Wednesday, December 19, 2012

When You Care Enough...

I can’t escape some stories.  You know the ones.  Those tragic tales of antique vehicle neglect, oversight or just a plain lack of understanding that allows a piece to deteriorate… those accounts can make us all cringe.  Not long ago, I had another person share about an early horse-drawn wagon he had purchased that – at least when he first saw it – still retained a significant amount of original paint.  The seller, though, thinking he would do the buyer a favor, decided to ‘clean’ the wagon up a bit before the buyer arrived.  Taking a high pressure water hose, he blasted the entire vehicle.  Of course, once the buyer arrived to pick up the purchase, he noted that the wagon looked totally different.  The pressurized water not only took off the stains from mud dauber nests and bird droppings but, also stripped the wagon almost bare of its paint and logos.  It’s yet one more reminder than the presence of an original painted finish cannot be duplicated and is therefore irreplaceable.  I’ll cover more on this element of ‘originality’ in a later blog or feature article as it is increasingly part of collector and enthusiast conversations. 

Not to be outdone, it seems vehicle owners from the late 1800’s also needed to be reminded of the importance of proper care of wood-wheeled wagons and carriages.  Throughout the Wheels That Won The West® archives, there are regular reminders from manufacturers and industry experts as to how to preserve and protect the looks, functionality and resale value of a set of wheels.  With that as a backdrop, we thought we’d share a few common recommendations distributed by multiple 19th century makers as to how to best care for a horse drawn vehicle in use during that time.  We’ve added some additional thoughts in italics after several of the itemized points.

1. The vehicle should be kept in an airy, dry coach house, There should be a moderate amount of light; otherwise the colors will be affected. The windows should be curtained, to avoid having direct sunlight strike upon a carriage.  (Extended direct and even indirect exposure to light can have significant and irreversible effects on original paint and logo transfers) 

2. There should be no communication between the stable and the coach house. The manure heap should also be located as far away from the carriage house as possible. Ammonia fumes crack and destroy varnish, and fade the colors both of painting and lining. Also avoid having a carriage stand near a brick wall, as the dampness from the wall will fade the colors and destroy the varnish.  (Dampness and ammonia can have even more devastating effects than the impact mentioned here on paint and varnish.  These elements will also work to rust, pit and erode most every part of an early wood-wheeled vehicle)

3. Whenever a carriage stands unused for several days, it should be protected by a large cotton cover sufficiently strong to keep off the dust, without altogether excluding the light. Dust, when allowed to settle on a carriage, eats into the varnish. Care should be taken to keep this cover dry. (Dust-free environments are almost impossible to achieve.  Recognizing the enemies of a collector-grade vehicle is the first step to preserving it for generations to come.)

4. Never allow mud to remain long enough to dry on a vehicle or spots and stains may result.

5. While washing a carriage, keep it out of the sun. Use plenty of water, taking great care that it is not driven into the body, to the injury of the lining. Use for the body panels a large, soft sponge; when saturated, squeeze this over the panels, and, by the flowing down of the water, the dirt will soften and harmlessly run off. 

6. The directions just given for washing the body apply as well to the under parts and wheels, but use for the latter a different sponge and chamois than those used on the body. Never use a spoke brush, which, in conjunction with the grit from the road, would act like sand paper on the varnish, scratching it and of course removing the gloss.

7. Never allow water to dry of itself on a carriage, as it would invariably leave stains. Hot water or soap should never be used in washing a varnished surface.

8. Enameled-leather tops, and aprons should be washed with very weak soap and water. No oil should be put on enameled leather.  (a dilution of Murphy’s Oil Soap with distilled water works well)

9. To prevent or destroy moths in woolen linings, use turpentine and camphor. In the case of a closed carriage the simple evaporation from the mixture, when placed in a saucer (the glass being closed,) will be found a certain cure.

10. Inspect the entire carriage occasionally, and whenever a bolt or clip appears to be getting loose, tighten it up with a wrench, and always have little repairs done at once. Should the tires of the wheels get at all slack, so that the joints of the felloes become visible, have them immediately contracted or the wheels may be permanently injured.

11. Examine the axles frequently; keep them well oiled, and see that the washers (for carriages) are in good order. Pure sperm oil is considered the best for lubricating purposes; castor oil will answer; but never sweet oil, as it will gum up. Be careful in replacing the axle-nuts, not to cross the thread or strain them.

12. Leather top carriages should never stand long in the carriage house with the top down. After raising the top, "break" the joints slightly to take off the strain on the webstay and leather. Aprons of every kind should be frequently unfolded, or they will soon spoil.  (In similar fashion, it’s important to remember that wood will expand and contract with variations in temperature and humidity.  Beyond efforts to maintain the proper atmospheric conditions when caring for an antique wagon, it’s good not to overly tighten the box rods to allow for slight flexibility during inactive display or storage). 

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wagons of the Old West – Part II

As I shared last week, there are a number of features seen on many surviving dead axle (sans springs) wagons today that were not traditionally available on early vehicles.  One area of difference is that of the primary assembly methods of early wagons.
Most wagon gears from the 1870’s and before are through-bolted.  That is, the axles, bolsters and sandboards are connected by drilling holes through them and bolting the sections together.  After this timeframe, it is possible to see both through-bolted and ‘clipped’ gears.  Instead of using straight bolts to connect the various gear sections, clipped running gears are essentially held together by a series of U-bolts wrapped around the same areas. 

Through-bolted wagon gear
While some makers persisted in using the older, through-bolted system well into the 20th century, after the 1880’s, many major manufacturers had made the switch to clipped construction within their higher priced offerings as it was touted to provide stronger support.

Clipped wagon gear
Today, there are surviving examples of both types of construction.  Was one truly better than the other?  The answer often lies within the type of terrain and specific uses a vehicle might be subjected to.  Certainly not all wagons needed heavier reinforcement – nor the cost associated with it.  Beyond all of these details, the primary point I’m making is that we owe it to future generations to pass along accurate history.  Recognizing vehicle facts along with specific features commonplace in certain eras is the first step in helping showcase the true history of America’s earliest transportation industry.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Wagons of the Old West - Part I

We’ve all heard the saying, ‘Perception is reality’ but, the truth is, sometimes it isn’t.  Over the last twenty years, I’ve heard a lot of statements made about early western vehicles.  Some are based in documented facts backed up by primary sources while other remarks are merely a repeat of comments heard so often they’re assumed to be true.
Part of the function of any historian is to help point out false perceptions from reality.  After all, while perceptions can fluctuate, true history is fixed.  The same thing occurs with the design of early western vehicles.  Some technologies on vintage wagons were not available until certain timeframes.  Cast thimble skeins, steel skeins, rotating reaches, hub band variations and many other features all had innovative beginnings as they were incorporated into heavy wagons and work vehicles.     

Despite these realities, some of my favorite – even well-researched – western theme movies have persisted in employing 20th century-built wagons on early, mid and later 1800’s sets.  I’ve covered many of the “general” differences between vehicle brands and time periods within several vehicle presentations I’ve given to groups all over the U.S.
Unfortunately, there isn’t enough space in these short blog posts to cover every variation and distinction.  That said, one area that can be briefly examined is the way in which the gear is assembled on an early, dead axle wagon.  There are two general forms of constructing a wagon’s running gear (undercarriage).  One is the ‘through-bolted’ method and the other technique involves ‘clipped’ gears. I’ll cover more on this in next week’s post.  In the meantime, if you have a specific question you’d like answered, feel free to drop us a line at