Surface Imperfections on Wagons

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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The longer you live on this planet, the morethe effects of time, stress, extreme exercise, and even the sun and gravityhave a way of working on the body.  Ithappens to everyone – and everything. Case in point; I’ve never seen an original, period wagon that wasperfect in every respect.  If notproperly protected, gravity will suck an old wagon down into the ground,rotting away felloes and spokes.  Sun,wind, snow, and rain will erode even the hardest wood and heavily degrade ironand steel.  Ultimately, every oldsurvivor is saddled with some type of issue - at the very least, a surfacedeformity.  Whether it’s warped, cracked,or chipped boards, missing and broken hardware, scratched paint, or some otherless-than-perfect part, the age of a piece has a way of shining through. 

Clearly, the passing of time along withnormal wear and tear have a way of leaving their mark on a piece.  That doesn’t necessarily mean the vehicle isof less value.  In fact, the presence ofcertain character traits can be an important part of a vehicle’s provenance, authenticity,and originality levels.  Time tells astory that’s unique to every set of wheels.

Years ago, I attended an estate auctionwhere several antique wagons were sold.  One, in particular, had seen minimal use and,therefore, was in remarkable shape.  Evenso, it was not without blemishes; the most notable of which was an obviousblistering of the varnish in many areas along the sideboards.  Not all old wagons have suffered this fatebut many have.  In this case, the mostlikely culprit causing the imperfection was exposure to radiated heat (thevehicle had been parked near the side of a corrugated tin shed for thirty years).

Blistered varnish is a common sight onmany old wagons that have retained notable levels of original paint.
As it turns out, the challenge of blisteringvarnish and paint was a common problem in the horse-drawn era.  Reinforcing that point, in the August 1913issue of “The Carriage Monthly,” during the peak of that summer’s heat andhumidity, the trade magazine published these details about surface issues inwooden vehicles…

Paint and Varnish Blisters

“At this seasonof the year the painter of vehicles, horse-drawn and horse-less, is usuallyassailed with complaints concerning the above surface disorders; and notinfrequently he is held accountable for their development when, in fact, he maybe, and usually is, as free from responsibility in the matter as the man in themoon.

When asked for acause of a case of paint and varnish blisters it is not an easy thing for apainter to give off-hand, even upon an examination, a definite cause, unless hehas at hand some detailed history of the case. There are a variety of causes for the development of blisters in a newlyfinished surface.  For example, the hotsun of the spring and summer months, if allowed for a considerable length oftime to concentrate upon a recently varnished surface, will raise blisters, andthe more elastic the varnish the more certain the blisters.  A hard drying varnish, by reason of itssmaller proportion of oil, gets out of the way of the sun’s heat quicker.

Because of thesensitiveness of the elastic varnish has arisen the admonition handed downthrough many generations of painters; ‘Wash the varnish early and often withclean, cold water,’ which is a good treatment, by the way.  Other causes of blisters are, briefly;Unseasoned, or sappy, or resinous, wood. Grease or oil upon the surface. In a word, this latter surface condition is about as certain as death incausing blisters.  Blisters come alsofrom hurrying one coat of paint over another before preceding coat is dry.  Sometimes blisters are just simply theoutcropping of a cantankerous coat of paint or color made so by the injectionof an inferior grade of oil or japan into its composition.

The cure forblisters consists mainly in preventing them – in eradicating the sources throughwhich they come.  Occasionally, they canbe punctured and pressed down to a condition not easily noticeable.  Again, and perhaps more frequently, the cureconsists of removing them, resurfacing and revarnishing.”

Not every surviving wagon will have areasof blistered varnish.  Why?  Because some of these vehicles never receiveda coat of varnish while others were better preserved and still more havetotally lost their painted surfaces.

While some may wish a vehicle’s paintedsurface to be perfect, a truly original vehicle hasn’t lived its life in avacuum.  As a result, there will alwaysbe some type of deformity to the original creation. Beyond provenance and authentication benefits, wagons with their original-use surfaces are also highly desirable because they're getting harder to find.  The result is that the natural principles of supply and demand have a way of kicking in and these pieces tend to stand out in a crowd, making them even more desirable.  Justas antique furniture experts will tell you and many car collectors are coming to realize, originality has great value since everypart of an old set of wheels plays a role in telling that vehicle’s lifestory.  When the old is stripped away andreplaced, the original, painted surface will never be seen again.  History, provenance, and generations ofcharacter are forever lost.  So, eventhough a piece may not be perfect, it’s important to carefully consider thelong-term value of a set of wheels before making modern updates to the painted surface.  That said, there are countless vehicles withlittle to no paint and replicating a worn simulation that mirrors what itlikely looked like during its time in the horse-drawn era can be an effectiveinvestment for a number of pieces. 
As we look down the road of this newyear, there are a lot of topics we’re looking forward to discussing.  Among those stories is the fact that 2017 isa year packed with anniversaries related to America’s first transportationindustry.  With that in mind, next week,we’ll talk about the beginnings and history of one of the biggest wagon brandsto ever grace the American frontier.  Seeya then!

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, LLC
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