The Farm & Bakery Wagon
by Erik Andrus of Vergennes, VT
In 2010 I completed a fun project that I’d had in mind for a while, a commercial horse-drawn van expressly designed to sell produce and bread. The intended purpose of the vehicle was to bring the working animal (back) to the streets of Vergennes and to show that living horsepower is an effective means of bringing local goods to market.
I believe we succeeded on both counts, but in the end I had to conclude that the day of the horsedrawn wagon has not yet come. I had enough near-misses in traffic to satisfy my adrenaline cravings for quite a while. Not through any fault of the horse, mind you. Bobby learned to ply the streets quite well! But the unpredictable behavior of motorists around our slow-moving rig was just too stressful. The bakery wagon will still hit the streets for special occasions, but will otherwise wait patiently for the time when horsedrawn transport of goods becomes a sane, safer, and economical option.
All this notwithstanding, the wagon itself is kind of nifty. Making it was a lot of fun, and allowed me to bring together my past working with wood and my present working with animals! This page will give you a little whirlwind tour of how we went about making it. If you are in the market for a commercial horsedrawn vehicle as awesome as this, give me a call. I would love to make another one!
Our wagon was based on a historic bakery wagon plan drawn by John Thompson. This fellow made scale drawings and built models of working vehicles in the 20’s and 30’s when cars and trucks were beginning to render them obsolete. The Thompson archives include all sorts of vehicles, passenger conveyances, furniture delivery vans, fire engines, hearses, water tankers, and so on. I liked this particular design because it seemed just the right size for the quantity of goods we would normally bring to a farmers market anyway, using our car.
The first step was to decide on an appropriate chassis, or “running gear.” Eventually I chose to go with the real deal, a wooden-wheeled gear with leaf springs rather than pneumatic tires. Wooden wheels last forever with care and are functional and look the part. I bought an antique delivery wagon that had been left outdoors as an ornament. I was able to reuse some of the wheels and wooden parts of the running gear. I ordered two new wheels from Witmer Coach Shop (very good and affordable) and rebuilt the running gear with many custom made wooden parts.
Above you can see the frame, upside down, that connects to the leaf springs and supports the wagon box. The box (upper part) of the wagon is only connected to the wheels via springs.
Above is a frame part in the vise, being tenoned for joining. I used traditional mortise and tenon joinery throughout the project for maximum strength. The frame members were all made of solid, locally cut and milled ash. I did, however, deviate from traditional methods by using plywood for the deck, sides, and roof, and for the panels. This made for a cheaper and stronger wagon. In total I used one sheet of 1/4” oak plywood for panels, four sheets of 3/8” AC fir plywood, and one sheet of 3/4” CDX for the deck.
The plywood floor and sides are bound in a hardwood frame so that all the ply edges are embedded in hardwood. The square opening is a little door behind the driver’s head. The piece of hardwood projecting toward you, top center of the picture above, suggest the future curve of the roof. The roofline has a compound curve over in the front, sloping forward and to each side, kind of difficult to execute with plywood, but not impossible!
You can also see in the back of the wagon a hole where the rear flashers will go. It is a very basic electrical system.
The woodwork for the footboards, bench, doors, and structural roof and wall members was all done in solid ash, planed smooth by hand planes and spokeshaves. Some of the decorative details in the frame are my own take on the original drawings. All together the design provides good headroom in the cargo area (ceiling just under 5 feet in the center) and strong resistance to racking, or coming out of square while lurching on the road.
Above, you can see that the roof plywood over the driver’s head has been cut into “fingers.” Using some high school geometry we were able to get a satisfactory compound curve, as you can see.
The box is now assembled. The yellow side panels have five coats of enamel, and the ash and oak members have about the same number of coats of varnish. The roof plywood has been covered with canvas which is then impregnated with many coats of oil paint, rendering it waterproof. The bench seat is hinged and allows for quite a bit of storage inside. The car battery that powers the flasher lights is strapped in there too. It’s easy to flip up the lid and recharge as necessary.
Altogether the box weighs maybe 500 lbs now and is getting less fun to move around. You can see, above, apprentice Tristan Fulford (2010) installing the running gear onto the bottom of the wagon, which we have flipped up onto its back for the purpose. The wheels are left off of the running gear for now to make it lighter. Once we had the running gear secure we attached the wheels and it was just about ready to roll.
We noticed early on that the springs were insufficient for the weight of the van box, which tended to list excessively with the weight of cargo in the back or passengers in the front. Bailey Spring and Chassis made us up four new leaves which stiffened the suspension quite well, and lifted the box to about the height at which it was designed to ride.
Above, you can see the interior storage system, which allows us to transport 150 pastries, 80 loaves, and several boxes of produce, and two coolers of frozen meat to market. We can’t fit as much stuff in the car! Unlike a station wagon, which is all curves and wheel wells in the back, a horsedrawn van is a perfect match for the cargo it carries. The pine crates are even held on the shelves with a lip, so they do not dislodge on even the bumpiest ride. Every crate has good clearance and ventilation, as well.
You can also see the dome light lit up inside and one of the flasher taillights. The footman loop to the left of the door is reforged from the antique wagon from which the running gear came.
A wagon like this can be set up with either a pole (for two horses or sometimes more) or shafts (for a single horse). Wanting to keep things as simple as possible in traffic, I went with shafts. Last photo, you can see the wagon returning to the farm with my Dante the Dog running escort, and me, my brother-in-law Adam Hurwitz, and my son Julien riding in the cab. With the mirrors, the driver has good visibility both over the horse and to the rear of the vehicle, yet is still pretty well protected from the elements.
Once he’d gotten the hang of it, Bobby the Horse found it easy enough to trot all the way to the Vergennes green (1.5 miles) with a full load. Over time he was able to deal with his apprehension about two weird things he never encounters on-farm: pedestrian crosswalks and railroad tracks.
We had many admiring and appreciative comments from friends and neighbors. The project took many hours and cost about $2000 in materials. If I were to build a similar one on commission, it would probably cost around $4500.