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A Master of the Art of Carriage Building

In a world where almost everything is mass produced, it is almost impossible to believe that one man can build an accurate reproduction of any kind of carriage by himself, with a little help from his brothers. Harley Chandler is that one man. He may not be the only one of his kind, but certainly no more than a handful are still doing what he does. Who will take the place of these exceptionally talented craftsmen?

His shop is located along a hilly, winding, country road in Petersburg, Kentucky, just west of Cincinnati. Unless you have the exact address, you would drive right by. No neon sign advertising Chandler Coach hangs out front.

Entering the shop from the back, the dark room is full of welding and other equipment that Chandler and his brothers, James and David, use for fabricating the metal parts. Everything from folding ladders, to lamp brackets, steps and axles have been manufactured in this room. They used to make springs too, but now source that out.

Chandler, 65, is self-taught. He started out blacksmithing, and by making truck beds and repairing machinery. “And then there was a feller in Georgetown [Ky.] – Robert Bush - he wanted a new buggy. So I built him a buggy and then I built an Albany cutter and he bought it too. I think he’s dead now – that was a long time ago. Then I dropped the repair work and started building carriages.”

When Chandler first started he only built on orders and he had plenty of work. His customers came from “all over – from England to up north – Pennsylvania, out west, all over.” How did he learn how to do everything? A loud voice from the other room hollers out “School of hard knocks!” “Yeah,” says Chandler, “more or less I taught myself. There was some stuff in books that was useful. But most of the stuff in those old books you don’t know what they are talking about. One book says in a diagram ‘this is a proper position for a ‘call’ – but what is a call? But I pick up something from everybody. Regardless of how bad their work is, they got some good points, and I latch on to the good stuff.” Coachmakers were very secretive about their work, their techniques, their ideas. According to Chandler, the carriage trade was the last industry to become mechanized.

Chandler estimates he has built somewhere around a thousand carriages in his lifetime and in this building. In the beginning, when Cincinnati ordered carriages to use in the city for taking people around, many of these were 20-passenger carriages and vis-a-vis.

The building is heated in the winter by a coal furnace, “unless it is too cold and then we stay at home,” he says with a laugh.

Chandler makes his own patterns out of plywood, many hang on the walls and others are stored in another building. He has a pattern for every carriage he’s made. The name of the carriage, measurements, and any information that is important is written on it with a marking pen. Every pattern for a particular carriage is bundled together before being stored.

When starting to build a reproduction of an existing antique carriage, Chandler will take photos and measurements of the original and then go back to his shop to make the patterns and begin construction. Sometimes the customers send him photos and he can use patterns he already has to make the carriage.

How long does it take to build a carriage from scratch? Of course it depends on the size and type of carriage. “A buggy – there’s probably 200 hours in one.” He has a buggy in the shop that he is working on now. “This one we had to build a new body, reaches, new wheels, and we are redoing the top. The seat is original, except for the seat base – it was gone.” A skeleton brake may take 300-400 hours. Road coaches take the longest. Although he has done the painting, upholstery, patent leather, and other finish work, most often these days he puts the primer on and then sends it to whomever the customer wants to do the finishing. Tom Shelton in North Carolina does a lot of the finishing on Chandler’s carriages. For the buggy he’s working on now, Chandler plans to finish it himself.

How close are Chandler’s carriages to the originals? “We built a wagonette break and Paul Martin thought it was a Healy. That’s how close our work is to a Healy. Hugh Holbrook had a Healy and I would go up there and take pictures and measurements to build the first one.”

Chandler restored a Skeleton Brake once owned by Vanderbilt. It went to Hawthorne Mellody Farm in Libertyville, Ill., where it burned in the big fire, “and what was left came here, and after the guy brought it here, Ernie Swartz bought the iron and Ernie got me to build the break. Ernie painted it and sold it to Tucker Johnson.”

Jim Granito of Southern Pines commissioned Chandler to build a reproduction of the Brewster Rand Brake. Charles and Daphne Kellogg owned the original built by Brewster for a while and sold it to Granito, who eventually sold it to Harvey Waller. The reproduction, says Granito, is actually more comfortable to ride in than the original.

The buggy sitting in the middle of the shop “belonged to a doctor in Greenville,” said Chandler, “so it is called a Doctor’s Buggy. If a lawyer owned it, it would be called a Lawyer’s Buggy. The family gave it to the city with the promise that they would get it restored, and all it’s going to do is sit there. It’s one of my favorite carriages – a plain and simple buggy. They were cheap, and I just like ‘em.” Buggies were made quickly in their day, costing less than $50, so didn’t have the detail of the more expensive carriages, costing $400 or more back then.

The Chandler Coach Shop contains an amazing collection of tools and machinery. A bare spot is hard to find on any wall or even the ceiling. “I’ve been collecting since I was 13-14. It does build up.” How did Chandler find and accumulate all this machinery? “I stopped and visited a friend, and he said let me sell you a saw. I said ‘I got a saw – I don’t need a saw.’ He said you’d better come and look at it. So I said OK. We went over this little hill and in a building there sat that saw. So I said ‘what you want for it?’ $200. So I said I’m going to go get a truck! I bought another one of these from Jim Gordly who was a blacksmith in Augusta, when he had his sale. And then this one,” he says pointing, “came from the children’s hospital in Cincinnati, and I traded for it. And that one came from Millersburg – A & D Buggy Shop. And the little one came from a guy in Felicity, Ohio. I have one at the Indiana State Fair. I run the wheel shop there during the fair. We repair wheels and we are going to start a new lynchpin wagon next year at the fair.”

With such a potentially lethal collection of saws and presses and other sharp knives and tools, it’s amazing Harley has all his fingers, arms and legs. He’s only lost the tip of one finger in a press.

One of the most unusual pieces of equipment is the sanding machine. Chandler got it for the children’s sleds they make every fall. It would take 30 minutes to sand all the parts for one sled. With this machine, they can sand all the parts before they put them together. In 30 minutes they can sand enough for 100 sleds. The sandpaper comes in sheets 36 inches wide. All the big panels for carriages are sanded on this machine.

Much of the work on a carriage must be done by hand. Drawers and drawers are filled with hammers, rabbet planes, drawing knives, files, rasps, rifflers, hammers, pincers, spoke shaves, punches, carving tools, chisels, hand beaders, scrapers, squares and circles for marking corners and circles. Each has a specific purpose, and each one is used by Chandler (although he admits a few drawers are just filled with junk).

Chandler demonstrates a coach maker’s vise. “You can turn it around and it will hold a wedge.” It swivels to whatever position needed to do the work.

Some of the most interesting and unique pieces of equipment are the multiple use machines. It’s a planer, shaper (router), cut-off saw, table saw, jigsaw, great for one person to use, but hard for more than one to work on it with any piece of wood longer than a few inches. These were not so popular in an assembly line situation.

One of these is a Crescent 1921. Chandler is just the third owner of it. Crescent was located in Laconia, Ohio and then Rockwell bought them out in the early 50s. Crescent’s advertisements show five people working around it. Another is a Number 12 Cabinet special. It’s a joiner, band saw, shaper, sander and lathe. “They are good one-man machines,” says Chandler. “Can’t get enough people working around it to pay for it in a factory.”

Chandler is one of a rare breed of artisan. Without an apprentice, one wonders who will be around to continue to do this very specialized craft.

A DVD of Chandler’s Coach Shop is available for anyone who wants to see and hear more about this remarkable man and his tools, available from the Carriage Association of America.

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