Measuring Wheel Heights & Track Widths

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Twenty years ago, when my own interestsin western vehicles began to accumulate more questions than I could keep upwith, I started a journey for answers that has led us to countless regions ofthe U.S. Throughout the process, we’ve accumulated a significant number of raredetails and insights into America’s early western vehicles.  The results have driven the Wheels That Won The West® Archives far beyond a casual collection of literature into a realrepository for answers.  That said, thisis a subject that doesn’t surrender secrets easily and, as a result, we still struggleto find elusive vehicles along with a broad array of lost and unknown details.   
In the beginning, the information andlessons came slow.  As time passed,though, it became clear that one of my greatest weaknesses was also a vitalstrength.  Since I was a bare-bonesbeginner, my mind was a blank slate.  Believeit or not, those initial levels of inexperience were a true blessing… (And should serve as encouragement foranyone wanting to know more about this subject. Don’t be intimidated.  Dive in andhold on!)  I was fortunate that Ihadn’t been exposed to best guesses and unsubstantiated claims and opinions.  I hadn’t had a chance to develop preconceivednotions about why, when, how, and where things were done.  Devouring the content of vast amounts oforiginal sales materials, this first-hand schooling from America’s mostlegendary builders helped me look at every aging set of wheels with century-plus-oldeyes.  As the years have passed, thatknowledge has opened huge doors of understanding while the depth of the subjectcontinues to fuel my enthusiasm for even more of what this history can teach. 
DavidSneed, speaking to a group in Santa Ynez, California about early westernwagons.
Collectively, the study of early westernvehicles involves a substantial part of America’s heritage.  As such, it continues to reflect our nation’sbackground as a ‘melting pot’ of civilization. People from all walks of life… men, women, children, doctors, lawyers,bankers, brokers, business owners, CEO’s, mechanics, welders, photographers,historians, curators, electricians, plumbers, builders, farmers, ranchers,athletes, retirees – you name the occupation and age – It’s  a safe bet that I’ve met someone with thatbackground looking for more details on early vehicles.  It’s truly amazing to see such diversity in acrowd of western vehicle enthusiasts. One thing’s for certain, any time these varied groups come together,there are going to be questions.
With that as a backdrop to this week’sblog, I thought I’d share a few basic pieces of information that help uscommunicate this subject more effectively. First, let’s talk about the wheel height of a wagon.  Honestly, there’s more to discuss in this onetopic than what we can get done today. So, we’ll focus on just one aspect... how do you measure the height of awheel?  Okay, right now someone issaying, “Is this guy for real?  Just takea tape and measure it.”  That’s exactlywhat many folks do and often they come up with numbers that don’t coincide withoriginal manufacturer specifications.  Inother words – the measurements can easily be wrong.  One of the more common reasons for inaccuratecalculations is that someone has included the thickness of the tire in thedimension total.  (While it may sound strange in today’s world, the outer metal band onthe wheel was/is referred to as the “tire” on early horse drawn vehicles)  American wagon builders typically measuredwheel heights without including the tire. So, if a catalog stated that a wagon had 52” rear wheels, it willactually measure a bit taller when the thickness of the tire is included.  That said, it’s important to note that theaging process, with its years of wear and tear on an old wagon wheel, can also affectaccurate measurements, requiring consideration when stretching a tape alongsidea wheel. 
Determiningthe correct height of well-worn wheels may require extra attention.
The actual process of measuring woodenwheel heights can encounter other barriers as well.  For instance, since the protrusion of the hubcan prevent the tape from lying perfectly parallel, it’s easy to make a quick‘guesstimate’ with a bent tape that’s less than accurate.  This is especially true of wheel heights thatmight only vary by an inch or so.  In otherwords… Is that rear wheel 52 inches or is it 53 inches?  One of the simpler measuring methods we’veexperienced is to place the leading end of the rule in the center of the skeinlag bolt, then stretch the tape to the outer felloe edge.  If you’re working alone, measuring half ofthe wheel like this and then doubling the amount can be a quick way to learn anaccurate wheel height. Even with proper measurement, examination of original period literature may also be an important part of the process, especially with reference to authentication.  
Accuratewooden wheel height measurements typically do not include the metal tire.
Similarly, accurate track widthmeasurement is important because it not only communicates the correct detailsof a wider or narrower wheel base but, it can also hold potential insights intothe age, rarity, authenticity, and purposes of a vehicle.  Here, the correct way to obtain an accuratetrack width is to measure from the center to center (at the ground) of theright and left wheels on an axle.  Keepin mind that excessively worn skeins, boxings, and wheels can leave the systemout of alignment and make original track specifications more difficult todetermine.  As with the wheel heights,sometimes you may be alone and knowing whether you have the tape centered onthe opposite side tire surface can be tough. As long as the tire edges aren't significantly misshaped, the easiest way is overcome this challenge is to hook the tape under theoutside of one wheel (again at the ground) and extend it to the inside of theopposite wheel.  This renders the samedistance as ‘center to center’ of the tire and is much easier to accomplishwhen help isn’t available. 
Wheel track measurements can convey moreinformation than the track width, itself.
When it comes to antique vehicles, it’ssometimes tough to find even the most basic information such as I’ve justshared.  It’s this type of knowledge,though, that helps us communicate more effectively and understand more about therolling witnesses to our country’s history. All in all, the road to learning is lifelong and full ofopportunity.  Plus, this transportation subjectis filled with some of the world’s most interesting people, places, andexperiences.  So, while you’re out therelooking for answers, keep your eyes wide open and enjoy the ride!
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