Choosing Raw Materials for Wooden Wagons

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Back in February, I wrote a blogoutlining the types of wood oftenused in early farm, freight, ranch, business, and military wagons.  As with each of the elements in these antiquesets of wheels, most builders were not in the habit of haphazardly selecting randomwood stock.  Instead, these renewableresources were carefully evaluated and employed in specific areas for particularpurposes.  Clearly, since the majority ofa period wagon was wood, it was essential for the timber to be chosen andprepared properly.  Only through attentionto these details was the vehicle reasonably assured to meet the needs andexpectations of the user.    

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

  • Strength – While thisfeature may seem obvious, it was far from the only consideration.  Beyond the ability to bear up under the loadsand stresses placed upon it, the wood in wagons also had to work hand-in-handwith other features such as elasticity, weight, and durability to optimize themuscle it possessed.  In fact, too much rigidityand stiffness in certain areas could actually accelerate weakness whilecontributing to a shortened lifespan for other parts of the vehicle. 
  • Cost/ Affordability– As with virtually any manufacturing process today, an element ofgive-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 orderto be competitive at every level, some makers offered multiple grades offinished work while others might try and pass off one class of wood foranother.  For this reason, some major builderswould display a vehicle at fairs and exhibitions without paint orfinish.  It was a way to reinforce amanufacturer’s peerless commitment to quality while casting doubt on the constructionintegrity of others.  The age-old adage,“You get what you pay for,” held just as true then as now.
  • Weight – While denserwoods often translate into greater strength, they also tend to have heavierweight.  Even though this bulk could behelpful with particularly heavy loads and other stresses, too much mass couldalso make the vehicle even harder to pull, putting unnecessary pressure andstrain on the team.  As a result, theseearly vehicles were constructed of both hard and soft woods.  The designs were engineered to gain optimumstrength and durability without pointless weight. 
  • Elasticity – As mentionedabove in the comments related to ‘strength,’ period builders expected some flexand give, even in the densest of woods. It was a need further emphasized when early iron axles were associated withwagon wheels breaking down on frontier trails. As surmised in Mark Gardner’s book, “Wagons for the Santa Fe Trade,” itis quite likely these axles were too rigid and, as a result, transferred too much shock tothe wheels.  
  • Soundness/ Durability– Weak and brittle wood had no place in horse drawn transportation – especiallyin 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 avictim of insect infestation.  Some earlymakers, like Joseph Murphy, insisted that their timber be harvested when thesap 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-relateddamage. 
  • Availability – During thelate 19th and early 20th centuries, America’s forestswere 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 oftimber.  With so much of everyone’s dailylife tied to wood, shortages occurred. Some builders even purchased huge tracts of timber to ensureavailability for themselves while locking out access to competitors. 
  • Comparisonsto Other Builders– Similar to today’s auto industry, buyers during the horse drawn age wereeducated as to who offered what features in a vehicle.  Competition was keen and perceived advantagestouted 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 anumber of things, including the wood quality or grade.  Wood prone to splintering or unsightly knotswould have been objectionable to many builders and buyers. 
  • Areaof Use / Purpose– As I’ve shared before, different wood types were chosen for use withindifferent areas on early horse drawn vehicles. Axles regularly used denser wood types than what would have been chosenfor boxes.  This blending of differentwoods helped optimize a vehicle’s strength without adding unnecessary andoverly cumbersome weight. 
  • Experience& Customer Acceptance – Consumer familiarity is always key toany accepted feature on a product.  Whereasmany early wagon buyers would have been familiar and comfortable with white oakor black birch hubs, other woods occasionally used for hubs - like gum and elm - may not haveenjoyed the same comfort levels with all buyers. 
Ultimately, there were a variety ofwoods used in the various brands of antique wooden wagons.  Some choices were driven by the economics of merelyadequate performance and regional availability while others were chosen as the mostreliable wood for a particular part. Understanding these distinctions is not only helpful for restoration andpreservation purposes but it also gives us greater appreciation for the marketingand manufacturing expertise that went into every one of these wood-wheeledworkhorses.  ** Wheels That Won The West® Archives 

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives.
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