Just over a year ago, we were told of a cannon carriage that was needed for the upcoming (now open) American Revolution Museum at Yorktown.
They needed a 24-pound Siege Carriage.
When it comes to building wooden cannon carriages, they don’t get too much bigger than this one!
Once we were told to get to work, we wanted to make the carriage look as historically accurate as we could. Barring a time machine, to take us back to 1781, the next best option was De Scheel’s Treatise of Artillery.
This book was originally written for the French Office of War in 1800. Thankfully the Museum Restoration Service did a small reprint of the book in the 70s and we have one of those! Inside are dozens of plates of drawings of cannon, carriages and other artillery supplies. Each drawing is accompanied by measurement scales.
The page we were most interested in, of course, was the “24-pound battering carriage” or siege carriage.
(**NOTE – Some people said my last blog took too long to load because of the big pictures, so the pictures in this blog are smaller, but you can click on them to see the original, large image)
A quick crunching of the numbers let us know we were going to need massive pieces of wood to create this carriage. For the cheeks (sides) the wood was almost 14-feet-long, 2-feet-tall and over 5-inches-wide.
We were also going to need a bigger work table. Project #1 – building a 16-foot-long , 2 1/2-foot-wide table. It was made with retractable wheels to be a great work space that allowed us to roll the massive timbers around the shop.
In came the wood.
As you can imagine, timbers that are 14 feet long and over 5 inches thick are not light and easy to move. This is why we have hoists and forklifts. We also constructed a lot of rolling tables that could help shift the weighty pieces about as we worked on them.
Cutting this size of wood is also not something you can do with a regular saw. Thankfully, Lawrence loves old, big machines, and we have an early 1900s bandsaw that was right at home making its way through the timbers.
I am sorry to say I did not take as many pictures of us working on the rest of the construction process as I should have. I suppose it was because I was, well, working! But I do have a few.
Here’s how you drill the bolt holes on such a large carriage.
Then it was on to metalwork.
When it comes to these carriages, if you want it to look right, you have to make it yourself. That goes all the way down to the nuts and bolts!
The process of making the nuts was the subject of my nightmares – cutting dozens of steel squares, drilling them and then the painful process of threading each of those darn squares into a nut by hand.
Here’s a look at Lawrence as he was working on one of the trunnion caps (cap squares).
Getting By With A Little Help From Our Friends
Since we were on a timeline, we called in a few other people to help on this project. In the case of the wheels, which are quite the ordeal to make, we turned to Dave Engel of Engel’s Coach Shop.
Lawrence talked to many wheelwrights and explained the steep dishing, the curve of the spokes and the mortise and tendon attachment of the felloes depicted in the historic technical drawings, not to mention the size of the hubs (and that they needed to be a solid, single piece of wood, not laminated). Many of them thought he was crazy.
Dave listened to Lawrence detail just how he wanted the wheels, and while he may have still thought we were crazy, he signed on for the job!
In order for Dave to make the hubs, he had to search hundreds of miles to find a tree trunk that was big enough to turn into the right size.
Once the wooden part of the wheels were finished, they weighed 360lbs each. That’s the weight before paint, before the strakes and other metal work were attached. The metal boosted them up to over 500 lbs each!
In the shop, we had some help from our buddy Tomm Tommlinson.
He made a trek all the way down from Maine and took on some of the metalwork!
Piecing It Together
Eventually, we closed in on completion. While you can’t see everything in this picture (there are plenty of wood pieces and at least another pallet of metal out of the frame of the photo), you can get an idea for the puzzle that was coming together. This was right after we started priming the metal. It would all get a few coats of paint before final assembly.
While I am going to spare you the ‘seeing it together’ pictures until we get to the museum, I will show you a few size reference pictures I have from various parts of the carriage. Just remember, I’m 5’9″ and Lawrence is 6’3″.
Getting To the Museum
Once we had everything fit together, we were ready to head north, to get this big baby to Virginia! The carriage is too big to go into a moving truck intact, so we had to split it into two pieces – the trail (body) and the wheels and axle. Even at that, the pieces were barely going to fit within the measurements Uhaul gave us for their 20 foot truck, if their measurements were correct. They were not.
Going by their measurements we had just over an inch or so to spare on the wheel and axle assembly and cart they were attached to. But as we tried to get it inside the truck, it wouldn’t fit. Let’s just say before the night was done, a chainsaw was brought into the equation and part of the cart was sacrificed to allow the pieces to fit.
Getting the carriage in place, on it’s stage, and married to it’s cannon counterpart, was a day-long event.
While we were making the carriage in Florida, artist David Turner was sculpting the cannon in Virginia. He met us at the museum with his creation so we could marry the pair.
Assembly meant a few dings and a little abuse, so there were final touch ups….
To see our carriage in place was a thrill.
And every time I bring up their websites …
or see the carriage in the news…
We get to relive that thrilled feeling time and time again.
We were truly honored to be a part of this project!
By the way, If you haven’t been to the new museum, I highly recommend it!
In addition to saying hello to the carriage, make sure you go into the theater the carriage is in front of. It’s a 4D experience and a brilliantly done movie with a lot of cannon fire. Lawrence loved it so much he wouldn’t leave the theater when we were there and we watched it multiple times.
Additionally, check out the interactive exhibits like the ‘battle simulator’. It sets up historic battles and allows you to choose a side and how you would fight the battle. Then it plays out the battle (using your choices) and lets you see how you did. Lawrence challenged Jay Templin (the best living history interpreter at the museum, in our opinion) to a battle. While Lawrence may be a cannon expert, it seems he is not a battle strategy expert. He lost.
Also, right now they are in the midst of opening even more of the new museum and living history areas around it.
Their Website has all the details of the new openings. I hope to get out there in a week or so and show off some of the new stuff in a future blog!