Coachbuilding or Coach Making in the Late 1700 and Early 1800s

coachbuilding
1879 Coach Maker’s Exhibition, Author’s Collection

Coachbuilders or coach makers created “those numerous and elegant vehicles which modern refinement … invented as speedy and luxurious modes of traveling.” In building a vehicle, a coachbuilder usually relied on artisans, “wheel-wrights, smiths, painters, carvers, joiners … [and] harness-makers,” and assembled together the parts the artisans created by making a body and a carriage.

Coachbuilding also ensured the coach was adapted to the places for where it was destined to be used, whether that be town, country, or continent. According to one coachbuilder, coaches had to be built stronger for town driving than for country use, and it was even more important they be built “stronger for the continent than even for the town, as the badness of their roads obliges them to use six horses to what on a well made road two would draw with equal facility.” Although coaches had to be built sturdy, they also had to be built as lightly as possible so as not to create an additional burden on the horses destined to pull them.

Landaulette From 1816, Courtesy of Wikipedia
Landaulette From 1816, Courtesy of Wikipedia

Coachbuilding included coach bodies “composed of a great number of pieces of wood, of various shapes and sizes, which … [were] fitted … with great exactness.” Supposedly, the width of the seats determined the size or strength of the body. To create the body a variety of strong, sound, and well-seasoned woods were used: Ash for the framework, fir for the roof and bottom, and either mahogany, walnut, or another fine wood for the panels. As most coach bodies were curved, the planks needed to be curved too. This was achieved by exposing one side of the plank to heat and the other side to cold water. Joints were “cemented together with white lead and oil, and the framework … strengthened by canvass, and small wooden blocks glued on the inside.” Leather, which was dressed smooth, was usually used to cover the roof and quarters. As for the windows, which moved up and down, plain glass was used in cheaper coaches and fine plate glass installed in costly or elegant coaches.

Lord Mayor's State Coach, Public Domain
Lord Mayor’s State Coach, Public Domain

The next step in coachbuilding was completing the coach’s body by painting it. This required “great care and time.” First the coach was primed three or four times with “a coating of any common colour, mixed with oil of turpentine and varnish.” To make a smoother finish and eliminate “inequalities,” two or three coats of “ochre, turpentine and Japan varnish” were applied. A pumice stone was used to smooth the surface. Several more paint layers were applied to produce either a deep or a bright shade depending on the final color, and then six or seven layers of the final color applied, with the final layers creating a “perfectly smooth [surface] … of a uniform shade.”

Several coats of copal varnish were also applied, and between each varnish layer “the surface [was] carefully smoothed with pumice-stone, reduced to a fine powder, and applied by means of a roll of woollen cloth.” If ornaments, family crests, or armorial bearings needed to be applied, these were painted on between the varnished layers, and, as each varnish layer dried, it was tediously polished to produce a perfectly smooth surface.

Bath Coach of 1820 by George Hunt, Author's Collection
Bath Coach of 1820 by George Hunt, Author’s Collection

The framework upon which the coach’s body rested was known as the carriage. It was a continuous piece composed of wood and iron. The carriage supported the body, and it had to be built so “as to render easy the motion of the whole” and to resist injuries the vehicle might incur “during its rapid movements on the road.”

Carriages also needed to possess joints that would not shrink or separate with use. These junctures or joints were “cemented by white-lead and oil, and secured by iron hoops, plates, bolts, and screws.” Cross bars, which had grooves to accommodate the axletrees made of iron, were placed below and passed from one wheel to the another. “Each end of it [was] placed in the nave of the wheel, and it was upon that the wheel revolve[d].”

Below the forepart of the main carriage was a wood and iron frame. This was known as the undercarriage. The body was attached to the undercarriage. The attachment was accomplished with steel springs secured by screw-bolts to “prevent, or at least diminish, the jolting in motion.” Once the wheels were added, the coach was complete.

Footman Waiting for Passengers, Author's Collection
Footman Waiting for Passengers, Author’s Collection

There were also several common appendages on coaches. The driver’s seat, called a “dickie” or “coach-box,” was covered with hammercloth, which was an ornamented often fringed cloth placed over the seat. The seat also accommodated two people and was usually raised 18 inches to allow the coachman better visibility of the road. However, the coachman sitting higher than passengers created a stir when the British government presented a coach as a gift to the Chinese Emperor. Upon receiving the coach, “they were shocked at the idea that the coachman should sit … higher … than the emperor, and proposed placing his majesty on the dickie.”

Besides the dickie, at the rear of the coach or underneath it, was the “boot.” The boot was the spot where passengers stowed their luggage. Most coaches or carriages also had a “footboard.” This was a platform where the footman stood. Generally, footmen were considered a luxury, and young, unmarried footman was as much for show as use, because¬† it was costly to employ them. Tall footmen were more popular than short ones and so were handsome footmen with muscular legs. This was because footman could show off their legs when wearing their traditional footman’s dress of knee breeches and stockings.

References:

  • Felton, William, A Treatise on Carriages, 1794
  • Randolph, David Meade, A Treatise on Wheel Carriages, 1810
  • The Book of Trades, Or, Circle of the Useful Arts, 1837

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