Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Surface Imperfections on Wagons

The longer you live on this planet, the more the effects of time, stress, extreme exercise, and even the sun and gravity have a way of working on the body.  It happens to everyone – and everything.  Case in point; I’ve never seen an original, period wagon that was perfect in every respect.  If not properly protected, gravity will suck an old wagon down into the ground, rotting away felloes and spokes.  Sun, wind, snow, and rain will erode even the hardest wood and heavily degrade iron and steel.  Ultimately, every old survivor is saddled with some type of issue - at the very least, a surface deformity.  Whether it’s warped, cracked, or chipped boards, missing and broken hardware, scratched paint, or some other less-than-perfect part, the age of a piece has a way of shining through. 

Clearly, the passing of time along with normal wear and tear have a way of leaving their mark on a piece.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the vehicle is of less value.  In fact, the presence of certain character traits can be an important part of a vehicle’s provenance, authenticity, and originality levels.  Time tells a story that’s unique to every set of wheels.

Years ago, I attended an estate auction where several antique wagons were sold.  One, in particular, had seen minimal use and, therefore, was in remarkable shape.  Even so, it was not without blemishes; the most notable of which was an obvious blistering of the varnish in many areas along the sideboards.  Not all old wagons have suffered this fate but many have.  In this case, the most likely culprit causing the imperfection was exposure to radiated heat (the vehicle had been parked near the side of a corrugated tin shed for thirty years).

Blistered varnish is a common sight on many old wagons that have retained notable levels of original paint.

As it turns out, the challenge of blistering varnish and paint was a common problem in the horse-drawn era.  Reinforcing that point, in the August 1913 issue of “The Carriage Monthly,” during the peak of that summer’s heat and humidity, the trade magazine published these details about surface issues in wooden vehicles…

Paint and Varnish Blisters

“At this season of the year the painter of vehicles, horse-drawn and horse-less, is usually assailed with complaints concerning the above surface disorders; and not infrequently he is held accountable for their development when, in fact, he may be, and usually is, as free from responsibility in the matter as the man in the moon.

When asked for a cause of a case of paint and varnish blisters it is not an easy thing for a painter to give off-hand, even upon an examination, a definite cause, unless he has at hand some detailed history of the case.  There are a variety of causes for the development of blisters in a newly finished surface.  For example, the hot sun of the spring and summer months, if allowed for a considerable length of time to concentrate upon a recently varnished surface, will raise blisters, and the more elastic the varnish the more certain the blisters.  A hard drying varnish, by reason of its smaller proportion of oil, gets out of the way of the sun’s heat quicker.

Because of the sensitiveness of the elastic varnish has arisen the admonition handed down through many generations of painters; ‘Wash the varnish early and often with clean, cold water,’ which is a good treatment, by the way.  Other causes of blisters are, briefly; Unseasoned, or sappy, or resinous, wood.  Grease or oil upon the surface.  In a word, this latter surface condition is about as certain as death in causing blisters.  Blisters come also from hurrying one coat of paint over another before preceding coat is dry.  Sometimes blisters are just simply the outcropping of a cantankerous coat of paint or color made so by the injection of an inferior grade of oil or japan into its composition.

The cure for blisters consists mainly in preventing them – in eradicating the sources through which they come.  Occasionally, they can be punctured and pressed down to a condition not easily noticeable.  Again, and perhaps more frequently, the cure consists of removing them, resurfacing and revarnishing.”

Not every surviving wagon will have areas of blistered varnish.  Why?  Because some of these vehicles never received a coat of varnish while others were better preserved and still more have totally lost their painted surfaces.

While some may wish a vehicle’s painted surface to be perfect, a truly original vehicle hasn’t lived its life in a vacuum.  As a result, there will always be some type of deformity to the original creation. Beyond provenance and authentication benefits, wagons with their original-use surfaces are also highly desirable because they're getting harder to find.  The result is that the natural principles of supply and demand have a way of kicking in and these pieces tend to stand out in a crowd, making them even more desirable.  Just as antique furniture experts will tell you and many car collectors are coming to realize, originality has great value since every part of an old set of wheels plays a role in telling that vehicle’s life story.  

When the old is stripped away and replaced, the original, painted surface will never be seen again.  History, provenance, and generations of character are forever lost.  So, even though a piece may not be perfect, it’s important to carefully consider the long-term value of a set of wheels before making modern updates to the painted surface.  That said, there are countless vehicles with little to no paint and replicating a worn simulation that mirrors what it likely looked like during its time in the horse-drawn era can be an effective investment for a number of pieces. 

As we look down the road of this new year, there are a lot of topics we’re looking forward to discussing.  Among those stories is the fact that 2017 is a year packed with anniversaries related to America’s first transportation industry.  With that in mind, next week, we’ll talk about the beginnings and history of one of the biggest wagon brands to ever grace the American frontier.  See ya then!

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