Posts Tagged ‘Though Nelson’

Woodcraft Project ~ Trapper Nelson Indian Packboard Restoration

Friday, December 28th, 2012

For those not familiar with this traditional packboard, let’s review its history ~

The Trapper Nelson Indian Packboard, patented by Lloyd F. Nelson in 1924, represented a significant advancement in pack design, appearing on the market near the end of the classic camping era.   The pack was first conceived after Nelson used an Indian packboard on a tramp in Alaska in 1920.  The native-made article featured a stretched sealskin, stiffened by a willow frame.  Though Nelson found the packboard uncomfortable, he considered it an improvement over the popular Poirier (Duluth) pack that dominated the field at the time.  Nelson was confident that he could produce a pack superior to anything then available with regard to distribution of weight, carrying comfort and carrying capacity.

Working nights in his basement, Nelson came up with a wooden frame, braced with cross slats, a ventilating canvas back panel and a quickly detachable canvas packsack.   Nelson invented the concept of hanging the packbag from the frame by running a heavy wire rod through a set of screw eyes attached to the frame and inserted through grommets in the packbag.  To remove the packbag, one only had to pull the two heavy wire rods out of the screw eyes and give a tug to the packbag.  This method of bag attachment was copied by Kelty and other pack makers decades later in a slightly modified form (Kelty replaced the screw eyes with aluminum aircraft rivets that Kelty drilled holes through, to accept the wire (now known as a clevis pin).  In his U.S. Patent application, Nelson noted that his packboard could be produced in various sizes without departing from the spirit of the invention.  This was easily accomplished by simply lengthening or shortening the frame rails and wires and adjusting the number of screw eyes.














Patent images courtesy United States Patent and Trademark Office website




Though considered crude by today’s standards, the Trapper Nelson represented a breakthrough in pack design.  Nelson predicted that the new pack would be popular with trappers, foresters, miners, surveyors, timber cruisers and Boy Scouts, which it did, after a slow start.

Nelson worked tirelessly, carrying a sample pack on his back into every sporting goods store from San Diego to Seattle.  Orders were slow in coming but as sales began to improve, Nelson soon encountered problems.  Attempting to sew the packbags himself, and combining them with a frame made to his specifications, Nelson found that he could not produce the pack quickly or efficiently.

In 1929, he contacted Charles Trager Manufacturing of Seattle, Washington, a producer of  lumberjack supplies, to have them produce the pack.  According to the Trager website, Nelson sold the business to Trager but he must have retained some rights as he later negotiated agreements with manufacturers in Canada to produce the pack under the Trapper Nelson name in that country.  Just weeks after the agreement with Trager was completed, Nelson was asked to fill two orders totaling 1000 of the packs by the United States Forestry Service.  From that point on, the Trapper Nelson became the dominant pack for overland hikes and tramps in North America.  The Poirier pack was forever relegated to canoe tripping (as a portaging pack) after Lloyd Nelson’s pack became popular.  Unbelievably, Trager produced the Trapper Nelson in the United States until 1986, long after the development of the modern aluminum external-frame backpack.  Trapper Nelson packboards remain highly popular with Alaskan hunting guides and prospectors, who consider them superior to modern aluminum frames for carrying the heavy loads associated with those activities.

Now to the project ~

I purchased an old, beat up Trapper Nelson at a swap meet about eight years ago, to serve as part of the décor in my son’s “Boy’s Life”, circa 1950-themed bedroom.  I think I paid $5.00 for it.  The bag was in fair condition, the frame was in very good shape with only a tiny crack in a cross brace and everything was there.  The metal components that had originally been brass or nickel plated were rusted but the three galvanized heavy wire rods, used to attach the packbag to the frame and to connecting the cross braces, were in perfect condition.  Sadly, the previous owner carved his name in one side rail and drilled a number of random holes through the lower frame on both sides.  I carefully washed the packbag, applied Lexol to the leather conchos (rivet reinforcements), oiled the frame with linseed oil and stuffed the old packbag with plastic and newspaper to give it shape.  It then rested in a corner of my son’s room until a few months ago.  Desiring a new look to his room at age 17, I came home to discover that the old pack had been relegated to the Goodwill pile.  WHAT??? Give this wonderful traditional pack to Goodwill?  No way!  I decided that I would restore it!

I don’t have any before photos of the pack.  I never think to do that at the beginning of a project.  But here is what I did –

  1. Pulled the heavy wires out of the screw eyes that are used to affix the bag to the frame.
  2. Pulled the canvas packbag off the screw eyes.
  3. Untied the cord tightening the ventilating canvas backrest around the frame.
  4. Removed the galvanized heavy wire that connected the cross braces.
  5. Removed the steel screws that attached the oak cross braces to the pine frame.
  6. Removed the brass-plated steel end caps and nickel plated steel shoulder strap clips from the frame.

Now the various components were ready to restore or replace as needed.

I glued the crack in the cross-brace and then went to work on the side rails.  After spending several days filling the random holes and gouged owner’s name in the rails and sanding/refinishing the frame, I decided that I would never be satisfied with the results.  I had my brother-in-law, a custom cabinet and furniture maker by trade, make new side rails in straight-grained oak to match the cross braces.  The difference in color between the new side rails and the 60 year old cross braces was significant so I had to stain the new wood to even things up.  After staining, the frame components were given a couple of coats of teak oil and the cut ends of the side rails were sealed with three coats of spar varnish.  Then, the frame was hand-rubbed with a linseed oil/beeswax mixture.

The rusted steel wood screws and screw eyes were replaced with new solid brass hardware.  The end caps were re-plated in satin brass as original,  and mounted over the sealed ends of the side rails.  The clips that accept the shoulder straps (originally nickel plated) were brass plated in order to provide for a more uniform appearance.  The galvanized wires that affix the pack to the frame were heavily plated in nickel and given a satin finish.  All of the new and newly-plated hardware was left unfinished to allow everything to oxidize beautifully over time.


Here is the side of the frame showing the clips that accept the ends of the shoulder straps (lower frame).


This is where things stand at the moment.  I plan to replace the galvanized, heavy wire rod that connects the cross braces with one of solid brass (not seen in the photos here).   The packbag is very simply made and I think I could replicate it myself but I wanted to add some features so if anyone knows of someone experienced in sewing canvas, I may decide to have them make the packbag.  I already have a source for the leather for straps and pack harness if things work out.


The packboard as viewed from the top. The brass end caps have been beautifully re-plated.


I’ll update this post as the project continues to progress.