Wooden Wagon Construction

Let's Talk Rusty Iron: Revisiting the nomenclature of the wooden wagon and its parts.

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courtesy of Sam Moore

Most readers of Farm Collector probably aren’t familiar with the nomenclature of the wooden wagons found on nearly every American farm until the mid-1950s.

Early man acquired knowledge of friction when he tried to move a large rock from here to there: The rock just wouldn’t slide. Rolling the thing worked, if it was round, but what if it was flat? Eventually some ingenious soul got the flat rock up onto a log, allowing the weight to be moved more easily.

However, the rock traveled at twice the speed of the rolling log and soon ran off the roller. A number of rollers in a line could be used, but a better answer was to mount the roller on an axle attached to the load, or to a platform that carried the load. That allowed the roller to keep up with the load. Sliding friction between the axle and the roller could be reduced by a liberal application of animal fat.

The next step was to use two narrow rollers (or wheels), one at each end of the axle. That reduced friction by making the bearing surface between the axle and wheels much smaller, and lowered the load by allowing it to sit between the wheels. Now our hairy ancestors were really “smokin”: They had invented the wheel! Two-wheel carts were soon used all over the world and, before long, an additional set of wheels and an axle were used to make a wagon out of the cart.

Commercial production ramps up in years following American Civil War

Before 1860, most farm wagons were hand-built by blacksmiths, wheelwrights and carpenters. To meet the huge demand for military vehicles during the Civil War, wagon factories were established. The postwar westward movement increased the need for wagons. Most manufacturers switched production from military to civilian vehicles, making wagons for every purpose from city milk delivery to carrying a pioneer family across the Rocky Mountains.

A wagon consists of the running gear and one or more styles of interchangeable beds. The running gear (or undercarriage) consists of the wheels and axles coupled by an extendable reach. A tongue is attached to the front axle assembly. The front wheels can be steered and rear wheel brakes are available on some models. Parallel to and above each axle is a cross beam called a bolster, which provides support for the bed. A vertical bolster stake at each end of the bolster keeps the wagon bed from sliding sideways on the bolster.

Front wheels are normally smaller in diameter than the rear wheels, as the smaller wheels can be turned farther before hitting the bed. A wooden wagon wheel is dished (made slightly conical) to provide additional strength in resisting the lateral forces on the wheel at the axle.

illustration of a green wagon with red wheels

Building hubs and rims

The wheel hub is turned out of a solid block of well-seasoned hardwood, while the spokes are made of white oak or hickory and mortised into the hub. Iron or steel bands (or point bands) are shrunk around the outside and inside ends of each hub. Two more bands (spoke bands) are shrunk around the hub on each side of the spoke mortises. These bands are pressed onto the hub while hot and help keep the hub from splitting. An iron or steel boxing is pressed into the hub bore, forming a bearing surface that turns on the axle skein.

The wheel rim (or felloe) is sawed or bent from white oak. The outer ends of the spokes are mortised into the felloe, which is sometimes reinforced by a rivet on each side of the spoke mortise to guard against splitting. Most wagon makers soaked wheel parts in boiling linseed oil before any irons were put on to make them moisture-proof.

A steel tire is shrunk tightly upon the wheel to provide a wearing surface, while holding the felloe firmly on the spokes and the spokes tightly into the hub.

Complex engineering protects the load

Axles are made of hickory, with notches for the hounds and reach. Axle ends are tapered and rounded to accept the skeins, which are made of cast iron or steel and provide the bearing surface for the wheel hubs. The wooden axle is sometimes reinforced by a steel truss rod or strap.

Each wheel spoke, as it comes into a vertical position under the hub, supports the weight of the wagon and its load and must be vertical in order to gain the most strength. This position is called a plumb spoke. To achieve a plumb spoke with a dished wheel, the skein is given a little bottom gather, meaning the outer end of the skein is set down a little. To make the wheel run evenly on the skein when the wagon is drawn forward, the outer end of the skein is set forward a little, giving it forward gather (toe in). When the bottom and forward gathers are correctly set, the wheel will run evenly on the skein without crowding either the flange or the nut.

The rear hounds are braces that angle forward from the outer ends of the rear axle to the reach socket. U-bolts called clips clamp the hounds into notches in the rear axle and the rear bolster, making the axle, bolster and hounds one solid assembly. The fronts of the rear hounds are bolted to the reach socket, which may be a one-piece casting or two steel plates, one on top and one on the bottom of the hounds.

Front hounds are clamped between the front axle and a sand board in the same way as the rear, except that the hounds extend to the front to form a place to attach the tongue, while extending 2 or 3 feet behind the axle to support a cross member called a sway bar that rides under the reach.

At the center of the top of the sand board is a steel bolster plate sometimes called the fifth wheel. A matching bolster plate on the underside of the front bolster pivots on the sand board plate. Heavy circular bosses and grooves around the king bolt hole on the upper and lower bolster plates help keep the bolster in position on top of the sand board.

A king bolt goes down through the front bolster, the bolster plates, the sand board and the front axle to allow the front axle to steer, while the front bolster stays aligned with the bed. The slider and sway bars, bolster plates and circle irons prevent excessive rocking of the front axle, and keep the wagon bed from upsetting due to uneven ground.

Next month, we’ll look at the rest of the wagon. FC

Sam Moore is a longtime Farm Collector columnist. This column originally appeared in the July 2007 issue.

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