Water Wagon!

Detail puts a shine on handcrafted Avery water wagon.

a 1916 Avery Steam engine

This 1916 16 hp Avery steam traction engine was pulled out of a Kansas riverbed; the Avery water wagon was handcrafted by Ted McNamara and Jody Hicks.

Photo by Nikki Rajala

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When Ted McNamara and Jody Hicks decided to find an Avery water wagon to pair with a 1916 Avery steam engine salvaged from the Republican River in Kansas, they knew it’d be a major undertaking. What they hadn’t figured on was building the piece from the ground up. Using a black-and-white 1916 Avery catalog, that’s exactly what they did — and the finished product is stunning.

Members of the Nowthen (Minn.) Historical Power Assn. — including Ted and Jody — recovered the 1916 16 hp steam engine from Kansas in 2000; a handsome and thorough restoration was completed in 2007 (see Rescuing a 1916 16 hp Avery Steam Engine from the Republican River). Later, Ted became captivated by the idea of a matching water wagon.

First he found a 1916 Avery catalog on the Internet. “Then,” he says, “as luck would have it, I saw a Standard Oil fuel tank on wooden supports on trucks with steel wheels sold during an auction at the Nowthen show.”

The buyer, who wanted only the tank, left the trucks. Ted gathered up the pile and took it home. “It just lay there, all rotted,” he says. “The information in the Avery booklet said you could just buy the tank to put on your own trucks, or you could buy one complete with Avery trucks and everything. So I thought, what chance is there of finding the bottom part with a buckboard seat and everything? That’s how the whole thing got started.”

“Just like the restoration of the 16 hp Avery, the wagon was a labor of love,” Jody admits. “It was our desire to have something we could pull through a parade with the Avery steam engine. When Ted ran across that really bad set of axles laying out at the threshing show grounds after the consignment auction, the idea of building an Avery water wagon came to life.”

One major rule

The restorers had the illustration from the 1916 catalog, but that’s all they had. And even that document told only part of the story: The illustration showed one side of the “Avery Full Water Front Steel Tank.” The restoration process built up steam slowly.

“Ted and I live by one major rule on projects like this,” Jody explains. “Plan it out thoroughly so we only have to do it once. We spent a lot of time figuring size, dimensions, how would we do all of this. It was a great time, planning. That’s the part I loved the best: the actual engineering and designing.”

Work got underway in earnest about three years ago, beginning with the usable parts from the Standard Oil trucks. “It was in rough shape,” Ted says. “There wasn’t one piece of wood we could use again because it had all rotted, so the dimensions of the wood were off. It had shrunk, so when it measured 2-3/4 inches, it was probably originally 3 inches, so we did the best forensic work we could about guessing the size of some of the pieces.”

Research indicated that a wide variety of wood was used in building water wagons. “So we ended up using white oak that we had cut into the general shape at Nowthen,” Ted says. “Using the sawmill at the show, we cut the pieces down to close diameters, then cleaned it, formed it and shaped it. We made the buckboard seat and footrest, sideboards and new axles. Forming those wood pieces is what took the longest, that and the riveting. I don’t have woodworking tools in my shop, so we had to use the rudimentary ones. So I’m wondering, with my table saw, ‘How am I going to do this?’”

The wagon tongue was another shop challenge. “The wagons were made to be pulled by horse or steam engine,” Ted says. “The front tongue had two pins you could pull out to slide three pieces of wood to make it shorter and more maneuverable behind the engine, or longer when pulled by horses.”

Roll out the barrel

Using specifications from the 1916 Avery catalog, Ted and Jody worked with Derson Mfg. Inc., Watertown, Minn., to roll the barrel in two half-spheres, along with end caps. The restorers shortened the barrel length to 8 feet — a foot shorter than the original — so the finished product could be hauled sideways on a trailer. “Other than that,” Ted says, “we built it as close to the pictures out of the booklet as we could.”

Rivets proved to be an enormous challenge. Before beginning that part of the project, and having received tons of free advice on how rivets should be installed, Ted called a riveting company in California to ask how big to drill the holes for the 1/4-inch rivets (the size of the rivets on the original water tank). The Avery tank required 409, the same number as the new tank. “We forgot to downsize when we went from 9 feet to 8 feet,” Ted says with a shrug.

The two set to work with an air hammer with a riveting head and a heavy-duty bucking bar on the other side. “Forming the rivets was the hardest work,” Ted recalls. “I don’t know how many rivets we wasted, experimenting to see how the head would turn out. We put the rivet through with the bucking tool on the finish head with the hammering done on the stud side to get it to mushroom and tighten up.”

They even researched riveting technique on television’s History Channel. Eventually they discovered that doing it the opposite way from normal worked better. That allowed Ted to be inside the barrel, which suited Jody just fine. “It wasn’t like you were in a pop can, because the end caps weren’t on yet,” Ted says, “but it was very loud in there. I wore earplugs and earmuffs on top of that, with all the multiple hits from the air hammer. Without earplugs and headphones and Jody, I couldn’t have done the riveting. After 90 rivets, my arms were ready to fall off.”

The first set of rivet holes were made smaller so the entire piece could be set together and bolted tightly, making the barrel easier to work with. “We’d take out one or two bolts, redrill for the right size of rivets and then put them in the right way,” Ted says.

Once the restorers put the tank together and riveted it, they weren’t entirely sure it would hold water. “We did learn that when you want to rivet two pieces together, you should first buff up the metal so it rusts and makes it waterproof,” Ted says. “Unfortunately, we found that out too late because we had painted it already, so we ended up using aviation gasket sealer, spread on all the seams and then brought together.”

Getting the end caps in place required putting the two half spheres together with “as close as possible” tolerances, bolting those together and then inserting the end caps to be sure that everything would work. Then they removed the end caps and riveted the horizontal rivets on the two half spheres. Finally, they set the end caps in place with bar clamps and completed the rivets.

“There really isn’t anything I didn’t enjoy about the project, but I will admit that hammering the rivets was a job,” Jody says. “It was hard work. One day in our riveting adventure we were almost done. We had nine rivets to go, but I just could not pick up the tool again to do another rivet. So we saved those nine rivets for the next day.”

Finishing touches

Ted and Jody used rivets shown on the Avery catalog illustration as a guide for placement of decals and pinstriping. For colors, they made an educated guess. “Some of the ‘puritans’ tell me the original Avery water tank had a yellow barrel with black letters, and others say it was black with yellow letters,” Ted says. “Using a few original photos from the time, when you see a water tank next to the horses, you can see there’s no way it could have been a yellow tank. We also decided the black tank fit the color of the steam traction engine better, too. And we had extra black paint from painting the 1916 16 hp Avery.”

Then came the moment of truth. The wagon was filled with 426 gallons of water. “It began to drip, drip, drip,” Ted says, “so I said, ‘Get a long stick and put a little more gasket sealer on the inside.’ The tank leaked at the first show but it has never leaked again.”

The wheels from the original Standard Oil tank worked fine after a few grease zerks were replaced. Hooks were fashioned for the side of the tank to match other iron components; they’re used to hold tools for the steam traction engine, like the ash puller used before firing up in the morning and a flue-cleaning brush. The hose on the other side is used to fill the tank from a water source and put water into the steam traction engine.

In the end, the completed project is more than a pretty face. “Having the water tank has been a lifesaver,” Ted says, “because you have water right there if a fire starts in the field when you’re threshing and you can catch it soon enough.” The pump on the barrel is only for show; a motorized pump makes filling the tank fast and easy.

“…put our minds to it”

“People often comment, ‘You built that by yourselves?’ We really enjoy those reactions,” Ted says. “If we put our minds to it, we can pretty much do it. But nothing like this is done alone. You have people at the Nowthen show and others that you meet at shows over the years, and you see other water wagons and talk to people. This whole hobby comes down to comparing notes and getting comments. Everybody compares notes.”

That blend of research and collaborative spirit pays big dividends. “The extra detail when doing these types of projects is what makes a good job a great job,” Jody says. “That seems to be the key behind having an awesome restoration or reproduction.

“People ask, ‘How did you know how to do this?’” she adds. “Our best answer to that is we spent a lot of hours looking for Avery water wagon photos and we had an Avery marketing brochure with some photos of Avery water wagons. We used those photos as a guide to reproduce this wagon. It was just a fun project.” FC

For more information: 

— Ted McNamara/Jody Hicks, PO Box 14, Dayton, MN 55327.

Bill Vossler is a freelance writer and author of several books on antique farm tractors and toys. Contact him at Box 372, 400 Caroline Ln., Rockville, MN 56369; email: bvossler@juno.com.