An Oxen Dump Cart

by Rob Collins
April – May 2024
Ask oxen teamsters which implement they would choose if they could only have one, and nine times out of 10, it will be a stone boat or a sled. The simplicity and usefulness of a sled is hard to deny, but I'd be loath to give up my oxcarts. Carts maneuver easily in tight spaces, challenge the teamster and the team and look historical all at the same time. The downside to a cart is that historic examples are often too weather- worn to be of much use and, since they are sized for animals of long ago, they don’t fit today’s bigger oxen without modification. This leaves most oxen teamsters searching for options in term s of a cart. A solid, practical option is to build your own. Having built a few, worked a few more and inspected more still, I'm convinced that cartwrighting is accessible for anyone with a basic home/farm repair toolkit.
oxen pulling cart
Pictured here is a cart Rob built in the Fall of 2023, loaded and ready to transport its cargo.
Photo by Rob Collins
At the start of the pandemic shutdown in March 2020, I found myself with time at home and a small stack of lumber. So, I designed and built a fairly large, light duty cart for my big oxen –more of a "showy" cart than “The $100 Oxcart" that gets regular use on the farm for dirty jobs like hauling manure. Four years later, the 2020 cart is still a great cart, but details like mortise and tenon construction make it a little too complicated for the first-time builder. Since building the 2020 cart, I built a dump cart to donate to the Midwest Ox Drovers Association (MODA) raffle in 2021, organized the building of a traditional cart and another dump cart during the 2022 and 2023 MODA Gatherings, respectively, made a couple of calf carts for my young Devons, and rebuilt "The $100 Oxcart" twice, adding features such as a dump mechanism. Each build helped streamline the process a little more, where I now feel confident about sharing the design and process.

The design details here are based on the cart we built for artist and teamster Ruth Burke at the 2023 MODA Gathering. Collaborating with MODA members and the staff at Tillers International on both the design and the build was fun and barely felt like work. I also built a variation of this cart, sized for a young team in the fall of 2023, and I will add a couple of adjustments from that build as well. Starting with historic examples of carts, with an eye toward reinventing them with modern materials and processes, I put a few self-imposed constraints on the design:

 1. Construction should require only basic skills. Anyone with access to home repair tools and the ability to frame a wall should be able to construct the cart.
 2. A modular design means replacing any board or section that breaks or rots is an easy process.
 3. Off-the-shelf materials lower the barrier to building a cart like this for most oxen teamsters. If you can forge or fabricate parts yourself, by all means, do so. This design easily adapts to those processes as well.

dump cart underside
Here is Rob's fall 2023 cart in its dump position.

Get Rolling with the Wheels

We began with the wheels because every decision somehow connects back to them. For a “modern” cart, recycling a set of steel wheels from a farm implement makes a lot of sense: they are strong durable and generally available in rural areas. Large diameter wheels – 40 inches or more – are common on hay rakes, grain drills, hay loaders and manure spreaders, and they match the scale of historical carts while rolling easily over moderately rough ground.

Having the wheels in hand dictates the next step: attaching the wheels to an axle. I hesitate to go into specifics for a particular set of wheels, but a solid axle with some sort of pins to hold the wheels creates a foolproof design and is plenty durable for the slow speeds involved with a team of oxen.

Since I’m always on the lookout for wheels I can use on the "next" cart, I picked up a set of hay rake wheels – 42 inches in diameter – for Ruth’s cart in 2022. They were solid and straight, but the axle holes were a little pitted. Machinists and MODA members, Brian Alfonsi and Lea Fales, volunteered to build axles. In the past, I used a full-length axle, but now much prefer a stub axle welded to a plate. For this cart project, having machinists on board gave a chance to show off what they could do a bit. Because the cast iron hubs were pitted, Brian Alfonsi bored them out to 1.505 inches, added grease zerks, and then welded stub axles made from 1.500 inch 1045 TG&P (turned, ground, and polished) steel to a 5-inch-by-10-inch steel plate. As Brian said, “So long as the hubs get a shot of grease every now and then, they will roll effortlessly and provide the tank-like durability desired!”

Note: For the fall 2023 cart, I found a set of vintage 42-inch wooden wheels with metal hubs. I had Miller’s Carriage in Shipshewana, Ind., press in a new set of boxings and then weld stub axles onto plates, similar to Ruth’s cart. The difference is that with new boxings and hubs, we added roller bearings. They are not strictly necessary, but they are shockingly quiet and easy rolling. Miller’s also angled the axles to the 2.5 degrees I specified to accommodate for the dish in the wooden wheels.
driving oxen
Ruth Burke drives Clark and Sparky put to the cart that MODA members built during the 2023 Gathering. Photo by Pala Blough


This cart design is based on a solid, wooden “axle” carrying the box, or bed, of the cart, and a separate tongue mechanism, which allows for dumping. An easy source for the wooden axle is a treated 6-by-6-inch cut to length, in this case 46 inches to accommodate a 44-inch-wide bed with an inch of overhang at each end. We bolted the stub axle plates to the underside of the wooden axle using 5-inch Spax lag screws designed for exterior use.
dump cartmicrogreens shoot tray
This view of the underside of the cart's undercarriage shows the stub axles welded to plates that are then lagged to a 6-inch by 6-inch wooden axle
This illustration shows how the dump assembly is constructed.

Tongue Frame

Similar to historical carts I had seen, the dumping mechanism of this cart relies on a rectangular frame made of two-by material which holds the tongue. Rails and crossmembers are simply bolted together with 3⁄8-by-31⁄2-inch bolts. The back crossmember of this frame has lap joints cut into the underside. These joints house a pair of off-the- shelf, 14-inch gate hinges. After a little discussion, we decided to center the gate hinges on the rails, then center the rear crossmember on the middle hole of the gate hinges (each hinge has 3 holes). Once the gate hinges are installed, the frame has a large amount of lateral stiffness, although I still might suggest some form of triangle bracing as a “belt and suspenders” approach to overbuilding (see note below).

dump cart tongue frame
Before the final tongue frame was attached, this prototype frame helped the crew fine-tune the design. Photo by Rob Collins
Note: For the cart I built in the fall of 2023, I used a similar design, but with smaller dimensions and gate hinges with only two bolts. This design lacked the lateral stiffness it needed. A side-stepping team, even a small one, has incredible leverage out at the end of the tongue. A quick fix was to bolt in a “plate” of recycled 3⁄4-plywood within the tongue frame. That stiffened things up considerably, and I haven’t had any problems with it in probably 40 hours of work time. I’ll keep an eye on it all the same.

The wooden axle has a pair of horizontal through holes spaced out to mate with the gate hinges. These holes are sized for an off-the-shelf gate pin. The pins slide into the hinges, and then the whole assembly gets driven through the holes in the wooden axle and secured with nuts on the backside. Having done this operation solo on the prototype using “The $100 oxcart,” you’ll appreciate having a couple of friends to guide the assembled frame onto the wooden axle.

On Ruth’s cart, the tongue was bolted to the frame with two, 1⁄2-inch carriage bolts and a pair of spacer blocks cut on a 12-degree angle, thanks to Rob Burdick's calculations. These blocks – which can be substituted for different angles as a team grows – put the tongue on an upward slope so the bed sits level when the tongue is attached to a team.
dump cart bed
Ruth Burke, Bob Collins, Ed Nelson (hidden behind Bob) and Rob Collins work on installing the bed by drilling holes and installing 3-inch carriage bolts. MODA photo

Time to Make a Bed

To make for a modular and easily repairable bed, we used treated 5/4-inch deck boards bolted to front and rear crossmembers. (Ruth’s cart uses eight 6-foot-long deck boards, while the fall 2023 cart uses seven 5-foot-6-inch-long deck boards) The 5-inch-wide crossmembers extend 6 inches beyond the bed width on either side. On Ruth’s cart, we laid out the deck boards to determine the best show faces, clamped the crossmembers in place – leaving a 3-inch overhang front and rear – then drilled 3⁄8-inch through holes to allow for bolting the bed to the cross members. In this case, we used 3⁄8-by-3- inch galvanized carriage bolts, since the deck boards were pressure-treated lumber. The cross members were ripped from a yellow pine (nontreated) 2-by-12 inches.

dump cart detailsdump cart bed construction
The 35-degree, four-sided bevel on the cross provides a finished look. The corner bracket forged by Dave Kramer are also shown here. Photo by Rob Collins.
Anneka Baird installs the Spax lags to secure the bed to the wooden axle, staggering them alternately. MODA Photo

I like to put a 35-degree, four-sided bevel on both ends of the cross members. It dresses them up but, more importantly, keeps the ends from chipping. Doing so adds about two minutes of time to each end to cut them with a miter saw but is more than worth the time. Dave Kramer, a longtime Tillers’ staff member, shop teacher and master craftsman, mentions that he has begun building carts internationally without the extensions on the crossmembers, as the extensions can abruptly meet the corners of buildings. I continue to use the extended cross members for the aesthetics and to add brackets to hold the sides in place, but I think of that advice whenever we’re carting close to a barn.

Prototype versions of this cart had a third crossmember which sat on top of the wooden axle, only adding more height to the cart without adding more stability. Instead, for this iteration, we used Spax 3⁄8-by-6-inch exterior lag screws to attach the bed to the wooden axle. The prototypes use only three lag screws and seem to be durable, however we used eight – one per deck board – staggering them alternately toward the front then the back of the cart. This adds a little more rigidity than simply centering each lag on the wooden axle. We did pre- drill the deck boards to ensure that they didn't split upon assembly. Keep in mind that the wooden axle, being rigidly attached to the bed, allows the “wheel axles” to act as the fulcrum for dumping. Dumping thecartdoes,however,create an odd sensation for the team; the tongue rises slightly in the back, while the entire tongue is pulled back a couple of inches. Most oxen adapt within a brief time, but keep an eye out at first with a new team or cart.
attaching corner brackets
Bob Collins, Rob Collins and Ruth Burke attach the corner brackets. MODA Photo

Ahead of the building day, Dave Kramer forged us a beautiful set of 5-by-11-inch corner brackets that we bolted to the cross members, for attaching the sides of the bed. These brackets were secured with 3⁄8-by-2-inch carriage bolts. Drilling for the holes was a simple matter of holding the brackets and drilling through, so the holes lined up perfectly.

Note: For the fall 2023 cart, I used four shelf brackets from Lee Valley Hardware to hold the sides in place. They come powder coated, rated for a huge load, and at a reasonable price. They are a little under-sized, but I am happy with them so far, although I did have to drill out the 1⁄4-inch mounting holes to 5/16 inch.

Each side of the bed was a yellow pine 2-by-12, cut to a length of 70 inches. This way, the bed extends by 1 inch on the front and the back. This is a matter of preference; I have carts with the extension and without; let vanity be your guide here.

Once the sides were in place, we screwed a pair of 11⁄4-foot-by-11⁄2-inch of yellow pine battens at each end to create a pocket for the front and rear gates. We cut the front and rear gates – also from 2-by-12s – and used them as the spacers to make the pockets. Since we had the parts painted ahead of time, all that was needed was a little touch up paint and to paint the end grain, and the bed was done.

front end gate
The front end gate sits in a pocket and is held tight by the threaded rod spanning the width of the cart. Photo by Rob Collins

Note: For the fall 2023 cart, I extended the sides another 6 inches by joining a 2-by-12 with a second, narrower yellow pine board. Holding the sides together are a pair of 1-by-3-by-15-inch battens, shaped to match a design on a historical wagon at Sauder Village. I also bolted the gate pockets on with 5/16-inch bolts rather than attaching them with screws. This seems to hold the sides from cupping a little better and is likely more durable.

I also added a 3⁄8-inch threaded rod and an eye bolt to pull the bed up tight. A ceiling flange (from the electrical department) on the right side of the cart holds the rod, while a coupling nut joins the eye bolt from the left side, adding tremendous stiffness.

Bed Latch

Tillers blacksmith
Morgan Pell forged the hammer strap in the Tillers blacksmith shop. Photo by Rob Collins

The only feature of the cart not sketched out ahead of time turned out to be the most time-consuming. Go figure. Historical carts have several unique ways to hold down the bed and keep it from dumping during transport. These range from simple to quite complicated, likely due as much to the skill of the builder and the materials on hand as to the functionality. When it came time to install our latch, we brainstormed several options, keeping in mind three basic criteria: simplicity, sturdiness, and cost.

We settled on a latch made from three eyebolts we scavenged from old turnbuckles. John Sarge, Tillers’ shops coordinator, found us the three turnbuckles, which we stripped down for parts.

One eyebolt was used as a retaining bolt for the hammer strap – beautifully forged by blacksmith Morgan Pell – while the other two were bolted to the underside of the bed. Brian Alfonsi and Rob Burdick spearheaded building and adjusting the three eyebolts, and Anneka Baird suggested using a long 3⁄8-inch rod with an L-shaped handle forged into it as the pin. That way, the operator can stand beside the cart while dumping it, rather than getting in by the tongue to pull the pin. Rob Burdick fashioned a simple stop block for the handle. Gravity keeps the handle in place, while a quarter turn allows the handle to slide out for dumping.

cart bed latch
A closeup view of the latch. Photo by Rob Collins
Note: I replicated the same design of three eye bolts on the fall 2023 cart but used a 1⁄2-inch draw pin with a cotter pin as the release. With a small team on this cart, there is plenty of room to get behind them to pull the pin. Time will tell if that remains the case.

dump cart in action with oxen team
Ruth Burke tries out the finished MODA/Tillers cart with Clark and Sprky. Photo by Ellen Armstron Bellemore
My final thought on carts (for now, I guess) is this word play. I suggest we approach carts as a “draft implement.” Certainly, carts are for use with draft animals, but they should be thought of as being a draft of the implement, as in a “rough draft.” Ruth hitched her team onto the cart the same day we started the build. The next day, she took it to a perfect score in the obstacle course. Today, it’s home on her farm and being used. But it likely isn’t “done.” Use and necessity will dictate modifications. Will it need flare sides for hauling wood or compost? A seat for line driving? Hay racks for loose hay? A toolbox and a supply box for fencing? A perch for a dog? It’s too soon to tell, but the first draft is done, and we can take pride in that. rh house logo.
This article appeared in the April/May 2024 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.
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