How to Build a Wooden Conestoga Wagon

By Tamasin Wedgwood
Adapt these directions to make a full-size wagon or a scale model.

The precise origins of the Conestoga wagon are unclear, but most likely a farm cart was adapted first to travel the wooded hills of Pennsylvania and ultimately to travel out West. This iconic vehicle features a canvas wagon cover and a curved wagon bed shaped to stop cargoes shifting. The cover leaned outward at both ends, giving protection from the weather. Wheels were large and the wagon rode high upon them. This enabled the wagon to cross rough terrain, drive over tree stumps and even ford rivers without the contents getting wet.

Preparation

Read about Conestoga wagons; visit museums. Familiarize yourself with the structure and construction of horse-drawn vehicles — this will enhance your ability to make your own.

Decide what size wagon to make — a full-size Conestoga takes a large amount of seasoned timber and requires rear wheels between 54- and 70-inch diameter; front wheels are only 10 inches smaller. Consider storage needs and budget restraints (see “Resource” for wheel prices).

Use a scale ruler to adapt the wagon blueprints to any size of model. Adjust materials to suit chosen scale — full-size wagon hoops are made in steamed wood; thin willow twigs may suffice for models. Canvas may be replaced with lighter fabric in a small model.

Compile a parts list and cutting diagram. Carefully mark out all wood components. Saw and sand till smooth.

Assembly

Begin with the wagon floor — authentically this should be concave. Where wood components need bending, cut plywood to the curve required; use this as a mold to shape steamed wood strips (see “References” and “Resources” for detailed instructions). Fix curved sections together and fit wagon sides per plans. Attach wooden pegs at regular intervals along each wagon side, near the top edge — these will secure the wagon cover.

Follow the plans to construct the wagon tongue, wheel assembly and braking system (see "References"). Secure wheels to axles with wooden pegs — these pass through both wheel hub and axle. Attach wagon bed to wheel assembly using metal brackets.

Assemble and attach the feed box to the rear. Add an authentic “lazy board” to the front for the driver to ride on, or substitute a bench seat.

Use steam bending method to shape the green sticks into hoops for the roof; bend flexible twigs manually for small models. Secure to either side of the wagon bed using metal brackets, sized to suit. Angle front and rear hoops outwards, to form canopy. Connect hoops together with one long stick along the apex.

Wagon Cover

Cut a canvas rectangle slightly longer than the wagon bed and as wide as the measurement up and over a hoop. Cut two smaller rectangles the same width and long enough to form the canopy ends. Sew one to each end of the larger rectangle.

Use sewing machine to hem along the three-part canvas on both long sides. Cut eyelet holes at regular intervals along the hemmed sides, or attach fabric loops.

Fold back the two unhemmed ends and sew, creating a casing large enough to hold a rope or string, depending on wagon scale. Thread a rope through each end casing.

Place cover over the wagon roof hoops. Pull on ropes in front and back to form gathered openings — pulling tight should close them fully. Secure cover to wagon by threading more ropes through eyelet holes and around the pegs in wagon sides.

About the Author

Based in the Isle of Man, Tamasin Wedgwood has been writing on historical topics since 2007. Her articles have appeared in "The International Journal of Heritage Studies," "Museum and Society" and "Bobbin and Shuttle" magazine. She has a Master of Arts (Distinction) in museum studies from Leicester University.