Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Truing the wheel with Wayne Orvick

Express Staff Writer

In the early 1970s, Wayne Orvick traded an old Colt .38 black powder revolver for the remnants of a dilapidated horse-drawn wagon. Little did he know he was embarking on a career as a carriage-builder and wheelwright.

Orvick lives in Picabo and works as a Blaine County building inspector, but with layoffs expected, Orvick could soon go back to his passion full-time: restoring and building from scratch horse-drawn wagons, carriages and sleighs.

"One of my grandfathers was a rancher," he said. "Another was a carpenter. I guess you could say I put the two together."

Orvick uses tools in his shop that are more than 100 years old to true wheels, fix spokes and design and build many types of wagons and carriages. He manufactures other tools that can no longer be easily found,

His most recent accomplishment is housed at the Blaine County Historical Museum on Main Street in Hailey: a piano box runabout built in 1906. It sold for $39 when it was new and could fetch about $3,500 if it were for sale today.

Orvick immersed himself in the lore and technological history of horse-drawn conveyances after his former mother-in-law, a librarian in Gardnerville, Nev., gave him a membership in the Carriage Association of America.

"It opened the doors for me to all of the literature about carriages and wagons," Orvick said.

He also sought advice from old-timers Ron Scofield of Fiddletown, Calif., and John Owen of Fallon, Nev.

In 1978 Orvick finished his first restoration. It was a surrey, a four-passenger convertible family vehicle. Since that time he has restored or built about 100 more, mostly for clients outside of the Sun Valley area.

Many of the names for wagons live on in the age of the automobile.

"Broughams were two-seaters, more like a personal gentleman's vehicle, enclosed with windows. They were like sports cars that you would drive down to the park on Sunday. They were lighter and horses could go faster with them. Landaus are larger, four-seaters, driven by a coachmen, like cabriolets."

Orvick said the carriage era slowly dwindled to an end by the 1930s, but heavy wagons were still used on farms until the 1940s.

Techniques for carriage construction involve the arts of carpentry and metallurgy. Orvick uses maple hubs with hickory spokes for light wheels for buggies. In heavier wheels for wagons, he uses white oak for the hubs and hickory for the spokes.

"If the wheel is not built right, the spokes will collapse in a short period of time," he said. "Dust will get in there and act like sandpaper."

Orvick said special attention must be paid to the amount of "dish" in a wheel, the angle of the spokes from the hub to the rim. The spokes must hit the ground perpendicular to the hub, but reach away from the hub slightly on the top.

"It's very technical and takes years to set the dish. English and European wheels had a lot of dish in them because they didn't have hickory. They used oak. Hickory is much stronger, but white oak can stand more weather extremes."

Craftsmen who specialize in historical trades can find it difficult to meet others of their ilk, to share experience and gather expertise. Orvick had a chance meeting in Twin Falls many years ago with Herman Stammer John, a retired wheelwright with the John Deere Co. John had spent 10 years in Germany as an apprentice wheelwright before coming to the United States.

Orvick showed John his portfolio and the two men talked for a long time about the arcane practices of carriage makers and wheelwrights.

"It was a privilege to meet him," Orvick said.

Orvick's work can be seen at

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