Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Restoring Wheeled History – A Few Things To Consider

It’s not unusual for us to receive hundreds of questions each year related to horse-drawn vehicles.  Many of those inquiries focus on details connected to the restoration of a particular set of wheels.  Paint colors, striping, design contours, logos, dealer info, and other considerations are among the particulars that can change between vehicles and years.  As a result, for any authentic work to be done, it’s important to know as much as possible about the vehicle while understanding the ramifications of any work engaged. 

As with the restoration of an antique piece of furniture, or even an extraordinarily significant car or truck, the process of correctly refurbishing a wagon or western vehicle should be approached with great care.  After all, with any valued work of functional art, architecture, or history, there is an irreplaceable heritage contained within the parts of the whole.  Stress cracks, age stains, wear marks, and decades of patina all tell a story.  Covering up or removing those connections to yesterday – even with a well-meant restoration – might negatively affect resale values and historic visual appeal.  Ultimately, it’s important to first determine if preservation or conservation efforts might be a better approach. 

Preservation of a piece describes efforts to keep it the same with minimal (if any) changes to the structure.  Exceptionally rare and historically significant pieces are often the ideal candidates for the limited impact of preservation work.

Similarly, Conservation of a set of wheels means that the vehicle should remain as unaltered as possible.  Any repairs or replacement parts should match the original and be removable or reversible in the future if needed.  The maximum amount of original wood, paint, and metal should be retained.

By definition, Restoration involves the bringing back of a piece to a former condition.  While this direction often involves the most change to the vehicle, it should also be entered into with care.  Aptly approached, restoration of a wood-wheeled vehicle requires comprehensive knowledge of the vehicle parts and whole; ultimately ensuring that all elements are faithfully representative of the vehicle as originally constructed.

Retaining the hard-earned look, character, and patina of this nineteenth century stage wagon, the careful conservation work on this rare piece allows it to faithfully represent its last-used condition in California’s gold country.

Among the points that are important to all aspects of preservation, conservation, and restoration projects are...  

1.      Authenticating the brand & maker – There are numerous variables that can make this task a real challenge.  While some identities are fairly easy to point out, others are much more complicated.  Why?  Well, over the years, some vehicle parts have been assimilated with those of other brands, making it crucial to view multiple areas for correct assessments.  In other instances, the primary maker may be known but the actual brand could be more obscure.  Builders like International Harvester, for example, had many separate brands with similar to exact features.  In these types of circumstances, it takes careful, detailed study over multiple decades of manufacture to hone in on the correct brand.  Additionally, even if an original brand name is still visible on the vehicle, it’s important to realize that there often were numerous brands with the same name.  Smith, Whitewater, Keller, Miller, Pioneer, Rushford, and many others are just a few names that had multiple makers. 

2.      Confirming the time frame of manufacture -  This is crucial to analysis of a wagon that's missing all or most of its paint.  Different time frames were often met with different paint colors, striping, seat designs, decalcomines, hardware, wheel designs, gear configurations, wood types & sizes, and other features.  Placing the wrong paint scheme on a vehicle is a poor reflection on the finished piece.

3.      Identifying the type of vehicle – This may seem like an obvious statement but, oftentimes, there is a noticeable difference between the way a farm wagon was painted compared to a very similar vehicle like a mountain wagon, potato wagon, rack bed wagon, or another related design.  As a result, it's important to ensure that all work corresponds to the vehicle type.

4.      Documentation of the areas of originality – Over the decades, I’ve seen a lot of mismatched elements on wagons and western vehicles.  It might be something as small as a box rod or something larger like wheels substituted from another brand or maybe even the wrong doubletree/singletree design.  In the old days, it was easier to assume an old set of wheels was exactly what it appeared to be – an original relic with an untainted connection to days gone by.  Nowadays, all bets are off.  Making things even more complicated, it’s fairly common to see Canadian vehicles mixed in with American wagons as well as almost any imaginable combination of brands thrown together to make one wagon.  Knowing who did what, when, how, and where can be invaluable to assuring you have what you think you do. 

5.      Recording the level of completeness – This can include the notation of missing or damaged pieces.  It’s one more area that can be difficult to determine, especially if primary source confirmations are scarce. 

6.      Chronicling the dealership / region where sold – This information can be especially helpful when determining provenance, time frames of manufacture, and authenticity levels.

7.      Determining wheel, skein, & track sizes – Again, these elements help share an important voice of the vehicle.  Each offers another set of clues to help confirm authenticity, originality, and proper design features. 

This original Peter Schuttler brand wagon may have never been used.  It was found complete with triple box, tongue, doubletree, singletrees, stay chains, and neck yoke.  Finds this inclusive are hard to come by in the twenty-first century.

Due to the continuing escalation of certain vehicle values, we encourage careful consideration prior to changing any aspect of a wooden wagon’s condition.  Original surfaces cannot be duplicated once they are changed.  Valuable provenance and historical integrity as well as the vehicle’s impact on future generations are always important thoughts to reflect upon before deciding which approach is better... Preservation, Conservation, or Restoration?  

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