A Vardo – Part Three

My intention was to have the vardo finished by Christmas as I had planned a lengthy, scenic route for her maiden voyage this summer (I’m in Australia, remember?). Alas, though I am fairly well insulated against COVID-19, the same cannot be said for the many suppliers and supply chains I rely on for parts and materials.

Needless to say, progress has been glacial. I had to paint the undercarriage anyway, as some of it would have been inaccessible with a paintbrush once assembled (no spray guns here!). But after weeks and weeks of applying two coats of oil-based primer, three oil-based undercoats and three top coats of oil-based gloss, I was again unemployed.

Rather than sitting around, bemoaning my predicament, I broke my own, self-imposed rules and constructed the basic shafts. I didn’t want to make the shafts until I was ready for them as otherwise, there’s the possibility that they’ll suffer some knocks and damage. Then the shafts received their eight coats of paint (figure 1), before they were moved to another shed out of harm’s way.

Fig. 1. Shafts, base and undercarriage all painted.

After that, I was idle once again, so I built the cratch (the adjustable table/harness storage/luggage rack that attaches to the back of the vardo (figures 2 & 3).

Fig 2. Cratch capacity is adjustable with chains.

Fig. 3. Messmate cratch in-the-white.

The custom leaf springs I ordered in April 2020 were nowhere to be seen due to COVID-19 and a resultant shortage of raw materials. Believing the springs would indeed appear one day, I continued the hunt for a set of original ‘globe’ spring hangers (figure 4).

Fig. 4. Old, cast globe spring hanger.

None were available locally and several contacts in the U.K. also drew blanks. The only solution was fabricated spring hangers. The welds were carefully linished so the whole resembled original castings as closely as possible. The four hangers for the cradle were additionally bent to the same curvature of the spring beds (figure 5).

Fig. 5. Test fit of a rear spring hanger.

Once I was satisfied with the fit of the hangers, they were removed and underwent two coats of oil-based Irish racing red, three oil-based undercoats and three top coats of oil-based gloss.

HUZZAH! The leaf springs arrived! I dismantled the spring packs and cleaned each leaf to remove the oil from the tempering process. Before reassembling the leaves, I took a small artist’s paintbrush and applied a narrow stripe of high-pressure grease between each one. More primer, undercoat and gloss!

Fig. 6. Leaf springs resplendent in Irish racing red.

With everything painted, I enlisted the help of half a dozen able-bodied blokes and put the undercarriage – such as it is – together (figures 7,8 & 9).

Fig. 7. Front cradle spring hanger.

Fig. 8. Rear cradle spring hanger and shackles.

Fig. 9. The weight is mounting!

Not too much paint was chipped whilst installing the heavy springs, but all will be rectified in the final touch-up.

The hours involved in the work in this post come to 268.25.
The total hours involved to-date come to 537.5.


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A Vardo – Part Two

Reading [red-ing] vardos are rigid wooden-bodied living wagons built on a sprung, four-wheeled platform, with the front wheels and springs mounted under the ‘lock’ which revolves on a simple steel ‘fifth wheel’, attached beneath the front of the undercarriage (figures 1 & 2).


Fig. 1. The fundamentals of a Reading vardo.


Fig. 2. Fifth wheel, lock, springs, axle and wheels.

Each wooden component is made from a specific variety of timber depending on its unique requirements. If I were building this late nineteenth-century Reading style vardo back in Britain – the home of the vardo – the choice of timbers would be elementary: Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) for strength and flexibility; oak (Quercus robur) for utmost strength and rigidity; and Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris) for its lightness and relative strength. It’s a little different here in Australia.

In early 2020, Jeremy Clarkson ruffled a few feathers when he wrote Australia was “God’s laboratory”, citing “… some of his more ridiculous ideas. Stuff he came up with when he was drunk. Like those birds that can’t fly and that otter with a beak”. I have a fondness for the be-beaked otter, but I must confess; Australia’s bounteous species of trees produce some challenging timber!

Eucalypts are plentiful in Australia and provide the most abundant milled hardwood primarily employed in the construction and furniture industries. Eucalypts are rife with unsightly gum veins which require filling. Splits and splintering are also a perennial and annoying issue with most eucalypts.

Tasmanian oak refers to any timber from mountain ash (Eucalyptus regnans), messmate (Eucalyptus obliqua) or alpine ash (Eucalyptus delegatensis), when it is sourced from the state of Tasmania. When alpine ash and mountain ash are harvested in the state of Victoria, they are collectively known as Victorian ash. It is said that early settlers named these eucalyptus timbers ‘ash’ and ‘oak’ as they somewhat resembled their European namesakes in both appearance, texture and workability. In my experience, messmate most closely resembles the characteristics of European ash and is my favoured eucalypt for carriage building.

Australia’s primary commercial pine is radiata pine (Pinus radiata) – elsewhere known as Monterey pine – which comes a close second to Scots pine.

Many Australian timbers have been successfully employed in carriage building since early European settlement. The following list of historic carriage building timbers (both native and imported) have been extrapolated from several local books on the subject.

Timber SpeciesModulus of Elasticity (GPa)Modulus of Rupture (MPa)Crushing Strength (MPa)Janka Hardness (kn)Density (kg/m3)
Spotted gum231507511900
Sydney blue gum18140689850
White stringybark17133688.8880
Yellow stringybark17132728.5870
Tas. oak / Vic. ash15119605.7620
European ash*12116536.1700
Scarlet oak*12111571.4735
Pin oak*1296476.7705
Sitka spruce*1170382.3425
English oak*10107465.3700
Scots pine*1083422.4550
Radiata pine1079423.2515

* Imported.

I have a modest amount of Australian grown European ash to hand, but not enough for the entire undercarriage and lock, so it will be supplemented with messmate and stringybark. Everything above, and including the floor will be pine, except for the front and rear burgins which are of messmate (figure 3).


Fig. 3. Messmate burgins alongside messmate six-by-fours (with pattern for the fifth wheel bolsters).


Fig. 4. Rear spring bed laid out, ready for carving.


Fig. 5. Spring bed scalloped and cleaned up.


Fig. 6. Carving the splinter bar.


Fig. 7. Fifth wheel crossmember ready for carving.


Fig. 8. The lock, assembled, primed, and undercoated.


Fig. 9. Halved joints are secured with coach bolts.

I made a makeshift jig with which to build the floor/undercarriage upside down (figure 10).


Fig. 10. Messmate rear crossmember and pine summers (floor joists) temporarily screwed to jig.

When the undercarriage and lock are completed and mated to one another, I will right it all and can then proceed with building the pine accommodation.

Keen eyed readers may have noticed the outside bolt and nut in figure 10 are not perpendicular. This was not a cider or gin event; the outer coachbolts are intentionally angled to clear the row of mortises which will receive the body ribs.

As with the three spring wagon I built, I employ hex nuts during the construction stage for ease and speed as most components necessitate their being added and removed several times. All will eventually be replaced with traditional square nuts prior to painting.

The hours involved in the work in this post come to 269.25.



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A Vardo – Part One

I recall, in years gone by, the chaos every Spring Bank Holiday weekend when swarms of sightseers and picnickers clogged Britain’s roads. In particular, the narrow winding country byways experienced long crawling queues of cars, often extending for many miles. The cause of all this frustrating congestion? A farmer on a tractor was occasionally the culprit, but more usually, it was some family man in his grossly overladen car, towing a wildly swaying caravan at 30 mph with his arm out the window merrily waving everyone by – whether safe to do so or not.

Virtually every road user detested those dawdling caravans. Yet seemingly, with every generation so many men, young and old, take to the road with a caravan as if in some peripatetic trance.

I must admit, I am getting on a bit now and despite the fact I no longer drive a car, I am now gripped with the overwhelming impulsion to go forth in a caravan and torment fellow road users! And they’re really going to love me; I’m building a horse drawn “gypsy caravan” which will have an average speed of just 6 mph!

Gypsies (and other travelling folk) don’t refer to these vehicles as “caravans” and nor do they go on vacation with them: The vardo [vahr-doh], or living wagon, or simply “wagon”, is a house on wheels, and (unlike the one I’m building) is not fair-weather holiday accommodation.

The heyday of the vardo was during the latter half of the nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth century. There are two main types of vardo; the canvas-covered bow-tops (figure 1) and the larger flat, tapered-sided wagons known as Boswells, Burtons (figure 2), Duntons (figure 3), Fullers, Leonards, Orton & Spooners, Ridgers & Mays, Thomas (figures 4 & 5), Tongs, Wheelers, and Wrights (figure 6) etc. after some of the numerous manufacturers.

One of the most esteemed and prolific manufacturers of tapered, flat-sided (or “kite” – due to the resemblance of their end elevation) vardos was Dunton and Sons whose works were in Reading [red-ing], in Berkshire. Often the kite vardos manufactured by other makers were also referred to as “Reading” wagons (figures 4, 6, 7 & 10).


Fig. 1. A bow-top ledge vardo (note the ledge at the juncture of the body and canvas).


Fig. 2. A Burton vardo with its trademark twin side windows and almost vertical sides.


Fig. 3. A Dunton Reading living wagon.


Fig. 4. A “Reading” living wagon built by F.J. Thomas.


Fig. 5. F.J. Thomas hub cap.


Fig. 6. A Bill Wright manufactured “Reading” ledge vardo.

Other than the profusion of weight-saving chamfers, early vardos were of relatively plain design and painted externally in a single, often dark colour (figures 3, 7, 8, 9 & 10).


Fig. 7. A family of travellers outside their Reading type vardo.


Fig. 8. A square-top vardo. Gypsies traditionally made and hawked wooden clothes pegs.


Fig. 9. Douglas and Elizabeth Hern at home with their eight children.


Fig. 10. Flower sellers with their Reading type vardo.

Virtually every element of a vardo was chamfered, scalloped, or carved, not primarily for decoration (though it was always neatly and attractively carried out), but to reduce weight wherever possible (a Reading wagon can weigh 1-1/2 tons).

With the advent of travelling circuses and amusement fairs and all the gaudy eye-catching decoration they embraced, many later vardos were similarly painted. The weight saving chamfers etc. lent themselves well to being picked out in contrasting colours and even gold leaf (figures 11 & 12).


Fig. 11. A lavishly decorated early twentieth-century Dunton Reading wagon.


Fig. 12. Intricately detailed Dunton lock (fore carriage).

I don’t favour the ostentatious, so I will be building an early Reading type living wagon with the obligatory weight-saving chamfers and scallops but restrained painted decoration. I chose the Reading for its large diameter rear wheels which makes rolling easier on gravel roads, and its wide track for better stability on rough roads. I also prefer its ribbed, flat-sided construction to that of a bow-top (I feel there’s less chance of me putting a foot out through the side of it when I’m in bed).


Fig. 13. The inspiration for my Reading style wagon.



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The Easter Hunt

If you were to ask the majority of people these days if they were going to participate in a hunt this Easter, they would likely answer in the affirmative whilst licking their lips.

Traditionally, The Easter Hunt was conducted on horseback and the quarry was foxes or stags, not chocolate.

1. Henry Bunbury, The Easter Hunt at Epping Forest.

2. Thomas Rowlandson, Easter Monday or The Cockney Hunt, circa 1807.

Happy Easter to one and all.


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Rural Felicity

… or Love in a Chaise


The Winds were hush’d, the evening clear.
The Prospect fair, no creature near.
When the fond couple in the chaise
Resolved, each mutual wish to please
The kneeling youth his vigour tries,
While o’er his back she lifts her thighs.
The trotting horse the bliss increases
And all is showing love and kisses.
What couple would not take the air
To taste such joys beyond compare.

Happy Valentine’s Day!


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To Newry for Lunch

It’s been too hot of late here in the southeast of Australia for much driving, but I took a friend to lunch at the Newry Hotel before Christmas.

Sourdough was tied to a tree and enjoyed her shady respite while my friend and I partook of a few beverages and some seasonal fare.


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Season’s Greetings


Whatever your persuasion and situation, I wish you all well during the festive season.


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Stockdale Jaunt

The weekend’s jaunt was to be a fair old distance for me, so to break the journey into more manageable stages, I drove Sourdough over to Brad’s place (about one-and-a-half hour’s drive away) last Saturday where I gave her a feed and yarded her for the night.

I arrived back at Brad’s bright and early on Sunday morning, and got Sourdough harnessed up and hitched to the wagon. Brad and Tex’s horse, Lincoln seemingly had other plans for  the day and gave all three of us the run around for five minutes or so before he was caught and hitched to their jinker.

Around 8:30 the faint clinking of chains and clatter of Clydesdales’ hooves could be heard at the bottom of the valley as Mudguard’s wagon – replete with The Usual Three Passengers (plus George and Sim) – turned into Cemetery Road followed by Dave in his jinker and newcomer, Amber with her two boys, Kane and Jet in their jinker.

We departed Cemetery Road, heading eastwards and then turned into McIntyres Road, again, heading eastwards. When we reached the Stockdale Road, we turned north before turning off eastward again on the North South Track.

We made regular pit stops en route to allow drivers and passengers to alight and establish the back side of a tree. On each occasion, passengers would clamber aboard a different cart for a change in company and experience.

We followed the North South Track through Moornappa Forest until it joined Brownes Road where we turned eastward again. Continuing on past the Boundary 21 Track, we snaked our way along Brownes Road, almost to the Munro-Stockdale Road where we went deeper into the bush and made camp by a small dam.

Disaster! Muddy had forgotten to bring the bread for the snags! I forgot an entire Esky full of bickies, cheese and dips – but Muddy forgot the bread!

161218_stockdale_jaunt_01a 1. Brad has another look for the tail pipe while Muddy breaks the news to Tex.

161218_stockdale_jaunt_02a 2. The restaurant… closed!

Thankfully Warwick came to our rescue, driving over with his family, bringing two small fishes and five barley loaves. And so Muddy brought forth a snag in bread, and said: “Behold this, for it is a snag in bread.” And all about him knew that it was so, for it was white, with a brown bit sticking out of each end.
Oh come on! It was Sunday and we had all set off before the prayer barn opened!

After lunch, we doubled back along Brownes Road, but continued on to the Stockdale Road, where, turning northward on to the Briagolong-Stockdale Road, we set course for “Briag”.

161218_stockdale_jaunt_03a 3. Approaching the Stockdale Road; Jet & Amber, Kane & Dave, Tex (Brad must have fallen out) and Sourdough & …

Thence, by tradition, we ended up at the Briag pub – an element of previous jaunts that the sneaky bastards omitted to tell me about!

161218_stockdale_jaunt_04a 4. Muddy’s (unlicensed) hotel-on-wheels outside the Briag Hotel… in the afternoon sun.

161218_stockdale_jaunt_05a 5. The shadier side of the street…

161218_stockdale_jaunt_06a 6. …where the rest of us tied up.

Friends along the route, either directly hearing our progress, or receiving sitreps by ‘phone, convened at the pub.

161218_stockdale_jaunt_07a 7. Assembled personages on the pub veranda.

The keen-eyed might have noticed the rescue helicopter above Benny’s head in photo 4. As we approached Briag, a MICA ambulance went wailing through town and shortly afterwards a rescue helicopter landed in a nearby paddock. Everyone feared the worst, but one of our entourage was a MICA paramedic who promptly got on the ‘phone to discover the good oil. And the catastrophe that warranted all the flashing lights, sirens and chopper activity? A broken arm!

It was one of those days: Not only did I forget my Esky, hat and sunnies, but when we pulled up for lunch, I forgot to pause the Track app on my phone (which can be fairly hard on the battery). As a result, the battery was drained before our jaunt concluded. However, with a little mathematics and the assistance of someone else’s brain, I concluded we travelled approximately 35km.

I got a lift to Brad’s this morning and drove Sourdough home, so my total distance for the Three Day Event was roughly 65km.


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Coloes Road Jaunt

The weather yesterday morning was somewhat overcast as Sourdough and I set out in the wagon for a short jaunt to the northwest of Boisdale. I rendezvoused with the Briagalong Contingent, comprising, this week, of Brad in his and Tex’s jinker, Dave in his jinker and Mudguard with his self-contained-apartment-on-wheels and The Usual Three Passengers.

We turned northwest off the Boisdale-Newry Road along Locks Road and then shortly after, turned northwards on Coloes Road where we pulled up at Den and Kay’s property for lunch.

nugget_161210_01a 1. Brad’s jinker and Lincoln.

muddy_161210_01a 2. Muddy doing sterling work in the kitchen.

lunch_161210_02a 3. Good company and sustenance.

After we enjoyed a few snags and a couple of welcome coldies, the weather warmed up and we ventured on along Woolshed Lane before turning east on Luckmans Road and homewards.

Though a thoroughly delightful and enjoyable day, my total distance covered was calculated (thanks to the Track app on my ‘phone) at a meagre – by last week’s standard – 26.9 kilometres or 16.7 miles.


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Skeleton Wagons

No, not another name for undertakers’ hearses, rather, they’re a variety of bare-bones single-seater horse-drawn speedster.

Skeleton wagons were the sports car of their time (image 1); lightweight, sleek and fast (assuming something like a pacer or trotter was used to draw them) and were often raced (images 2 & 3).
I find it somewhat odd that the driver in image 1 is holding onto reins, yet there are no shafts or traces connecting the wagon to a horse!

19c_skeleton_wagon_01a 1. Nineteenth-century skeleton wagon, circa 1955. (Getty Images)

black_hawk_and_jenny_lind_01a 2. Black Hawk and Jenny Lind, Union Course, Long Island, Nov. 17th, 1847.

the_great_pole_mares_belle_hamlin__justina_01a 3. The Great Pole Mares, Belle Hamlin & Justina, Trotting To Skeleton Wagon, Oct. 24, 1890.

Designs for skeleton wagons proliferated during the second half of the nineteenth-century, with most basically following the established layout of side-spring buggies (image 4).

concord_side-spring_wagon_01a 4. Late nineteenth-century Abbott concord (side-spring) buggy.

However, the majority of skeleton wagons were without suspension (the heavy conventional side-springs being omitted), relying solely on slender ash or hickory ‘body-bars’ to connect the rear axle with the bolster at the front (image 5). Note the absence of a turntable in both the Concord buggy and Samuel Toomey’s two designs.

toomey_skeleton_wagon_01b 5. Samuel Toomey’s designs for ‘Improvement in Skeleton Wagons’, July 23, 1889.

Hervey Marvin’s design for a skeleton wagon (image 6) is possibly the exception in as much as it provides for some suspension by way of using cantilevered wooden side-bars A, and B, (in conjunction with a rubber fulcrum a,).

marvin_side-spring_wagon_01b 6. Hervey Marvin’s design for an all-wood side-spring skeleton wagon, Dec. 11, 1877.

As with side-spring wagons, many skeleton wagons employed a central reach to which an iron brace was attached that in turn supported the king bolt. Toomey’s designs (image 5) utilise a crossmember-cum-footrest E, to which the king bolt’s brace k, is attached.

The skeleton wagon in image 7 is of a similar design to Toomey’s, employing a substantial, forked iron brace to support the turntable’s king bolt.

skeleton_wagon_02b 7. Skeleton wagon with lightweight turntable.

I have stacks of air-dried sawn ash in a shed, so when time permits; I intend building a couple of Marvin style skeleton wagons.


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