Building wooden flat bed bodies using hand tools

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Newly built wooden flat bed truck body and cab manufactured at Tillotson's c.1949

I apprenticed as a truck cab and body builder (after working in the drawing office as a draftsman for about one year) at the firm of Oswald Tillotson, Burnley, Lancashire, from circa. 1947 to 1950. Cabs and Flat Bed Bodies were hand built of wood with only minimal metal work at that time (the cabs were finished with sheet metal - van and panel truck bodies were just starting to be built using extruded aluminum sections and sheeting). I worked mostly in the cab shop doing framework joining and door making/installing, although I occasionally built flat bed truck bodies (always under the watchful eyes and guidance of senior craftsmen) as did all apprentices, from time to time.

This is a general overview of how wooden flat bed bodies were built at Oswald Tillotson's (and in the trade in general) in the post-WWII 1940s - the materials provided, the methodology employed and the tools used. To that end, I have drawn up a rough sketch of such a truck body.

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Informal sketch of a generic Tillotson flat bed truck body produced in the late 1940s. Not to scale or proportion.

I drew it from memory so the scale and proportions are undoubtedly off. Still, I think it is a pretty close approximation.

Unlike building cabs that required considerable skill, flat bed truck bodies were very simple, straightforward and easy to build - it was more akin to carpentry than fine woodworking (and something like kit building). Because of this, some basic flat bed truck body building was assigned to apprentices who could thereby hone their skills under the watchful eyes of senior craftsmen. Quality of work was the guiding principle.

Of course, Customers played a prominent role in determining what specific features and finish their trucks would have. The drawing office would work with them to meet their desires while still adhering to sound construction practices. Some flat bed truck bodies were enhanced by installing detachable side boards and tailgates. Others incorporated custom design features such as abbreviated or contoured head boards. But still the basic flat bed design described here was the most popular one. The more complicated truck body construction was generally reserved for the more seasoned apprentices who also required less supervision.

Job assignment and location

The Shop Foreman assigned jobs to apprentices as they arose. In the case of flat bed body building he would select the job site, issue the appropriate construction drawings and provide the wood "kit" prepared by the Mill shop - laid out by him and transported to the job site by laborers.

The truck was parked in whatever shop space was available - sometimes in the cab shop - as determined by the foreman.

Trucks were in stripped configuration (only engine, transmission and chassis) with a temporarily secured wooden box that had been used as a seat by a company driver to deliver the vehicle from the manufacturer.

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Informal sketch of Tillotson Works layout circa. 1948 - not to scale or proportion

As with the truck body sketch, I drew this from memory, so again the scale and proportions are undoubtedly off (probably more so than with the truck body sketch). By providing this rough drawing I hope to convey a sense of the production environment and the work flow.

I think Tillotson's physical plant was typical of similar British manufacturing businesses of the period. There was no compressed air system in any of the woodworking shops and therefor pneumatic tools were not used. There was overhead electric and natural lighting throughout and electrical outlets were provided in most shops. The Mill Shop had electrically operated machinery: circular saws, band saws, planers, sanders, drilling machines, shapers/routers, etc. There were no individually owned electrical hand-operated tools used such as circular saws, screw drivers, jigsaws, sanders, glue guns, nail guns, routers, etc.

Wood used in building flat bed bodies

To the best of my recollection, and as a general rule, cross-beams and chassis runners were English oak; side rails were ash; floor boards were Jarrah; head board posts and battens were ash; head board tongue and groove was white pine.

The use of (Australian) Jarrah for floor boards was a post-war innovation at Tillotson's -- it was favored because of its toughness, wearability and weather resistance properties. I am not certain that white pine was always used for head board tongue and groove.

Tools and equipment for the job

I used a pretty basic tool kit when building flat beds. Other apprentices used a similar selection of hand tools as depicted here. Upon being given the assignment, I would usually take my tool box, and/or a tote containing the tools I anticipated using, to the job site and set up a makeshift work bench using heavy boards on two saw horses.

Rip hand saws and jointer/jack bench planes were not needed as all lumber had been sawn and planed straight and square in the Mill Shop (but not cut to length) and so only smoothing and block planes were needed to dress up joints, etc.

My Tool Chest drawers - typical tool kit of the period:

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Additional tools - not in tool chest:

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Tote for storing additional tools and for carrying specific tools to job sites such as:

Chisels were carried to job sites in a canvas chisel roll.

Specialized Tools

I didn't own specialized tools such as Rabbet, Dado, Router and Scraper Planes or Breast Drills, etc. and so I borrowed them when needed from the older craftsmen who were always forthcoming.

I also borrowed such tools as Gouges, Keyhole Saws, etc. as needed until I was able to purchase my own tools.

Equipment: There was always plenty of company owned communal equipment available for anyone's use in all the shops.

Order of Work (to the best of my recollection).

All fabricated wood joints, surfaces and installations were squared, aligned and smoothed throughout the construction process. Iron fittings ("J" and "U" and reinforcement angles) and bolts were sometimes issued from the stockroom -- they were fabricated/modified by the blacksmiths.


The work of Apprentices was continually scrutinized and checked by Craftsmen and the Shop Foreman for quality of worksmanship and appearance. Shortly before completion of construction a craftsman painter would go over all the surfaces to be sure they were sufficiently smooth for painting -- he would point out any deficiencies and require corrective action. The Shop Foreman would perform a final inspection and acceptance of work.

Installation of Cab

At some point toward the completion of the body work the cab -- which had been built elsewhere by a Craftsman assisted by Apprentices -- would be installed, fitted and finished, usually by the same crew that built it.

Painting & Signwriting

After passing a final construction inspection the vehicle would be moved to the paint shop for completion.