558 N. Main St., Prineville, OR 97754 | (541) 447-6205
A local man finds gratification in overhauling pieces of history with the restoration of wagons and buggies
Bob Smalling stands in front of his recent restoration project-in-progress, a horse-drawn buggy. In the foreground is one of his larger wagons that he restored.
January 10, 2013
“It’s something that I love to do, and I just want to do it all the time.”
That’s how retired carpenter Bob Smalling describes his passion of working with wood. What makes his talent unique is that he creates old wagons and buggies from nothing more than an old, weathered frame.
As he worked on a door to a horse-drawn buggy, his most recent project, he demonstrated how he is restoring one of the doors to the main carriage. In this recent undertaking, he will re-upholster the inside of the carriage, and restore the entire carriage itself — from the frame, to the body of the structure.
To date, he has created five wagons since 2009. He has refurbished two larger wagons, and three smaller ones. The buggy is the first project of its kind that he has done, and he hopes to have it completed by the end of the year. Amazingly, it only takes him between two to five months to completely recreate a wagon.
The first project came about after he found the ‘bones’ of a wagon in the junipers on a hunting trip. It was on private property, so he asked the property owners if they would mind if he took it.
“I took it home and went to work,” he exclaimed. “It was pretty bad. I just built pieces to match what was there. I took the old pieces off and put it back together.”
He pointed out the importance of putting the pieces back together carefully. He assembles it in his shop, where he has his tools, plenty of space, and a warm stove. When he is finished, he assembles and paints the parts, then has to partially disassemble it to get it through the pedestrian-size door to his shop. The shop is attached to a regular car garage — where he can then take his wagon or project out the larger doors and back to storage on the back of his property.
Smalling uses oak for most of his projects, but uses cedar for the beds of his wagons. Cedar won’t rot, buckle, or split when exposed to weather.
“Oak and hickory are real hard woods,” he explained. “There are lots of different hard woods, but it is a more common thing in the United States.”
Oak is also what most of the original wagons were made from. Fir isn’t good to use, because it has pitch in it, and when it gets hot, it seeps.
“There’s no pitch in oak. Everything in those days was originally made out of oak.”
Smalling also creates all the spokes to the wheels on the wagons he restores. The original wheels are usually deteriorated beyond repair, so he takes one good spoke from the wheel and makes a pattern.
“I make one spoke, and then I use that all the way through,” he noted. “That way, they stay the same.”
He also makes a pattern for the wood on the inside, curved part of the wheel. These are held together by a metal band. He explained that when the original owners made the wagons, they would create the band, and then heat the steel. When they expanded it with heat, it was put in place. When it cooled down, it adhered to the wheel, holding the spokes in place.
Smalling also creates most of the parts of the wagon from the old pieces he has to work with, but many times, there isn’t that much left to recreate. He often has to make some of the metal hardware as well, often cutting and shaping it himself. Sometimes he is fortunate enough to find pieces and parts at auctions or other venues.
The wood in the wagons is either refurbished or a pattern is created for replacement wood. He pointed out the many pieces of a delivery wagon he had made from little more than a partial frame. He had to create most of the pattern for the wood and the metal himself, and the result was a work of art. Most of his wagons are a combination of what was original, what he has picked up, and what he has made himself.
“It is what you would call a buckboard,” Smalling said of the wagon. “They used them to go to town and back for supplies.”
For this particular wagon, he had to use pictures as a reference.
His background in construction and carpentry gave Smalling the skills that he uses in his creations, but mostly he just has a passion for creating projects from wood. He also made all of the wood cabinets for his wife’s kitchen, which is surrounded by tongue-and-groove cedar paneling. A bay window, which he also created and designed, graces the dining room. Everywhere in his home, there are projects — coffee tables, wood moldings, and more paneling.
“I just love to work with wood,” indicated Smalling. “When I retired I said, ‘I am not going to sit down, because you don’t last long when you sit down.”’
Currently, he doesn’t have any plans to sell any of his wagons. He is considering displaying them at some shows, and he has shared them in local parades and at the annual Crook County Fair.
“I may get so many, I might not have any place to put them. I may have to sell something,” he laughed.