We could make a box with a handle, but could not readily find handcart wheels of the type used by the pioneers. Fortunately, one of my sons, Joe, was parting out a small car that had just the axle setup we needed. The rear axles on smaller front-wheel-drive cars are lightweight and can be adapted to provide the same clearance height as the original pioneer carts.
It only took us a few hours to make a handcart using the VW axle/wheel assembly, several used 2 x 4s, some scrap plywood, a piece of 11/2 inch pipe, two short lengths of angle iron, and some nuts and bolts. The trek was successful. We were able to take everything we had, about 500 lbs, in to the camp, on the cart.
Over the years I have used the cart for a variety of tasks, including hauling sod and garden supplies. It has been nice to be able to get supplies from the driveway, into the back yard without taking a vehicle over the grass.
Recently I decided that I needed to rebuild the cart. If I wanted it to last for another ten years or so, it needed to be in better condition. The plan was to refurbish the axle and reassemble the cart with new wood. This steps I followed are the same ones you could take to build your own cart.
This photo shows my son Joe with Harlie and Logan on the cart, in front of Joe's Jeep JK.
Step 1: Obtain an Axle/wheel Assembly
One of the advantages of this axle is that the holes for the frame mounting brackets are on 45 inch centers. The deeply recessed rims provide minimal clearance problems for the hubs.
Step 2: Check Out the Hub-wheel Assembly
When you choose an axle, it is best to get one from a car that was running up until shortly before it was parted out. Cars that were scrapped due to front end damage are particularly suitable. Check to see that the hubs turn freely. This can save significantly over the cost of having to purchase new bearings.
Step 3: Eliminate All Brake Parts, Including Backing Plate
Step 4: Remove Excess Weight or Snag Points
Step 5: Refurbish Axle
Originally the upper two bolts had a brake holder bracket. I replaced the bracket with washers and removed the brake backing plate.
Step 6: Inspect Bearings and Seals
This time I cleaned all of the components, repacked the bearings and put in new seals. Repacking bearings is pretty simple, although It can be messy if you do not use gloves.
1. Place a walnut sized glob of wheel bearing grease into the palm of your partially curled hand.
2. Holding the bearing at an angle in the other hand, rake it against the edge of the grease.
3. As you force the grease into the bearing you will see it extrude out the sides and top.
4. As one section is completed, rotate and pack the rest of it.
5. On assembly, pack grease into the hub, coating the races
6. Reinstall with new bearing seals.
It really pays to shop around when you buy an axle to see that these parts are good. On pioneer carts they had to repack the bearings on a frequent basis. With this type of axle, bearing repacking may be even less frequent than on your car.
Step 7: Completed Hub/axle Assembly
Step 8: Tire Requirements
Step 9: Make Front Axle to Frame Supports
Center the end holes on the upright 3/4 inches from each end. The upright holes for mounting the rail supports should be centered 5 inches down from the end, as shown. The other two holes shown on each upright are not needed. The holes in the 8 inch rail supports are centered lengthwise and 5/8 inch "on center" from outer edge.
Assemble with 3/8 by 1 1/4 inch hardened bolts and lock nuts. At this point do not tighten fully.
Step 10: Attach Front Support to Hub Shock Mount
Step 11: Prepare Side Rails and Cross Supports
2 side rails at 8 feet each
1 end cap at 46 1/2 inches
2 cross supports at 43 1/2 inches
Use a chop saw, table saw, radial arm saw or miter box, but make the ends square.
The length of your end cap and cross supports will depend on the dimensions of the axle you choose. On the car, the main axle mounts were in front of the tires. In the cart, I chose to place these mounts behind the wheels. The width between the two axle mounts, shown in step 13, was 46 1/2 inches to the outside and 45 inches "on center". The shock brackets shown in steps and 10 are 43 1/2 inches apart. This spacing determined the dimensions I used for the cross supports.
Drill 5/16 inch holes in the side rails for the rear axle bolts and handle, as shown. It is important to drill the holes in the center of the boards. I suggest that you use a regular drill bit rather than the type of wood bit show. Refer to steps 13 to17 before drilling these holes. Locations of the hole centers from the end of the rail are 9 1/2 inches and 13 1/2 inches. If you assemble the frame before you drill the holes, you will need to add 1 1/2 inches to the distance to the holes to compensate for the width of the end cap board. Drill these holes from the edge that will be the bottom edge of the rail.
The handle bolt holes are centered 2 1/2 inches from the opposite end of the rail. Drill these holes from the edge of the rails that will be the top edge. Refer to step 18.
Step 12: Assemble Frame
I do not suggest using lag bolts. I assembled my first cart using 1/4 inch lag bolts. Because the ends are very blunt, it was difficult to pull the pieces together.
For me, it worked best to install the center and front cross supports before attaching the end cap. Center the middle cross support 24 inches from the back end of the rail. Place the front edge of the front cross support 46 1/2 inches from the back end of the rail. The outside dimensions for the frame box for the deck should be 46 1/2 by 48 inches once the end cap is installed.
If you put the end cap on first, locate the front edge of the front cross support at 48 inches from the end. Somehow I missed this fine point. I installed the front and middle cross supports first, then had to cut 1 1/2 inches of the end of the rails to keep the total, with end cap, at 48 inches.
Step 13: Secure Frame to Rear Axle Mounts
Step 14: Drill Holes for Front Support
Using the top hole in the support as a guide, drill a 3/8 inch bolt hole straight through the rail.
Step 15: Front Support Bracket Alignment
Step 16: Completed Axle to Frame Assembly
Step 17: Make and Install Handle
Step 18: Redrilling Handle Bolt Hole
Step 19: Complete Basic Cart and Future Options
For my purposes, the flat bed has worked well. In the future I will add pockets, for removable side rails. My wife requested this for the safety of the grandchildren. I will also add hooks on the sides, front and back for rope tie-downs.
There may be some value to building such a cart in a way that it could be towed by a vehicle to a work location or to a trek site. It may be possible to bolt a removable "A" frame tow bar directly to the metal axle cross member, extending it past the handle. Another option might be to use removable square tubing side rails/handle from the deck forward to allow for the use of a shorter tow bar. If towed, lights would be needed. "Bolt on", temporary light systems are readily available.
Possibly, two carts, with one upside down and stripped on top, could be towed together.
This type of cart could work well for camps, such as Boy Scout camps, to reduce the amount of motorized vehicle traffic in the camp. It could be used to transport equipment and supplies from the parking lot to the camp sites. As simple as it is to build, it could be made as an "Eagle Scout Project" to give to a camp.
Are you going on a trek soon? You may want to consider building one of these carts to give your group some local experience in handling handcarts before starting on the actual trek.