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Buying Sleighs: One Collector's Experience
by Jaye-Allison Winkel with Greg Cuffey
please read our copyright notice

"Dashing through the snow, in a one horse open sleigh..."

Greg Cuffey, sleighing with the Standardbred "Thorpe's Magic"

I love sleighs. Like many people, I think sleighs are beautiful and sleighing has a romance all its own. I love to look at sleighs and watch others sleighing, and I've gone out with borrowed sleighs a time or two, but if I was setting out to buy a sleigh of my own, I'd have just about as many questions about this purchase as I had when I bought my first cart and harness. I am lucky, however, that I know someone who knows much more about sleighs than I do, and he loves to share that knowledge with others. Greg Cuffey lives in Gorham, Maine, with his wife and two daughters, and over the years Greg has collected and restored dozens of antique sleighs. He's even built a few from the "ground up". To learn more about sleighs and what to look for when buying them, I visited Greg at his farm and we toured his collection.

When asked what people should look for in buying an antique sleigh, Greg's first response was "don't pay too much". From his experience, there are many antique sleighs out there that are in good, usable condition and need a minimum of work to be enjoyed. Settling for a "fixer-upper" sleigh isn't always necessary, and the cost of restoring a sleigh can very often leave the owner with a sleigh that isn't worth the investment put into it, and can cause the owner to miss a few sleighing seasons during the restoration process. Here in northern New England, Greg says that usable sleighs in decent condition can be found in the $400 - $900 price range. Sleighs in the $300 - $500 price range may need some work, but shouldn't need complete restoration, unless they have very special historical significance. Albany Cutters are an exception; expect to pay upwards of $3000 for one in good condition.

Suggestions for buying:

  • Buy in the "off season", during Spring and Summer.
  • Check out local Auctions, Barn and Estate sales.
  • Be willing to travel further from large cities; good quality sleighs owned by wealthy families were sold to farmers outside the cities when automobiles became popular. Greg calls this the "sleigh migration", and is the reason that some of the nicest sleighs are found in rural areas, where automobiles came later.

What to look for in a sleigh

Upholstery

One of the most expensive components of a sleigh to repair or replace is the upholstery. Replacing the upholstery in a single seat sleigh can easily cost $300 or more. If the fabric is worn, torn or faded, it may still be a good purchase as your lap robes will cover much of the seat and the sleigh can still look pretty at sleigh rallies. If the seat cushion is missing but the back cushion is still intact, this can give you a good starting place for replacing the seat, as the style of upholstering is there for you to refer to. Unfortunately, seats are often missing in sleighs and Greg says he's seen quite a few on the roadside on the way to big auctions, as owners forget to remove them or tie them down for shipping.

Paint

Repainting a sleigh will always take longer than you think it will. If the paint is original and in fair condition, you may prefer to leave it as is and enjoy the antique look. Preparing an antique sleigh for painting requires a LOT of sanding and may also require the use of paint strippers. Be careful that you aren't spending too much money on a sleigh that you'll regret repainting later!

The Dash

While cracks in the curved dashes of Portland-type sleighs appear to be a very serious defect, these are actually quite easy to fix with the "bend-able" plywood that is available to today's carpenters. If the original framework is intact, the plywood can be bent to match and the dash will look as good as new.

The Body

Sleighs were built to flex and shift moreso than carts, so don't be surprised if the sleigh seems "loose" if you push on the body while it's sitting in the barn. A few cracks here and there in the body won't cause problems, but resist the temptation to fill them, as this can make them look worse in the long run. No matter how old the sleigh is, the wooden parts are bound to expand and contract with changes in the moisture content of the air.

If any wooden parts of the sleigh body need to be replaced, Greg recommends using oak or poplar. Stay away from softwoods like pine, as the pine sap will ooze out of the boards later, even if it is painted.

The Runners

Look for wear on the metal runners toward the front of the sleigh, where the most abrasion occured. Greg says that, even if you do find the metal runners well worn, these are fairly easy to replace with new metal. Check the wooden parts above the metal runners as well as you can, but be aware that rot in the mortise and tenon joints may be impossible to see unless the sleigh is dismantled. These types of repair will require a skilled carpenter's help.

Be on the lookout for tiny drill holes in the wood that could indicate powder post beetle damage.

The Floor

Floor boards almost universally need to be replaced on antique sleighs. Greg recommends using poplar wood for the floors, as it is light but strong.

The Shafts

Sleigh shafts are often split or cracked, probably due to being stepped on during the harnessing process. Shafts are easy to replace, with new shafts readily available from Amish craftsmen.

Be sure to try the shafts to the sleigh before purchasing! As the shafts are removable, they can be easily mixed up in the sale barn, and you could go home with shafts that don't fit.

Ornamental Metalwork and Bells

Like the bells, if you can find a sleigh with it's ornamental metalwork intact this is a definite plus. Compare both sides of the cart, checking to see if the parts match. If you find a complete set of metalwork on at least one side of the sleigh, at least you have a pattern from which to have the other side restored.

If you find a sleigh with its original sleigh bells intact, you may have found something really special! Sleighs and their bells are often separated, as the bells are worth quite a bit on their own. Whip sockets often go missing, as well.

"Anything's possible"

As sad and worn out as a sleigh can look, there's almost always hope for a new life, if you're willing to put the work into it.

Before

After

Click here to see more photos from Greg Cuffey's sleigh collection.



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