About ten years ago our Boy Scout troop was invited to participate in a local 'pioneer trek'. One of the requirements for the trek was that each troop had to haul all of their gear several miles into the campsite using a hand cart. We did not have a handcart, but we knew a little bit about them. In the mid 1800s, many Mormon pioneers made treks from Iowa and Missouri to Utah using sturdy handcarts. These carts had cargo beds that were about 4 feet x 4 feet and wheels that were about 4 to 4.5 feet in diameter. The high clearance of the design made the carts easier to pull and allowed them to pass over many obstacles.
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.
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Step 1: Obtain an Axle/wheel Assembly
This axle is from a 1980 VW Scirocco. Rear axles from many small front wheel drive cars would be suitable for making a cart. If you can find someone who is parting one out, this assembly should cost only about $25. Check with your local used parts yards. These rear axles are usually scrapped with the car because there is little demand for them.
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
I had previously removed the brake components from inside the drums. This wheel had been sounding like it had a rock in it. I wanted to see if I could seal off the backing plate so no more rocks could get in.
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
This shows the brake backing plate and spindle. I had already removed all other brake parts. If your assembly will allow you to eliminate the backing plate, take it out. If this results in a spindle mounting bolt length concern, you may need to shorten the bolts slightly.
Step 4: Remove Excess Weight or Snag Points
The removal of the brake parts was the only weight savings I could find. There were two small metal tabs on each side for holding brake lines. These are just the type of snag point that will cut a hand or an arm if you forget they are there when reaching for something. They were spot welded on. I tried to twist them off. as shown by the mangled tab sticking up from the tube. The angle grinder worked well to cut them off and smooth out the surface.
Step 5: Refurbish Axle
In refurbishing the axle I brushed off the rust scale and used a rust converter paint. If you have Hammerite paint available, it is the best.
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
I found that the sound I was hearing in the hub was not a rock after all, it was a dry bearing. I was in a hurry when I removed the brake parts and put it back together years ago. The new outer bearing, race, and seals were about the cost of what I would have expected to pay for an entire axle. If you have to replace a bearing race, remember that it has to be pressed in. Do not try to hammer it in. I used a piece of 1/2 inch all- thread and some large washers to draw it in and seat it.
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
With the brake backing plate gone, this makes a very clean assembly. Note the lower shock mounts on the left side of the photo. In step 10 the outer bracket of this mount will be used to secure the front axle to frame support.
Step 8: Tire Requirements
The tires came with the axle. They are old studded recaps. At the speed the cart will be moving, the tires do not have to be expensive, but they need to be more reliable than these.
Step 9: Make Front Axle to Frame Supports
The front supports are made of 1 1/2 x 1 1/2 x 1/8 inch angle steel. The two upright are 18 inches long. The rail supports are 8 inches long. The holes are 3/8 inch, and are centered 5/8 inch from the outer edge. Refer to photo.
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
Attach the upright to the outer bracket of the shock mount with a 3/8 by 1 1/4 inch hardened bolt and lock nut. Do not tighten.
Step 11: Prepare Side Rails and Cross Supports
For the frame, I chose to use treated 2x4s. The lengths are:
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
Assemble the frame using construction adhesive and 1/8 inch exterior screws 3 1/2 inches long. Predrill holes in the outer board only, with a 1/8 inch drill to allow the screws to pull the two pieces together. countersink the holes so the finished head is flush with the board. Refer to the photo. Make certain that the boards have accurate cuts and use a square.
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
Bolt the rear axle mounts to the frame using 5/16 inch by 4 1/2 inch bolts, flat washers on top and bottom and lock nuts. Tighten to the point that the top washers are drawn slightly into the wood. Because wood shrinks somewhat over time and there will be some wear, use either lock nuts or double nut. You cannot depend solely on a lock washer and regular nut.
Step 14: Drill Holes for Front Support
Clamp the frame support to the side rail. The support needs to be flush with the inner side of the rail. If it is not, refer to step 15.
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
In aligning the support to the rail, if it binds in the shock mount, it may be necessary to grind the lower 1/2 inch of the angle to a rounded edge and space it out with the addition of a washer between the bracket and the support. Not shown clearly in this photo is a flat washer between the angle iron and the shock mount tab.
Step 16: Completed Axle to Frame Assembly
Secure the supports with 3/8 inch bolts 2 1/2 inches long, with flat washers, and lock nuts. Tighten down the three bolts on each support.. Draw the washers slightly into the wood on the top bolts.
Step 17: Make and Install Handle
This handle is made of 1 1/2 inch galvanized conduit with the ends flattened and drilled with 5/16 inch holes. Attach with 5/16 by 4 1/2 inch bolts, flat washers and locknuts
Step 18: Redrilling Handle Bolt Hole
I made the mistake of drilling this hole from the bottom side. I needed it to be accurate on the top. To correct it, I leveled the cart, secured the handle in the right position and redrilled the hole using the "drill end bubble" as a guide to get it straight.
Step 19: Complete Basic Cart and Future Options
For decking I used 7/16 inch exterior sheeting. I had to countersink holes on the bottom side of the sheeting to fit over the rear axle mounting bolt heads. I used six, counter sunk 1 1/2 inch screws to secure the deck. The deck is 46 1/2 inches by 48 inches.
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.
Step 20: Clearance and Precautions
This design gives a clearance of 23 inches. This is not a toy. It can be very dangerous if not used properly. If the load is not balance, it can tip over suddenly. It does not have brakes. The person(s) pulling it must be able to control it.
Step 21: How to Build an Authentic Handcart
To find plans for building an authentic Mormon pioneer handcart, search on GOOGLE for: "how to build a handcart" or "Mormon hand cart plans".
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