Mechanical Advantage - Building a Half Sled-Half Wagon

by Ralph Rice
April  – May 2021
Moving heavy loads is made much easier by employing basic engineering principles. The lever and fulcrum come to mind; Archimedes was a powerful thinker. A piece of equipment that showcases a type of mechanical advantage is the ever-evolving log cart.
The finished Sap Rig, with tongue attached to the fifth wheel runners.
sap wagon/sled

To get the most efficient use out of our animals, making the job easier, the load lighter or the distance shorter, pays huge dividends. The animals can work more hours. The job can be done quicker or safer. The man, too, benefits when things go smoothly. Sometimes its as easy as frozen ground or skidding downhill but most often involves some thinking on the man’s part.

I made the switch from large Percheron horses to smaller, chunkier Suffolk Punch horses. The Suffolks are powering my farm just as well as the Percherons did. My only issue is that my main team of Percheron horses were geldings. The Suffolk’s are mares. This makes no difference in power, but my timing of their pregnancy and our maple syrup season coincide.

If my mares did daily work like hauling out manure from a dairy herd, working in the maple sap woods would be of very little concern. Sure, they haul firewood, plow the drive and pull a tire around, but this work doesn’t “harden” a horse. It keeps them fit and mentally tuned, but no real straining like happens on a big load of wet manure on soft ground. This same strain can come in the maple woods when the weather turns dry, no snow or even mud to help the loaded sled slide. If this happened when I had my Percherons, I would just add a third horse. Currently, that isn’t an option for me. .
As a small boy, I remember my grandfather having a sort of hybrid vehicle. It was half sled, half wagon. I couldn’t remember much more about it, but I know that he used it to haul maple sap. I decided to make a similar rig to haul my sap. The wheeled/sled vehicle will give my mares a mechanical advantage, especially on those dry days.

My friend, Joel Baldwin, and I built this rig from farm junk and the front “bob” from my old sap gathering sled. We used the back half of a running gear. We flipped the running gear over to make it lower to the ground. We bolted a cross bar to the front with a slot so it could twist a little bit. Where the wagon reach bolted to this cross bar, we made a “fifth wheel” pin. The fifth wheel pin drops into the back bunk of the bob sled. We made a metal plate on the bob sled bunk and countersunk it a bit. This is mostly a wear plate for the fifth wheel to turn on and reinforce the area the pin bolts through. I was scared not to put a nut on the end of the pin, so it is a long bolt that holds the two pieces (front and back) together.

sled floor sled construction
The floor of the rig is built from rubber-coated mesh flooring from a pig nursery crate.
The fifth wheel apparatus allows the runners to float independently of the rig's floor.

We kept the construction light, yet sturdy. The expanded metal floor is made from a pig nursery crate floor. It is rubber coated allowing for a non-slip surface but lets snow, mud and debris fall through. The sap tank measures 5 feet long and 32 inches wide. It will sit on the platform with about a foot on each side to step up on or walk around. My guardrail is mostly for tying my lines but makes a good handle for old men and children to get on and off. We even added a couple steps on the back for the same reason. We left the old wagon running gear wagon hitch in place to attach a child’s sled, just for fun sometimes.

I did not level the platform. We may do that if needed. I like the idea that it will drain the tank anywhere it is parked. The slope is just a bit over 4 inches, so can easily be leveled. The only drawback to it being slanted is that my tank can’t be filled to the very top. It may make the difference of 15 to 20 gallons, or 3 or 4 buckets. If we have to make one more trip because of the lack of room in the tank, I will just chalk it up to the opportunity to make a few more memories. This season comes once a year. It is fun, so why not prolong the fun?

I attached a tongue to the sled but did not make it ridged. It attaches to a ring on the sled. It will keep the sled from running up on the horses but allow for turning in close spots without upsetting the whole affair. This thing maneuvers very well. It will almost turn around in its own footprint. I also bolted high density plastic to the front runners. This lets the runners slide almost effortlessly on snow or mud, but also glide very well on the hard, dry ground that sometimes comes with the season.

At this point, my sap rig is a sort of prototype. I have pulled it around empty and am very excited to try it loaded down with sap. My sap tank holds 210 gallons, so it weights in the neighborhood of 1,600 pounds when loaded, plus the weight of the rig and myself. It is between a quarter to a half mile from my farthest taps to the sugarhouse. We use common sense and gather the furthest first, while headed towards the sugarhouse. It still takes five to six round trips to complete the job of gathering all the sap. We stop at every few trees. There is a lot of starting, stopping and standing followed by the trip to the sugarhouse unloading ramp.

sap wagon/sled completed
Here you can see the steps built at the back of the rig and the rail for tying lines and helping people mount the vehicle.

The horses are working with their winter coats still on, in multiple weather conditions … sometimes all in the same day! The warm, almost hot, days are the toughest. When the forest floor gets bone dry, hauling the sap sled can be a big job. It is my hope this new sap rig gives my tough, chunky, albeit pregnant mares, just the advantage they need to have an easy day. This will make maple season just as sweet for them as it is for me.

Rice farms in northern Ohio with his Suffolk horses. This article appeared in the April/May 21 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.To read more from Ralph, visit his blog at:
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