Statehouse Woodworker

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This article is from Issue 5 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By John English

Every politician must have a thorough understanding of the tools of government, but this politician is just as much at home with tools of another kind.

E verybody calls him “Governor 

 Dave,” but don’t let the familiarity fool you. Even dressed in a worn-out Carhartt jacket, paint-spattered shirt and faded jeans, his presence fills a room. Oftentimes, that room is a 22' x 26' garage on the grounds of the executive mansion in Cheyenne, which Wyoming’s Governor Dave Freudenthal has converted into a temporary woodshop. Here, under high ceilings and halogen work lights, he salvages a few quiet hours each week for his own personal brand of woodworking – the restoration of antique sheep wagons. 

Governor Dave was still a ranch kid working his way through law school when the mansion was built, but it seems that the architect knew he was coming. The first residence is a glorious tribute to ranch architecture, low to the ground and solidly constructed of native rock and massive timbers. It’s hard to say which is more Western in nature – the house or its occupant. The governor is a tall, rugged man with a deep, resonant voice, worn cowboy boots and a way of looking you in the eye like John Wayne used to do. Like the Duke, his manner suggests that he might not tolerate cussin’ in front of a lady, or having a fifth ace up your sleeve.

Sheep wagons

According to the folks at the Meeker Classic Sheepdog Trials (meekersheepdog.com), America’s first true sheep wagon was built by James Candlish, a blacksmith from Rawlins, Wyo., back in 1884. Their Web site also tells us that the standard design is 11' long and 6'6" wide, enclosed by a canvas top, with a stove for heat and cooking.

Sheep wagons came into their own when the wool industry expanded rapidly across Western states around the turn of the century. In this remote country, shepherds needed protection from bears, lions, rattlesnakes and the howling winter winds. The canvas tops were stretched across five or six bentwood staves called “bows,” and these vehicles lacked any kind of excessive comfort, including a suspension.  

“When we started working on this wagon,” the governor said as he leaned against his current project, “we tried to strip the paint down to the wood and it was just a disaster. Almost everything was lost. It still had a couple of the broken bows, but as I began to tear it down, I eventually decided to just order a whole new set. They’re standard hardwood bows, steam-bent instead of laminated, and I found a place in South Dakota where I could order them. I decided to keep the entire inside of this wagon natural, so you could see woodgrain everywhere. That meant going with a [hardwood] plywood skin, so I didn’t have to install any runners between the bows.” 

a finished sheep wagon restored by Governor Freudenthal’s fellow Wyomingite Leonard Thompson.

One of the big problems with Western wagon restorations is the fact that even modern canvas is very vulnerable to the elements.

“I could only get about three years out of a canvas top,” Governor Dave explained. “That was on wagons I’ve done in the past that are stored outside. So this time I’m going with a rolled roofing membrane over the plywood. Gus Fleischli, a fellow here in town, mentioned that he had used it on one of his wagons with good results. The membrane is white on one side and black on the other, and I’ll put the white side out.”

The governor is essentially rebuilding the wagon from the floor up. He was able to save a few of the side boards and all of the tongue-and-groove clear fir flooring, but almost everything else is new. 

The two layers of ¼" plywood are screwed without glue to the white oak bentwood bows. A glue bond might not hold up so well in a mobile structure, and screwing also allows him to remove the outside layer if the roofing membrane ever fails. He can then leave the varnished inner layer in place. When asked about the choice in plywood, he smiled.

THE OUTSIDE AND INSIDE of an original sheep wagon, one of the very first RVs (recreational vehicles). Photos taken with permission at the Fort Casper Museum.

“I just happened to be in Lowe’s picking up something else,” he said, “and I saw this generic hardwood ply on sale for about eleven bucks a sheet. The wagon has traditional dimensions, so of course nothing ended up being exactly 2' on center. That meant that I had to have 20 sheets.”

A model of efficiency

Inside the sheep wagon, there’s a double bed against the rear wall, stretching across the width of the vehicle. Underneath this is a large storage compartment between the wheels, and a drawer on each side over the wheel wells. The deck for the bed is white oak, which was pretty green when he started. The governor and his son cut it into boards, then created lap joints on the edges, knowing that the stock would shrink as it dried in this arid climate. 

Seats running along each side of the wagon are constructed of clear fir boards. Here, the governor was limited in that he only has a 12" thickness planer, so he took the glued-up boards to a cabinet shop and had them run through a wide belt sander. After lots more sanding in the shop, the result is an almost translucent, very rich furniture-grade seat – far superior to anything the original owners of this wagon might have enjoyed. The bows, seats and other elements are all trimmed out with custom hardwood moldings milled in the shop on a router table, which was a big job in itself.

an exterior Shot of Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal’s current sheep wagon resortation project, ready for roofing.     
an interior shot of his current project showing the dramatic round roof and the cabinetry for the kitchen. 

this red oak and fir sideboard was a restoration project that now graces the private quarters of the Governor’s Mansion.

“I hand-cut all the [coped] corners where the trim wraps the edges of the steam-bent bows,” the governor laughed. “And I can tell you exactly how many of those cuts there were. I remember every one of them!”

At the time we spoke with him, the latest addition to the project was the kitchen, which he built in late March 2005. Here he used a combination of birch and white oak in the casework, which is a set of four open cubbies with a drawer below and a shelf above. A removable 1x4 at the front of each of the top two cubbies keeps cutlery and condiments from falling when the wagon is in motion; a fixed piece across the bottom openings performs the same function there.

The heart and soul of every sheep wagon is the cast iron stove. Governor Dave removed his, sandblasted it and applied new blacking.

“The sandblasting was interesting,” he laughed. “For Mothers’ Day, I bought my wife a new air compressor.”

The stove will be bolted to the floor beside the kitchen cabinets, but the chimney might present some problems, not the least of which is the danger of combustion. Routing it out through the roof, even with a triple-wall chimney, means he has to pierce the rubberized membrane. Going through the front wall of the wagon isn’t really an option, as the door needs to swing 180 degrees and be secured flat against the spot on the wall where the chimney might emerge. 

“When the herders drove these wagons, they actually stayed inside the wagon and the reins extended through the open door,” he said. “That’s why the door is offset, and why it needs to be secured in the open position. The door is in two parts, and the lower one remained closed, but the top one was open to drive. No, I guess the chimney will have to go up through the roof, in the traditional manner.”

The governor in his shop applies a canvas covering to his current work-in-progress.

There will be copper sheets attached to the walls inside, spaced a little bit away from the woodwork, and these will act as heat shields behind the stove.

The wagon is a model of efficiency: everywhere you look there are built-in drawers and storage areas. For example, the two drawers under the bed are about 3' deep; both are full extension and rest on the benches when all the way out – a simpler version of today’s high-tech slides.

The dining table also slides out of sight below the bed, and pulls out for use. There’s a small surprise here, a slight deviation from tradition.

“I made the table from a wide oak board I had and a couple of leaves from an old oak table,” the governor said. “A friend of mine wanted a gunstock out of purpleheart and I had a couple of small pieces left over, so I used them to fill the gaps at either side of the table.”

Strangely, the purpleheart doesn’t look incongruous here. Perhaps it’s because the whole idea of living in a wagon on a windswept prairie is a little exotic. Or maybe it’s because sheep wagons were often built with whatever was on hand.

Accents

There’s a small rectangle of oak attached to the front of the bed above the table; it seems to serve little purpose, until the governor explains. 

“Eventually, I’m going to decorate that with the brand from the ranch where I grew up,” he said with a hint of family pride. When asked if he worked with sheep wagons on the ranch when he was a child, he admitted he didn’t – the ranch raised cattle, not sheep.

At his other shop, the one behind his private residence in Cheyenne, Governor Freudenthal has a collection of metal accent pieces which he plans to install in the completed wagon. 

a chuckbox on the back of the sheep wagon project, as rebuilt by the governor.

“They took old iron, flattened the ends and made things like racks to hang your towels on,” he explained. 

The undercarriage is over at the other shop, too. To complement the dark green paint of the wagon box, the wheel assembly is painted a rich red. The undercarriage was in good condition except for a sleeve from one of the wheel boxes, which is currently at a welding shop being repaired.

While sheep wagons were traditionally pulled by a pair of horses or mules, this one will be used primarily for display purposes, so there’s no need for hames, bridles, blinders or even horses –

which is just fine with the governor.

“I try not to own things that eat while I sleep,” he said, laughing. “Actually, this wagon will be a showpiece. My brother-in-law in Worland has a nice pair of paints that are pretty good horses for pulling wagons, but I don’t think we’ll ever get to that. Wooden wagons are unwieldy, and there’s no suspension.

“I have three sheep wagons and four buggies that I’ve worked on. They’re in covered storage. Nancy [Wyoming’s first lady] is always asking, when the bills come in for the wood, whether I’m going to sell one. We did sell one. We kept building playhouses for the kids when they were little, but they were on the ground and they suffered during the winters, and pretty soon we had bugs coming in and those kinds of problems. So, we took a sheep wagon and turned it into a playhouse. Well, my daughter called it a playhouse. To my son, it was a fort. On one side, between the bows, I cut a big window and glazed it with Plexiglas, so that from our kitchen window we could look out and see what they were doing. I brought electric out to it, so they had light. It was up off the ground, and you could close it up in the winter.” 

Good help ain’t cheap…

“I probably have the wrong job for this hobby,” Governor Dave admitted. “I usually end up out here in the shop late at night. I hope to get this project finished by July. My son is here for a while before he goes off to grad school in the fall, and for some jobs you just need two people. Like that roof membrane, or bending the plywood over the bows. My daughter helped out for a while, too. 

“I did another wagon with a hardtop. It was vinyl-painted steel siding, but I didn’t let them crimp it, so it was a flat sheet. Boy, was that a pain. And the sheathing on that was Masonite. I would never again try that; it just won’t bend right. You learn as you go.”

When asked how he got into woodworking, Governor Dave recalled growing up on the ranch and said that everybody there did lots of rough carpentry. He got into wagon restoration by helping his brother-in-law.

“One of his projects was rebuilding an 1886 Landau carriage. It has a solid top … just a beautiful piece. After that, well, I like going to auctions, so I bought some ‘incredibly valuable’ pieces. I guess one man’s junk is another’s treasure, right? So, I did a couple of buggies and then got into the sheep wagons. I took a break from that and did an Airstream trailer. It’s sitting out front of the house here.

 “After that,” he laughs, “progress has been really slow, since I drifted into this politics thing. We’ve been a bit busy this year.” 

The shop has a transient feel to it. Everything looks like it could be moved in a minute. There are lots of bench-top machines (a portable table saw, small drill press, scroll saw and a small compressor) and numerous hand tools. Most of his serious equipment – welding gear, big table saw, bandsaw – is still at the other shop at the family’s home. The State of Wyoming owns this garage, but everything in it is Governor Dave’s personal property. 

One gets the feeling that this is a man who would enjoy nothing more than spending all of his days out in the shop, working up a sweat with an old hand plane, or rubbing out a finish until it looks like glass. But one also feels the deep sense of commitment and focus at the Governor’s Mansion. This is a serious man with a serious job, and if the woodshop only gets his attention late at night every now and then, well, that’s just how it has to be for now. 

Duty calls.

The Duke would most definitely have liked this guy.

John English 

John English has been building furniture and cabinetry for 25 years. He has written or co-authored four woodworking and how-to books, and published hundreds of shop articles. He publishes Woodezine, an online woodworking magazine.

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