Monday, January 5, 2009


I recently read an email, with a rather provoking and flame like tone that raised a few issues that I think I'll address here.

First off, in this series of blogs I’m not building or advocating full size reproductions of medieval or ancient wagons. This isn’t because I’m not interested or knowledgeable about them. To cover building a full size wagon and, more importantly the wheels, would take a large book. Several such have already been written, and are far more complete than any blog could be. What I’m discussing is small wagons, with various uses, applicable to use at SCA events. What you’ll find here is not slavish adherence to historical accuracy, what you’ll find is practical information on making your own wagon based on ones I’ve built and tested.

This is not to say I’m unmindful of history. I try to theme many of my wagons around historical examples. Bear in mind; while the Romans used many styles of wagons, and pre-roman cultures all over Europe and Asia buried often elaborately beautiful wagons and carts, by medieval times in Europe the Roman road system had collapsed, trade was focused on local self-sufficient farm agricultural communities, and wagons were few, large, and crude. The principle of underlock on the running gear was lost. Underlock is the ability of the front wheels to go below the under-carriage, tightening the turning radius. It was not until the renaissance approached that underlock returned and wagons again took a prominent place in transport, warfare, and ceremonial.

Nor am I going to debate this latter point. If you take issue read Stuart Pigott’s, Wagon, Chariot, and Carriage: Symbol and Status in the History of Transport (lccn 97-70866). He's convinced me of the validity of many of his points, including the above, and even if some of them are a bit of a stretch, that ground has been covered to my satisfaction. If you want to be pissy and argue about it, do it with someone else. If you want to discuss it in a collegial, non flame-like and friendly manner, drop me a line.

I might also mention that I am building a full size replica of the Djebjerg Wagon. In period manner as well. I have hand-cut the wood with axe and bow saw and hand- split the planks with hammer and wedges. The wood is still seasoning, and when it’s ready in another year or two I will cast my own bronze fittings. So I’m not unmindful of the desire of some to recreate actual artifacts from period: they're kewl. But, when it comes to wagons at least, I’d rather devote my effort in large measure to the practical and useful.

One might argue that smaller scale reproductions would be the purer approach. Well, perhaps. I happen to have built up a well equipped shop that would permit me to make, say, ¼ scale models, but again, that’s not where my interests lie. I want to help the average SCAdian, who doesn’t have The New Yankee Workshop in their basement make something they can take to their next event, not to make after years of work a piece of art that has so much blood, sweat, tears, time, and dollars invested in it that they would never even think of throwing a bunch of armor in it and rolling across a muddy battlefield.

(Curmudgeon mode off)

Why a small wagon you do yourself? They’re less expensive, fun to build, and aren’t eye-jarringly modern like, say, a bright fire-engine-red Radio Flyer with plastic wheels. And they are massively useful.

What about carts? I prefer wagons to carts for several reasons. While one might say that two wheels are half as difficult to make as four, cart wheels must be larger--with the attendant difficulties in construction. They’re harder to pack as well. While a cart can be more maneuverable in tight space than a wagon without full underlock, this is not often an issue. A cart also requires more work to move the same load. With a cart you must lift up a portion of the load’s weight on the poles, with a wagon the weight of the load is borne by the wheels, all you have to provide is the motive force, not motive force, plus weight of load.

A cart must be more carefully balanced when loading. Too much weight at the back or front and the work is increased. A wagon can serve more additional uses than a cart. The bed of the wagon can be used as a bed in fact, it level. A wagon can easily haul squirmy kids, in a cart the weight on the poles of a shifty load like kids can lead to loss of control, and is certainly more annoying. A wagon can be seating, a level table, a holder of loose objects without them sliding all together, a convenient ride, a vantage point to stand on to look over shoulders at a parade, when still assembled it can be a roof rack for a car, or slide easily into the bed of a truck.

Personally, I think small wagons make more sense in an SCA context than a cart. Or wheelbarrow.but if you want the period way to schlep small loads, google Charles Oakley's wheelbarrow plans--nobody that I've seen has done it better.

I had another email asking some questions about basic and advanced woodworking skills. I have to assume that persons reading this blog have at least spent some time reading about woodworking, and hopefully practicing some. I’m not including instructions for using advanced or expensive tools like mortisers, oscillating spindle sanders, etc. I figure if you have those tools you don’t need me to point out when to use ‘em. OTOH I will occasionally address very basic tool use, or workarounds, because I have had many emails on this and other topics over the years from beginners.

If you don’t understand something feel free to ask, I like helping beginners, and we were all there once upon a time.


1 comment:

  1. Just wanted to let you know that I've been using your blog as inspiration while working on my cart. Yes, I went the cart route instead of the wagon. I wanted it to double as a crib but still fit in my A-frame tent and it would have been way too tall as a wagon. I'm not quite finished (little touches but it is materially complete) but it is coming along beautifully and I am looking forward to putting it to use at Pennsic.

    Your site was an invaluable resource! Thanks so much for making all your knowledge available. And to anyone who cares to be critical, hey, you get what you paid for right? Good luck finding someone else who offers this much help for free!