answers to each of these questions (and more) are crucial as the information will help make the final decision.  As a general rule, it’s good practice to move slowly in this area.  After all, it’s impossible to undo many of the most well-intentioned efforts and originality can be a valuable asset to lose.

Another question I am asked involves the use of polyurethane.   Unlike the previous question on paint, this one gets a quick and sharp reply from me… DON’T DO IT.  Polyurethane may bring out more saturated paint colors and might initially be deemed as ‘pretty.’  Nonetheless, someone will likely rue the day that it was applied.  Why?  Because this polymer hardens significantly while penetrating and bonding with the paint.  It can turn brittle, eventually acting like a paint stripper, peeling the coloring right off of the vehicle and leaving only the bare wood.  It may take a while for the process to begin, but it has a way of irreversibly taking hold.  Below is a photo showing a seat after a few years of polyurethane working its magic.

A sad sight; this image shows part of a wagon spring seat that once had a significant amount of original paint.

Other advice on storing collector grade vehicles is to keep them away from varmints of all sorts.  I’ve seen damage done by a variety of critters; birds, squirrels, goats, horses, cows, cats, rats, mice, and all sorts of insects.  At the end of the day, to be a better steward of history, it really does come down to what you know and how that information is applied.  Knowledge is key to saving irreplaceable history and it can also keep embarrassment from camping at your door.  

Week in and week out, it’s our hope that these tidbits of info can help prevent even the best of intentions from turning into a bad April Fool’s joke. 

Have a good week!

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.