Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Western Vehicle Wheels

Most modern day wheelwrights will tell you that the complexity of wooden wheels can be deceiving.  I mean, they look simple enough – just some pre-cut, shaped, and measured wood fitted together and bound up with steel bands.  Can’t be that much to it, right?  Wrong.  The subject is so deep that 19th and early 20th century practitioners had multiple, regularly-issued publications devoted to covering the continual challenges, designs, and intricacies of the craft. 

Like other areas of a western vehicle, an early wooden wheel can be divided into the three primary areas of wood, paint, and metal.  That’s the end of the simplicity.  So, if you were hoping you’d learn all there is to know about wooden wagon and coach wheels from this week’s blog, you’re about to be disappointed.  As with so much early vehicle history, there’s too much involved in this field of study to treat it lightly.  That said, the first step to fully appreciating any subject is to better understand its depth.  So, hold on.  We’re about to dive head first into an extensive and complicated trade.

The complexity of early wagon wheels is reinforced by numerous 19th and early 20th century patents vowing improvements on previous designs.


Have you ever wondered why hub lengths, hub diameters, hub bands, spoke positions, and spoke fittings are sometimes different?  How about the design of felloes – What dictates their size and why are some wheels engineered with bent felloes and others are cut?  With cut felloes, why are there ‘usually’ only two spokes per felloe?  Have you ever seen a wheel with one spoke per felloe?  Yes, it happened.  In fact, it had several purposes and it could be a clue pointing to a particular maker. 

Ever found yourself wondering, “What are the advantages and disadvantages of the different styles of wheels?”  Do you know the differences between Warner hubs, Sarven hubs, Shell band hubs, Compressed band hubs, Iron Clad hubs, Archibald hubs, and regular ol’ wooden hubs.  These details are important as they represent a significant part of any early vehicle’s personality and provenance.  Clearly, there’s a lot going on beyond the surface of an old set of wheels.  Hence the popularity of period publications like The Blacksmith & Wheelwright, The Spokesman, The Hub, The Carriage Monthly and numerous other early books and periodicals. 

The Blacksmith & Wheelwright was a well-known trade magazine for U.S. vehicle builders during the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.

Wooden wheels also need the correct pitch, gather, dish, size, fit, strength, elasticity, and resilience.  In other words, while different wood types, sizes, and shapes are used in particular areas, the whole design must be properly positioned and balanced to run free, true, strong, and durable.  Reinforcing these standards, most period builders boasted of how little draft was required to pull their wagon.  Of course, none of this overview gets into the equally complicated topics related to the various cast and steel skein designs, roller bearings, steel axle spindles, or other types of surfaces the wheel boxings (inner wheel casings) were fitted to.

One of the more prominent wheelwright shops in the U.S. is Hansen Wheel &Wagon Shop in Letcher, South Dakota.  According to Doug Hansen, his team will build, repair, and sell more than 100 sets of wheels in the course of a year.  From stagecoaches, cannons, carriages, and hitch wagons to farm, military, and chuck wagons, it’s a commitment that requires a solid understanding of the vast technology in so many wooden wheel designs. 

Likewise, early builders recognized that wheels were the literal foundation of a vehicle and, as such, were specifically engineered to retain the right support and performance for the entire piece.  That dedication to quality appeared in a variety of forms; each recognizing that no other part of a western vehicle is more vital to the whole than the wheel.  From tire and spoke rivets to bolts, dowels, bands, channels, and a seemingly endless array of patents, every wooden wheel is full of innovation, purpose, and expertise.  It’s literally ‘the way they rolled.’ 

We’ll dissect the wheel in more detail in a later blog but felt this overview would be a good first look at some of the complexities involved with early wooden wheels.

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