Draft Animal Equipment

A $100 Ox Cart

ox cart
by Rob Collins
I must confess that I find myself daydreaming about owning a small utility vehicle on my farm. I envision myself using it to convey all sorts of tools and equipment out to a jobsite. Sometimes, I look longingly at the advertisements and see myself hauling a few bales of hay or straw around. In pretty short order, though, my wallet snaps me back to reality. The cost of such a vehicle might very well tie up several year’s worth of the equipment budget, and, much of the time, it would remain idle.

While the gas-powered utility vehicle of today has a number of fine features, it is overkill for the majority of tasks. Instead, the ultimate utility vehicle on a small animal-powered farm was designed many centuries earlier: the ox cart. Many historic examples of carts survive today, but they are becoming a little too fragile for everyday use. With a minimal investment of time and materials, a farm-built ox cart can be assembled and put to use.

When building a cart, a few basic considerations are necessary. First, what, and how much, will you be hauling? A cart designed for hauling 2 yards of gravel would have to be built like a tank: enough so as to make hand, a calf training cart built to hold only a few cubic feet of fairly light material would be useful for just a few months each time you had small calves learning to work.

For our purposes, we’ll aim somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. The cart described below can easily hold around a half to a full cubic yard of material while not overwhelming a young team weighing 400 to 500 pounds each. Beyond that limit, the excessive weight makes it such that balance becomes an issue when loading and unloading, and a four-wheeled wagon is a more practical choice.

Next, as a matter of logic, a simple cart should be able to be built, or at least repaired, on the farm. Many fine carts were, and are, built in fancy shops for purchase, but the cart here is designed to go together with solid and practical joinery that is within the reach of most folks with a moderate tool kit. If you still want to pay a neighbor a few dollars to assemble the cart, feel free; but know that you could do it.

Finally, just as my dreams of a shiny new utility vehicle come to a quick end when it’s time to pay, a practical consideration must be the cost of a cart. As this is a daily user for an animal powered farm, it is important to keep the cost low. That being said, total cash outlay for this cart is around $100. Yep, you read that right. About $100. But a few lucky things worked in my favor to help keep the cost so low. Realistically, $200 to $300 would be a fair estimate to build one from the ground up. So let’s get started.

Wheels First
Before any work on designing the box for the cart can begin, it’s necessary to procure a set of wheels. All decisions of design have to begin with the wheels and axles. Wheels are the most complex step if you are going to build them. Unless you’ve got experience in this area, starting with a set of existing wheels makes the most sense. (bonus here)

One of the most durable and simple-to-adapt sets of wheels comes from a steel wheeled wagon running gear. Thousands of very similar wheels once rolled across this country, and many of them are just waiting to be repurposed into cartwheels. The kinds of wheels in question have a steel rim, welded spokes and a hub with a tapered bearing that bolts onto the wheel itself. These wheels typically rode on a wooden axle and were shorter or taller depending on which end of the wagon they were attached to.

For my cart, I was lucky enough to have a set of wheels given to me (thereby keeping costs down at $0 to start). Once you have a set of wheels, those wheels drive the next few steps.
The Axle
Next, it is necessary to attach the wheels to some type of wooden axle for three reasons: it facilitates attaching the box to the axle, wood fits our criteria for easy workability on the farm, and, finally, the hubs were originally designed to mate with wooden axles. Remember, there’s a well-worn expression cautioning against reinventing wheels.

Probably the most readily available axle material is a length of 4-by-4 post. I had an old length of cedar post on the farm and used that, but Douglas fir, or even pressure treated pine, would work.

The width of the cart depends on the width of the axle, but some practical limits should guide the decision. Unless there’s a specific need, avoid going too narrow with the width, as narrow carts, especially light ones, tend to tip easily. This is especially true with oxen that are unaccustomed to sidestepping in turns. Even a little pressure from their legs can cause the wheels to slide sideways, upsetting the cart. On the other hand, excessive width can make for difficult maneuvering around obstacles. As with most things, a reasonable compromise can usually be found. An axle width of about 52 inches results, in this case, with the inside of the hubs being spaced out 38 inches, a nice sized bed to load and unload.

To easily shape the ends of the axle to fit inside the metal hubs, first draw the approximate shape of the taper on two adjacent surfaces of the axle blank. Then, bandsaw, jigsaw, or even circular saw them to roughly the right shape. From there, a few minutes with a rasp to round off the corners should result in a tight fit. Take your time and repeatedly fit the hub on the axle to check the fit. If the hubs are slightly greasy and/or rusty, that works to your advantage, as the marks left on the axle are good indicators of where to remove material. Once both hubs fit on the axle, it is necessary to determine which is the right and which is the left hub, as the right wheel is conventionally threaded, and the left wheel has left-hand threads.

Some sets of wheels had a bracket to hold a metal pipe, presumably to keep the axle from rotating. If this is the case, a good solution is to fit a length of pipe between the brackets and sandwich the pipe, front and back, with a pair of 1-by-11/2 inch boards, also fit between the axles. This will raise the bed of the cart an additional inch and also add some stability to the axle assembly.
ox cart plan with dimensions
The Bed: Built-in Bracing

Typically, one of the obstacles to building a cart is the complicated triangular bracing needed to stabilize the tongue, but, with this design, the bed itself accomplishes this task. Basically, the bed is a glued-up solid panel with a pair of battens underneath to add strength. The battens also provide a location for brackets to attach the sides of the box. The tongue is attached underneath the axle and also to the front batten, which adds a tremendous amount of side-to-side strength without any additional structure.

As for materials, any strong, dense wood should work well. In our part of the country, one of the best materials for projects like this comes from an unlikely source. Home Depot (but strangely, not the other “big box” stores) stocks large size (2-by-10 and 2-by- 12-inch) lumber in southern yellow pine, sometimes also known as longleaf pine. It is strong, durable and reasonably priced. Most often, southern yellow pine is seen in pressure treated form, which should be avoided for carts. Pressure treated wood is typically dripping wet with moisture and warps considerably upon drying.

It is not an absolute must to avoid all knots in a “user” cart such as this, but use care to find the straightest, flattest boards you can. Often, the longer boards came from straighter logs, so if you can get 12-16 foot lengths they are worth the extra hassle of breaking them down.

For carts being stored outside, the more weather resistant hardwoods such as white oak would make a fine cart if you have a ready source for good lumber.

For the bottom of the bed, select and rip cut four to five individual boards to equal a width of 38 inches. I prefer to leave them all a little over the final length of 59 inches. Then lay them out and glue them edge-to-edge. To make a stronger joint, and a more durable cart, cutting “ship laps” on the bed results in an enormous amount of glue surface. If that’s not an option, ripping a straight edge on each and gluing the boards together would certainly suffice. Good, waterproof glue, such as Titebond III, is worth the extra few dollars on these joints.

Once the glue is cured, you can immediately move on to the next step, but instead, an hour (or less) with a good, sharp plane or belt sander to flatten what will become the inside of the bed is time well spent. Unloading the cart is much easier if the bottom is smooth and flat.

The next step is to cut the bed to length. The easiest way is to guide a circular saw with a straight edge. A nice touch is to cut each corner at a 45-degree angle. This is a quick job with a handsaw, but worth the effort; it makes the corners unlikely to catch on fence posts, doorways and, especially, knees.

Battens next

The battens are simply a 2-by-6-inch board cut 12 inches longer that the width of the bed itself. If you prefer, the ends can be dressed up a bit with a series of bevels. Space the battens out 6 inches from each end of the bed and drill a series of 1/4-inch holes through the bed and the batten to bolt the two together. Once the holes are drilled, counterboring them on the bottom side of the batten allows for shorter bolts and keeps the bolts from protruding from the bottom of the cart. Then bolt the assembly together. The same process of drilling, counterboring and bolting is used to secure the bed to the axle. From here, a little metalworking is necessary.

A Minimum of Metalwork

The tongue will attach to the axle and the forward batten with a four lengths of angle iron drilled to accept a 1/2-inch bolt through the tongue at the axle and a ⅜-inch bolt at the batten. These need not be fancy, but take the time to line up the holes carefully, since that will make removing and replacing the tongue easier down the road.

While you’re working with metal, take a little time to weld up four brackets to hold the sides. They can easily be made with either flat stock or angle iron with a diagonal brace welded in for support. A pair of 1/4-inch holes on each leg will allow for them to be bolted to the batten and the sides. There’s never an easier time to paint these parts than now, so a couple of coats of paint and the brackets can be set aside.

An alternative to farm-made brackets would be to use a pair of cast iron brackets from a historic wagon. They are both decorative and sturdy, but are becoming hard to find.

ox cart
Finishing the Box

For sides, the options are to use a standard 2-by-10 or 2-by-12 inch board or to glue up something taller. On my cart, I went with 10-inch sides and have regretted it from the get-go. A 14-16 inch side would be more useful for hauling most things, without being so deep as to make it difficult to reach the bottom from all sides.

Once the brackets are dry, it’s a quick matter to bolt the sides to the battens. An option would be to glue the sides down to the bed, but, in the event that a single board needs to be replaced, the added strength afforded by the glue would make a simple repair into a much larger job. If strength is a concern, a few 3-inch wood screws up from the bottom of the bed into the sides could help, but, again, they might just be overkill.

The brackets on the sides give enough stability to allow for a removable front and back. These should be cut to the same height as the sides and about 1/2 inch shorter than the interior width of the box. A pair of blocks screwed to the sides hold the front and back securely while allowing easy removal for loading or unloading. A load of brush or loose hay slides right out the back. Note: if you plan on hauling lots of heavy, dense material such as gravel or manure regularly, a better option would be to keep the removable back, but fit the front of the box tightly and secure it by bolting angle iron vertically at the intersection of the sides and the front. This would add a significant measure of durability

As I assembled each piece of the cart I painted it, which allowed for a coat of paint on all sides for weather resistance. It also allowed for contrasting colors to be used. I used cranberry for the metal parts, sage green for the battens and blocking and a federal blue for the body of the cart. Let vanity be your guide on these matters. A good coating with linseed oil and mineral spirits in about a 50:50 ratio would provide a durable and less “showy” finish.

At this point, your cart is done and ready to use, but depending on your intended use, a couple accessories might be handy. I built a small toolbox that attaches to the front of the box with a French cleat. This cleat is simply a board ripped to a 45-degree angle. One half is screwed to the cart and the other to the toolbox so that they carry the weight of the toolbox. A simple hole with a 1/4 inch bolt keeps the toolbox from bouncing off during travels. The advantage of a French cleat system is that different box can be fitted for varying tasks. (Think: a fencing toolbox, a chainsaw toolbox, even a lunchbox if the need arises!) Also, a holder for a rake or fork might make a useful accessory if you use your cart, like I do, for putting up loose hay and for yard work.

Finally, if the cart will haul loose hay or brush, a set of lightweight side extensions might make a valuable addition, as they would keep hay from spilling over the sides and getting into the wheels. I plan to make a set of these to try out, but even without the sides, a cart like this can hold an amazing amount of loose hay.

Finishing and Accessorizing

The final step in making the cart itself is to add the tongue. A farm-made tongue could be used, but I used an old tongue from a forecart. If you don't have a tongue handy, this is an area where it often makes sense to purchase an item rather than make it. A good quality tongue at a local Amish implement dealer is about $70 with the tongue stop included. To locate a piece of hardwood 14 feet long and 4 inches square, then cut long tapers on it and then fit it with a tongue stop is beyond the scope of most home farm shops. The tongue rides underneath the axle and is fitted between the brackets, which attach to the back side of both the axle and the front batten. Several hands are necessary at this step to mark both the tongue and the axle and batten for drilling. From there, simply bolt it together, and you are nearly done.

Finally, drill a vertical hole sized for a bolt or hammer strap through the tongue about 5 inches in front of the box. This is to allow a chain to be used to hitch the cart to the ox yoke. Some folks use a t-pin at the end of the tongue to hitch to the yoke, but a chain has a couple of advantages: tongue breakage is nearly always a catastrophic wreck, and having the cart always hitched with a chain means the tongue only has to deal with steering loads and not draft as well. This makes the tongue last longer and reduces the chances of breakage. Also, it occasionally happens that, while out working, it is necessary to drop the cart and move something like a log with a chain. Having the chain right there means one less thing to forget.

The brackets that hold the tongue do a nice job with front-to-back forces, but allow for more side-to-side movement than is acceptable. As a result, I bolted a pair of blocks underneath the front batten on either side of the tongue. This resulted in a much tighter feel for the whole cart.

Final Thoughts
ox cart
To be sure, the aforementioned utility vehicle can facilitate a wide variety of tasks on a small farm. However, until money grows on trees, a sturdy $100 ox cart makes a great alternative. And when you’re done, send me a picture of your cart. I’d love to see what you build. rh horse logo
Rob Collins Rob lives in is Centreville, Mich., and serves as president of the Midwest Ox Drovers Association. This article appeared in the April/May 2014 issue of Rural Heritage magazine.

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