Collecting Wood Wheeled History

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
Published on:
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, LLC
Share This Blog:
Since I publish this blog on the sameday each week it’s inevitable that, as the years pass, some postings will landon Christmas, New Year’s Day, the 4th of July, and other notable dates.  This week, the blog post happens to occur onApril 1st.  In the U.S., most know thatas “April Fools’ Day.”  The 24 hourtimeframe is frequently filled with innocent tomfoolery and other gags playedon unsuspecting souls.  Rest easy, I’mnot planning any tricks today but, it did seem like a good time to talk aboutthings that can cause us more than a little chagrin with early vehicles.  Maybe, by sharing some of these stories, wecan help reduce unfortunate experiences down the road. 


One of the environments that cansometimes invite regrettable events is that of an auction.  While these events can be enjoyable, gettingcaught up in the atmosphere of competitive bidding has left more than oneperson with a serious case of “buyer’s remorse.”  Years ago, I was at a sale and ran across aman who had just bought what he had hastily assumed was an original, framedJohn Deere sign.  He had won the piece inaggressive bidding, only to discover the advertisement was a much cheaper (andcommon) modern day print.  The last timeI saw him, he was trying to unload the short-lived prize for almost anythinganyone would give him.

A similar story from another salecenters on what appeared to be a mint condition spring seat for a major wagonbrand.  It had gotten my attention as Isurveyed the different items scheduled to run through the ring.  Upon closer inspection, though, the seat wasnot exactly what it appeared to be.  Thepaint was not original but had been completely re-applied with slightly betterthan average attention to detail.  Forthose not focused on the intricacies of originality, it carried the feel of a rarefind in premium condition.  The realitywas that it was nothing more than a partially restored seat with non-originalpaint and semi-adequate stenciling.  Yep,someone bought it and paid a hefty sum. The only explanation I could imagine for the final price being so highwas that at least two bidders felt the seat was truly original.  Those instances are hard to watch.       

On a related note, it always surprisesme to see a post-1900 vehicle portrayed as an 1800’s piece with no supportingdocumentation.  Instead of immediatelyaccepting what may well be an honest belief about a set of wheels, it’simportant to know the vehicle is being properly represented.  Countless wood-wheeled wagons were built wellinto the 20th century and some brands were never built in the 19th century.  Reinforcing those points, no major westernwagon brand produced vehicles exactly the same way throughout its tenure in the19th and 20th centuries.  Because of thatreality, we’re often able to determine timeframes of manufacture without guesswork.  It’s a significant reason we’ve workedtirelessly over the last two decades to assemble such a large amount of literaturein the Wheels That Won The West® collection. Those materials and other period documents and imagery havehelped us avoid much of the conjecture surrounding construction dates. 

Ultimately, the best advice I could giveany collector is to get to know the vehicle you’re interested in.  Not everyone is going to take the same amountof time studying that set of wheels and the extra attention on your part couldsave you time, money, and disappointment.   


I’m regularly asked how to best care foran antique, wood-wheeled vehicle.  Mosttimes that question comes with preconditions like… I don’t have a dust-free,humidity-controlled, temperature-monitored, and UV-restricted facility but,otherwise, how should I care for my vehicle(s)? First off, these folks should be commended because they’re asking before– not after – something negative has been done to the vehicle.  That said, of the four environmental pointsmentioned above, each is important to recognize and do our best to attain. 

One of the more common questions I’masked is, “Is it okay to re-paint the vehicle?” That’s a touchy point in that there is a lot to be evaluated first.  For instance – How rare is the piece?  What condition is it in?  How much original paint is still on thevehicle?  What levels of originality doesit possess?  What is the vehicle’shistory or provenance?  Has it beenevaluated by an authority on early vehicles? What is the objective and purpose behind re-painting?  What level or quality of re-painting would beattempted?  Answers to each of thesequestions (and more) are crucial as the information will help make the finaldecision.  As a general rule, it’s goodpractice to move slowly in this area.  Afterall, it’s impossible to undo many of the most well-intentioned efforts andoriginality can be a valuable asset to lose.

Another question I am asked involves theuse of polyurethane.   Unlike theprevious question on paint, this one gets a quick and sharp reply from me…DON’T DO IT.  Polyurethane may bring outmore saturated paint colors and might initially be deemed as ‘pretty.’  Nonetheless, someone will likely rue the daythat it was applied.  Why?  Because this polymer hardens significantlywhile penetrating and bonding with the paint. It can turn brittle, eventually acting like a paint stripper, peelingthe coloring right off of the vehicle and leaving only the bare wood.  It may take a while for the process to begin,but it has a way of irreversibly taking hold. Below is a photo showing a seat after a few years of polyurethaneworking its magic.

A sad sight; this image shows part of a wagon spring seat that once had a significant amount of original paint.
Other advice on storing collector gradevehicles is to keep them away from varmints of all sorts.  I’ve seen damage done by a variety of critters;birds, squirrels, goats, horses, cows, cats, rats, mice, and all sorts of insects.  At the end of the day, to be a better stewardof history, it really does come down to what you know and how that informationis applied.  Knowledge is key to saving irreplaceablehistory and it can also keep embarrassment from camping at your door.  
Week in and week out, it’s our hope that thesetidbits of info can help prevent even the best of intentions from turning intoa bad April Fool’s joke. 

Have a good week!

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.
Go Top