What's The Rub? Protecting Wagons/Western Vehicles

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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No matter where you look on an old horse drawn wagon or westernvehicle, you’re likely to see some type of metal attached nearby.  While each piece of iron and steel can havedifferent – and even multiple purposes – the most common function of manyforged and hardened parts is that of protection...  Protection against excessive wear and tear aswell as a safeguard against unnecessary wood stress and fatigue.  Ultimately, this ‘body armor’ was engineeredto deliver greater durability and less maintenance issues.

These and other technologies inside an old wooden vehicle are just part of the intrigue any early set of wheels can hold.  Withthat in mind, below are a few typical areas of protection as they wereaddressed by numerous wagon builders. If you look close at virtually any 19th or early 20th century piece, you canoften see even more areas where the maker placed fortifications.

Rub irons – These are the cast metal (and sometimes angle iron) pieces boltedor riveted to the lower box sides behind the front wheels.  The primary purpose of these metal plates was to protect the box from damage when the wheels turned too tight.  Every rub iron was expected to eventually wear out.  As a result, they were designedto be easily removed, reused, and replaced.

Rub irons were crafted in a number of different formsfor multiple purposes.
Tongue irons – The tongue could receive considerable damage from numerous sourcesincluding repetitive rubbing, chipping, and gouging from the action of thedoubletree, singletrees, draft animals, and fifth chains.  As a result, it’s not uncommon to seeextensive ironing applied to appropriate areas on the tongue.
Box chafe irons – These flat metal plateswere sandwiched between the bolster stakes and the box sides to help preventundue chafing on the box by the standards.

Notall wagon makers used chafe irons on the box but many builders did include amyriad of similar quality details throughout the designs.
Box top irons – The thinner top edges (and sometimes the ends) of a wagon’ssideboards and end gates were often fitted with these narrow metal strips.  The objective was to reduce or eliminateunnecessary board fractures and wear as materials were loaded, unloaded, andpositioned on top of the boards.  

Reach boxes – Fitted between the rear axle and bolster, many makers utilized arectangular frame of either cast iron or fabricated sheet iron around thereach.  The purpose was to help preventthe reach from wearing against the axle and bolster.

Bycovering the tops of sideboards and end gates with metal strips, wagon boxeswere protected from unnecessary damage during normal use.
Reachboxes were designed to help preserve the structural integrity of the reach, rear bolster, and rear axle in a wagon gear.
Encased hubs – Wooden hubs encased inmetal were a common practice in the 19th and early 20th centuries.  While only a few farm wagon builders areknown to have used similar designs, there were numerous manufacturers oflighter vehicles that employed metal clad wooden hubs.
Clouts – Prior to, and sometimes after, the invention of the thimble skein,the ends of wagon axles were fitted with ‘clouts.’  These metal plates were attached to the topand bottom of each axle end to provide easier draft while also protecting thewooden axle from excessive wear. 

Sand board andbolster plates – These pieces were engineered to take asignificant amount of punishment and were typically thicker than most othermetal on a wagon.  They were configuredin a variety of ways.  Some were heavyflat bars while others had a cup and saucer design.  Still others looked more like a fifth wheel,offering greater protection for the king bolt.

Sway bar, reach,& slider irons – In many dead axle wagons, there are multipleparts of the front hound that are designed to move back and forth over thereach as the front wheels turn.  Portionsof wooden pieces in these areas are typically plated with metal to helppreserve the structural integrity of the reach and hound sections.

Theforward hounds of a wagon were often clad with metal strips as shown above.  This extra 'ironing' helped guard againstexcessive wear and tear on the wood.
Reach plates – Some reach plates are designed with additional iron framework toprevent the rear hounds from rubbing and wearing against the reach.
As I mentioned in the opening to this blog, there are numerous otherareas of early western vehicles that received “ironing” to protect, strengthen,and underscore the quality of a particular piece.  Clearly, the blacksmith shops had plenty tokeep them busy in the production of these vehicles.  From the mountains, rivers, and plains to thedeserts, valleys, forests, and fields, period western transports neededprotection.  In fact, from the time theyleft the shop of a specific maker, these heavier wheels were regularlysubjected to torturous terrain, burdensome cargo, and extensive exposure to theraw elements of the outdoors.  By thevery nature of their functions, they were expected to take a beating and keeprolling with minimal maintenance.  It wasa tall order and many did it surprisingly well.

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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