Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Choosing Raw Materials for Wooden Wagons

Back in February, I wrote a blog outlining the types of wood often used in early farm, freight, ranch, business, and military wagons.  As with each of the elements in these antique sets of wheels, most builders were not in the habit of haphazardly selecting random wood stock.  Instead, these renewable resources were carefully evaluated and employed in specific areas for particular purposes.  Clearly, since the majority of a period wagon was wood, it was essential for the timber to be chosen and prepared properly.  Only through attention to these details was the vehicle reasonably assured to meet the needs and expectations of the user.    

So, how did a builder determine which wood to use?  Below are at least ten criteria that would have been factored in by early builders.

  • Strength – While this feature may seem obvious, it was far from the only consideration.  Beyond the ability to bear up under the loads and stresses placed upon it, the wood in wagons also had to work hand-in-hand with other features such as elasticity, weight, and durability to optimize the muscle it possessed.  In fact, too much rigidity and stiffness in certain areas could actually accelerate weakness while contributing to a shortened lifespan for other parts of the vehicle. 
  • Cost / Affordability – As with virtually any manufacturing process today, an element of give-and-take was often applied to what went into a quality wagon.  Properly seasoned, higher grade wood stock was (and still is) more expensive.  In order to be competitive at every level, some makers offered multiple grades of finished work while others might try and pass off one class of wood for another.  For this reason, some major builders would display a vehicle at fairs and exhibitions without paint or finish.  It was a way to reinforce a manufacturer’s peerless commitment to quality while casting doubt on the construction integrity of others.  The age-old adage, “You get what you pay for,” held just as true then as now.
  • Weight – While denser woods often translate into greater strength, they also tend to have heavier weight.  Even though this bulk could be helpful with particularly heavy loads and other stresses, too much mass could also make the vehicle even harder to pull, putting unnecessary pressure and strain on the team.  As a result, these early vehicles were constructed of both hard and soft woods.  The designs were engineered to gain optimum strength and durability without pointless weight. 
  • Elasticity – As mentioned above in the comments related to ‘strength,’ period builders expected some flex and give, even in the densest of woods.  It was a need further emphasized when early iron axles were associated with wagon wheels breaking down on frontier trails.  As surmised in Mark Gardner’s book, “Wagons for the Santa Fe Trade,” it is quite likely these axles were too rigid and, as a result, transferred too much shock to the wheels.  
  • Soundness / Durability – Weak and brittle wood had no place in horse drawn transportation – especially in heavy wagons.  Even so, these concerns did not always originate with a particular type of wood.  Other issues related to weather and insect damage could also impact the nature of wood stock.  Even quality woods could become a victim of insect infestation.  Some early makers, like Joseph Murphy, insisted that their timber be harvested when the sap was down and were equally concerned about issues from wood boring insects.**  Other builders chose wood like Bois d’ arc (Osage Orange) due to its natural resistance to insect and water-related damage. 
  • Availability – During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, America’s forests were under heavy pressure by countless industries.  Commerce related to transportation, housing, packaging, undertaking, construction, farming, fishing, military needs, and so much more relied on a healthy supply of timber.  With so much of everyone’s daily life tied to wood, shortages occurred.  Some builders even purchased huge tracts of timber to ensure availability for themselves while locking out access to competitors. 
  • Comparisons to Other Builders – Similar to today’s auto industry, buyers during the horse drawn age were educated as to who offered what features in a vehicle.  Competition was keen and perceived advantages touted by one builder were often copied or emulated by others.  
  • Finish / Workability – A pleasing exterior finish on a particular piece of wood could depend on a number of things, including the wood quality or grade.  Wood prone to splintering or unsightly knots would have been objectionable to many builders and buyers. 
  • Area of Use / Purpose – As I’ve shared before, different wood types were chosen for use within different areas on early horse drawn vehicles.  Axles regularly used denser wood types than what would have been chosen for boxes.  This blending of different woods helped optimize a vehicle’s strength without adding unnecessary and overly cumbersome weight. 
  • Experience & Customer Acceptance – Consumer familiarity is always key to any accepted feature on a product.  Whereas many early wagon buyers would have been familiar and comfortable with white oak or black birch hubs, other woods occasionally used for hubs - like gum and elm - may not have enjoyed the same comfort levels with all buyers. 

Ultimately, there were a variety of woods used in the various brands of antique wooden wagons.  Some choices were driven by the economics of merely adequate performance and regional availability while others were chosen as the most reliable wood for a particular part.  Understanding these distinctions is not only helpful for restoration and preservation purposes but it also gives us greater appreciation for the marketing and manufacturing expertise that went into every one of these wood-wheeled workhorses.  

** Wheels That Won The West® Archives 

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