Wagon Making in Southern Arizona

by James E. Sherman and Edward F. Ronstadt, with quotations from the memoirs of Fred Ronstadt, pioneer wagon maker

Reprinted from the Tucson Corral of the Westerners
The Smoke Signal Number 31, Spring 1975

Part III: The Art of Wagonmaking [recollections of Fred Ronstadt, in his own words]

To build a good carriage or wagon it was first necessary to plan the job and make drawings and specifications. The best carriage draftsmen were also mechanics who had learned carriage making in the shop while taking a course, usually a correspondence course, in drafting. The National Association of American Carriage Makers had a good correspondence school for that purpose. [photo]

The process of building the carriage or wagon came next and was an art that required an expert wheelwright and blacksmith to build a balanced, durable wheel and to create the iron work, a good woodworker to construct the wood parts for the gears and bodies, and a painter to finish and decorate the final product. [photo]

The art of making and repairing wagon wheels was a very special trade. I had watched Mr. Dalton while I was an apprentice and without a doubt he was one of the finest wheelwrights in the business. The wheels that he made were almost indestructible. In the first operation of making a wheel the mortises in the hubs were made of an exact size and pitch to a pattern with the proper shape for draft. Then the spoke tenons were finished for a driving fit into the hubs with hand hammers weighing from three to 10 pounds, according to the size of the wheel. If the hub mortises and the spoke tenons were of the correct size and shape, five or six sharp blows with the hammer would set the spoke in place sufficiently tight to stay as if welded and not too tight to disturb the grain of the woods in the hubs and spokes. If the draft, or lateral pull on the spokes, was greater than necessary on the finished carriage the spokes would pull out of the hubs or the hubs would split. After all the spokes were driven into the hubs in correct alignment, the ends were cut off with a hollow auger, and the spoke spindles were cut to a shoulder making a perfect circle of the desired diameter. Next the rims, or felloes, were bored to fit the spokes. The holes in the felloes and the spoke spindles were matched to the proper diameter for strength. After the rims were driven into place, and all the joints perfected, the wheel was ready for the blacksmith to roll the tire, weld the ends of the tire and make the inside circumference of the tire slightly smaller than the circumference of the wheel, the necessary measurements being taken with a circular tire gauge. For a wagon wheel four feet in diameter requiring a tire three inches wide and three fourths thick, the tire was made one half inch smaller in circumference than the wheel. The tire was then heated to a low cherry red in either a special furnace or by building a wood fire around it on the ground. The heat would expand the metal so that it would drop easily around the wheel where it would be cooled by a stream of water shrinking it around the rim. If the wheel had been made correctly and the tire had the proper draft, the completed wheel would have the correct dish and ring like a bell. The last operation in wheel making was called "boxing the hub" which involved setting a tapered bearing inside the hub that would ride the axle skein like a glove. This job had to be done with extreme care to insure the proper alignment and to set the box bearing in the hub tight enough to stay in place, and not too tight to injure the hub wood. Making wagon wheels and repairing them was the most delicate part of the wagon trade. Each wheel had to be treated according to its size and condition and skill for this could only be acquired by experience and practice. A careless blacksmith could ruin the finest wheels by setting the tires on wood improperly or by giving the tires excessive draft, making them too tight. The wheel axles were obtained in halves from the factory with the spindles and boxes already finished. The blacksmith had to fit the axle stocks to the wood shapes, weld them in the center and line the spindles with the proper setting for the wheels. The set of the axle spindles had to be guided by the taper of the spindle and the height and dish of the wheels to make the wagon run with all the wheels balanced so that there would be no strain against either the axle shoulders or nut. A properly set axle would allow the wheel to float on the full length of the spindle.

For medium light wagons we would always buy our wheels ready made from the wheel factories in the white and without tires. We had to let them season in the dry Arizona air for several weeks before finishing them. Most of our wheels were the Sarven patent type made on iron clad hubs and the spokes of white, second-grade hickory and number one black hickory rungs of grades A and B. The Sarven wheel factories also made a grade C and D of inferior material. We would never buy any wheels lower in quality than grade B for our own jobs; however, occasionally we would sell some C grade wheels for replacing old wheels on light factory-made wagons. We made all the heavy wheels for farm and freight wagons using ready made hubs of oak, birch or maple already turned to various standard sizes. The spokes, felloes and rims made of grade A oak were also purchased in the half-finished condition.

The process of building a top quality body for a carriage or wagon was an art in itself. This trade was entirely different from cabinet making or carpentry work. A good carpenter would be lost trying to build the framework and body for a carriage. Bodies were made of fine poplar on oak frames. After the woodwork would come the iron work. The forgings had to be made of the proper sizes and proportions to stand the service and look graceful and pleasing to the eye. We would use Norway iron for all forgings because of its ductility. The iron was fitted to the wood parts while hot, but not hot enough to burn or even char the wood. After the irons were shaped and fitted to their appropriate places, the finisher would take over. Finishing was a special trade in itself. The finisher was an expert with the file. He had to file the forgings smooth and bright, drill the holes of the proper sizes for the bolts and screws to be used. The rule in good carriage work was for every bolt hole to be made for a driving fit. After the irons were finished by hand, the work of screwing, bolting, and riveting them in place had to be done in a very particular manner. The projections were filed smoothly for a final time so that when the first coat of paint was applied the assembly appeared as if all joints were welded together perfectly. When this last operation was done right, the parts of the carriage would remain tight and solid for many years. All the wood parts would be given a coat of priming paint before the irons were attached. The priming coats consisted of boiled linseed oil with a small part of turpentine and white lead with a little color, usually gray. The running gear woods were made of hickory for the best jobs, usually of second-growth grade. The painting of the gear would be different from the body. For the gear, the painter would use oil putty and two coats of primer to close the pores of the timber. Next, two or three coats of lead and oil and then two coats of color were applied. After each of these coats had ample time to harden the surfaces were polished with horse hair. Next, rubbing varnish was applied in several coats, while between coats the painters would use pulverized pumice stone applied on a pad of wet wool to polish the hardened surface. For the finer jobs of custom work, the running gear was given two coats of rough stuff over the white lead primer. Rough stuff is a filler which has a consistency of heavy cream and dries hard. When the rough stuff had dried, it was polished with fine sandpaper down to the white lead coats before the flat color coats and varnish coats were applied. The final striping decoration was done with pencil brushes made of the finest camel hair, with a striping color which was selected that would harmonize with the color of the gear. After the striping, the last coat of varnish would be applied. The painter's art was gauged by the thickness with which he could apply this last varnish so it would dry smooth without brush marks or wrinkles.

The bodies were usually given to the trimmers after the priming coats had dried. The trimmer had to fit the lazy-back cushions and fasten the leatherwork in place. He used good canvas fabrics for building the cushions, and the leather or cloths for a finish cover over the top. The interior cushioning consisted of excelsior with a thin layer of moss for the cheaper jobs, while hair stuffing was used for custom work. For the deep backs on carriage seats, spiral springs were used under the canvas padding. The finishing beads or molding around the edges of the seat backs were left to be nailed in place after the painting had been finished. The trimmer also made covers for the dashboards and side fenders from patent leather along with the covers and trimming for the top. Since these features were detachable, they were installed in place when the job of painting was finished. Collapsible tops for carriages were made and fitted to the body at the same time that the bodies were trimmed.

The body of a good carriage required two coats of linseed oil mixed with white lead primer, two coats of white lead paint, a coat of wet putty, sandpapering the putty when it was dry and hard, then two or three coats of rough stuff. When the last coat of rough stuff was dried and hardened, it was rubbed down with a piece of pumice stone and water until the surface of the panels were polished like glass. After this operation came two or four coats of a flat color, each dried coat passed over with horse hair before the next coat was applied. When all the color coats were dry, the first coat of rubbing varnish was applied. This coat of varnish was polished with powdered pumice stone on a pad of wool cloth with water. Sometimes two coats of rubbing varnish were applied and polished before the body was striped. Next the body was washed with cold water and with a good sponge and a chamois, the surface was wiped dry with care taken to prevent any scratching or water spots. The body was now ready to have the finish coating of body wearing varnish applied. This last varnish had to be the very best. We used English Valentine varnish for which we paid ten dollars per gallon. The varnish brushes were made of the finest camel hair and the varnish room was kept dust proof with care taken to maintain it at an even temperature of about 80 degrees. The painters would apply the varnish as thick as possible. If it should show any brush marks or wrinkles, it all had to be rubbed off by pulverized pumice stone on a pad with water. The process of painting a good carriage properly, required a period of about three weeks and sometimes longer if the weather was damp. The cost of painting a one-seated buggy was about $25 to $40, a two-seated surrey, $40 to $60, a cabriolet or landau from $100 to $150. With proper care and washing, a carriage paint job would last from three to five years. I have known several jobs that lasted for ten years.

Making freight wagons and express wagons, ice wagons, stages, and delivery wagons required less finishing. Many times I have been asked about the 20-mule freight wagons, and I can only say that in 1882 when I started learning the trade, they were still in use and our shop had to repair them many times. It was hard work, handling the tremendous wheels with tires four and five inches wide, one inch thick and five and six feet in diameter. We made parts for them, but never made any complete wagons larger than for a three-ton capacity. Studebaker, Bain and other eastern manufacturers were making good farm and ranch wagons and only occasionally would someone order a custom made job at a much higher cost.

Fred Ronstadt continued to remain active in business up to a few months before his death at the age 86 on December 13, 1954. During his lifetime, he married, first, to Sarah Levin; and after her death to Lupe Dalton, daughter of Winnall A. Dalton. By his first wife he had a son; Fred, and three daughters, Louise, Laura, and Alice. Fred and Louise are deceased, and Laura resides in Guadalajara, Mexico. Alice, a retired school teacher, lives in Los Angeles, California. By his second wife, Lupe, he had four sons, William, Alfred, Gilbert and Edward. Lupe died in Tucson in October of 1974, at the age of 92. William is retired and lives near Centerville, Tennessee. Alfred is also retired, and lives in Tucson. Gilbert and Edward are active in the F. Ronstadt Hardware Company - Gilbert as president, and Edward as secretary-treasurer and general manager.

In the early 1900s the Ronstadt business shifted its emphasis from wagon making to an automobile dealership, handling Oldsmobile, Studebaker, E.M.F., and Flanders cars. It continued to handle hardware, pumps, and farm machinery, and in the early 1920s added road making machinery. The Sixth Avenue and Broadway building which had housed the business since 1901 was sold in 1929. The business continued to operate from this location until 1935 when it moved to 33 South Sixth Avenue where for the next 10 years the operation would continue its expansion. The present location of the F. Ronstadt Hardware Company, 70 N. Sixth Avenue, was completed in 1947. Fred Ronstadt was active for many years as a member of the Tucson Rodeo Committee, and many of the wagons which he built are on display in the Parade Museum at the Rodeo grounds. They are used each year in the Fiesta de Los Vaqueros parade, thus continuing the tradition of Ronstadt wagon making.

Footnotes | Acknowledgements | Selected References | Glossary of Terms |
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