by Drew Langsner
By the very gracious permission of the RODALE PRESS (Emmaus, PA) we offer you, as preview, a complete chapter from a book by Drew Langsner. The book is titled COUNTRY WOODCRAFT and includes information on the making of tools, workbenches, tables, oak baskets, spoons and bowls, and draft animals implements. You will probably recognize Drew Langsner from his many contributions to the SMALL FARMER’S JOURNAL, the book HANDMADE co-authored with Louise Langsner and his contributions to other periodicals. SLEDS is Chapter 18 in its entirety and typical of the quality of illustrations and information found throughout the book.
(Ed. note – The above preface is from the original article. Here is an update from Drew: The book “Country Woodcraft” is long out of print. But a later book “Green Woodworking” is now self-published and available on Amazon or through our school Country Workshops – www.countryworkshops.org)
Working with draft animals is one of several potential alternatives to a fossil-fuel based agriculture. However, keeping and using horses or mules (or donkeys or ponies or oxen) involves a commitment which includes year round care and feeding, and the mastery of special skills for both man and his farming partners. One must be aware that a 1,000- to 2,000-pound horse can deliver a fatal kick. And there is the risk of accidents from runaway equipment. These are just a few of the details that must be considered.(1) I am not an expert with draft animals, but have worked our place with such beasts for a few years now. Experiences have been good and bad. So far, I’m sticking with our equestrian friends.
A basic problem that faces most anyone who wishes to work with draft animals is acquiring usable equipment. A few items may be bought new. There is a lot of old stuff — once one starts hunting around. Get a realistic idea of what you need first. A lot of the old farm equipment was made for hitches of three, four or five heavy horses. The beginner will have his hands full handling one or two horses or mules on far fewer acres than the larger old machinery was made for.
Some of the smaller, old pull-type tractor equipment can be adapted for work with draft animals. This is often done by rigging up a “fore cart”; consisting of an axle, and a pair of wheels that supports the weight of the equipment. A tongue is attached to the front of the axle, upon which are mounted the equipment hook-up and an old tractor seat to ride on.
The remainder of this section on Agricultural Implements is about homemade equipment for use with draft animals. These implements are all proven and serviceable. They are easily worked by a single animal weighing 1,000 pounds, and probably a good deal less.
Sleds rate high on our homestead. They can be pulled over rough terrain (which would shake a cart of wagon apart). They do well traversing slopes (where a wagon might tip over). Being low to the ground, they are very easy to load up. On the other hand, carts and wagons are far better for traveling on roads, which quickly abrade sled runners to nothing. (You can smell them burn.)
Farm sleds are used throughout the year. We haul firewood, compost, rock, corn, plows, and children over grass, through woods, across streams, over snow, just about anywhere. Huge loads can be pulled in winter over wellpacked snow. But then the teamster must be very careful on even slight downhill runs.
MATERIALS. The main elements of any sled are the runners. The wood chosen must be tough, hard-wearing, and weatherable. In addition, it is very advisable to locate timber curved to a natural runner shape. Runners can be hand-hewn from logs; or lumber may be bought and appropriately shaped.
In the Southern Highlands, sourwood is the favorite wood for sled runners. Locust and oak are also used. Hewing runners from a curved log is best, as they will be tough and long lasting. The trick is to find two logs with well-matched bends.
While log hewing (for building construction) is a specialized craft in its own right, a few general tips will be helpful for the beginner out to shape a pair of sled runners.
CONSTRUCTION. To hew a log one needs a very sharp axe (preferably a broad axe, although a sharp double bit will do), two half-log trestles (or two short logs laid flat on the ground), a chain saw or one-man log saw (actually both optional), hewing dogs (or chain and a load binder), a chalk line and a level.
First snap a line down the center of the log. With the level, scribe or pencil a vertical line from the centerline down each end of the log. This insures that you don’t hew a paraboloid. For a runner 4 inches wide, scribe vertical lines 2 inches to each side of the endcenter guide lines. Snap a line from the edge intersections of these lines from one end of the log to the other.
Lay the log on one side and secure in place. With a chain saw, crosscut, or axe, score a series of cuts, 4 to 6 inches apart, across the guidelines. With the axe, chop out most of the waste wood. Then rotate the log 90 degrees and hew down to the guidelines. Turn the log to the other side and repeat this process. The top and bottom planes are located by setting a right angle against the original guidelines, then proceeding as with the sides. With a sled, special allowances will have to be made for the curved forerunners.
Shaping runners from commercial lumber is much easier — but not so good. It’s difficult to find timber with good grain. And then there is the problem of preventing undue wear at the front ends if they lack a natural curvature. In northern Europe, runners were steamed and bent in jigs.(2) Another approach is to add lengths of 2×4 along the bottoms of the runners. This is explained in detail in the section on HALF SOLES (see below).
In any case, runners should be shaped green, then set aside to season at least six months before being used. Green runners will wear down before your very eyes.
Because sleds are commonly used over very rough terrain, the framework is purposely left flexible, but very well pinned together. In a typical Appalachian sled, the primary crossmember is an oak 2×4 mortised into the runners about 6 inches from the front end. A wooden pin, spike, or bolt is driven through the runner to secure this joint. The remaining (secondary) members are not attached directly to the runners as this would reduce the sled’s ground clearance. Rather, these members are fitted to a series of short, double-tenoned STANDARDS (supports), mortised along the runner tops, centered about 2 feet apart. Standards are generally carved from split out white or red oak. They can be shaped from an oak 2×4, but will be considerably weaker if the grain is not perfectly straight. Standards are usually about 14 inches long.
The runner-tenon is 4 inches long. These tenons may be square, but they are usually carved round or oval to fit into holes drilled with a 1-1/2 inch auger. Four inches of the original 2×4 is left rectangular to raise the bed above the runners. The upper tenon — 6 inches long and rounded — accepts the remaining secondary crossmembers, floor boards, and locates the cargo box in place. Seasoned standards should be fitted into green runners to that they will tighten up during seasoning. (Before the sled is put into service.)
The secondary crossmembers are rough oak 1×4’s with holes drilled at each end to fit over the top rounds of the standards. At this stage, the sled is overly flexible. To create sufficient rigidity, 1 inch floorboards are nailed side-by-side on top of the secondary crossmembers. The outer floorboards should be bored to pass over the standards.
To complete the sled, a 1/2 inch hole is drilled through the center of the primary crossmember. A clevis is attached to an open ring, which connects to the single tree, which is hooked to the trace chains, which are linked to the hames, which pull against the collar, which the horse or mule pushes (not pulls!) around the old homeplace.
For most hauling, a bottomless box is set over the floorboards. The easiest way to make such a box is to nail 1 inch side and end boards to 2×2’s located at the corners. The box is set inside the standards, and held in place by two metal straps, which loop around the front standards. (Electric conduit straps are excellent.) For hauling logs, the box is left off. It’s also nice to have a very low box, made of 2×6’s, for carrying rock and bucked firewood.
HALF SOLES. As might be expected, sled runners wear down as they’re used. Very old sleds may not be worth fixing up. However, if runners are only partly worn, replacement strips called half soles can be added on. Seasoned hardwood (usually oak) should be used. To make the runner curve, half soles are generally in two pieces. One long 2×4 is doweled to the runner bottom. A shorter piece overlaps the bottom piece, extending up the curved forerunner. Nails should not be used as they don’t wear down with the half sole, but tend to bend backward and eventually pull out.
Sled runners generally wear to a slightly curved bottom section. This makes fitting new half soles a troublesome task. Therefore, it’s a good plan to put half soles on a sled before it’s ever used. Half sole replacement over the original square edged runners is then very easy. (A new sled with half soles could be used with green runners. However, the various mortises would never tighten to the same degree as well-seasoned runners. Still, this is a reasonable expedient.)
BRAKES. Sleds do have problems on downhill runs, particularly over snow, ice, deeply piled autumn leaves and short, dry winter-killed grass. Depending on slope and ground cover, the sled might speed up and slide into the fetlocks of the horse or mule (that was) pulling it. In dry weather, it’s usually possible to pick a route where this won’t happen. Years ago, the local farmers grew tobacco and corn on steep slopes of freshly cleared woodland. To bring their crop downhill, they would wrap chain loops around the sled fore standards creating enough friction to avoid runaways. This was rough on the ground, but works fine on snow. The chains, called rough locks, are about 30 inches long, and are linked together with figure 8 links. Be sure to remove rough locks on the level or when climbing grades.
Perhaps the best system is to build a sled with shafts similar to those used on carts for hillside and winter work. With such a rig, the harness includes full britching, and the horse or mule actually controls the slide; the distance to the sled is always held constant.
There are, of course, many variations to this general sled plan. One handy type is a stone boat. This is a small sled, perhaps 30 x 40 inches, consisting of a pair of runners and a primary crossmember with floor boards nailed directly across the runner tops.
Old farms also had many types of man-pulled and -pushed sleds. A fair-sized sled load of hay can be man-pulled over grass. “Sled barrows” are easily pushed over snow, even uphill. (Illustrated in Chapter 15: Wheelbarrow.)
(1) Helpful resources for hopeful teamsters include: Maurice Telleen, THE DRAFT HORSE PRIMER (Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1977); George Ewart Evans, THE HORSE IN THE FURROW (London: Faber and Faber, 1960); SMALL FARMER’S JOURNAL (Sisters, OR, issued quarterly).
(2) Viires, WOODWORKING IN ESTONIA, pp. 159-165.