How to Build a Spinning Wheel
by Nick Alley of Delano, TN
When we first sheared our sheep, we were at a loss as to what to do with the wool. Unwilling to throw it away, we shoved it into a pillowcase under the bed until winter brought time for projects. We looked into buying a spinning wheel, but the prices were far outside of our range. I had read that the first “Saxony Wheel” was made in the 1500s by a woodcarver who undoubtedly had fewer resources than I do, even with my simple shop and few tools. Then, he had to invent the thing from the ground up, shooting in the dark, while I could look and copy from spinning wheels in the neighborhood. I am somewhat mechanically inclined, about average as a handyman, and I was able to come up with a design that is simple to build, simple and dependable to use, and takes up almost no space in the house.
This last point is important to me, since my wife, myself, and our six boisterous children live in a very small house. We absolutely do not have room for another piece of furniture, but we already have a treadle sewing machine. The spinning head I built mounts on the sewing machine cabinet and is powered by the treadle. When it is not being used, it hangs out of the way on the wall.
I hope that in writing this, I will encourage others to build their own spinning wheels. Purchased ones cost too much (for me, at least) and mine didn’t cost me anything — most of the wood was split with a froe out of the firewood stack and dried inside near the fire for a few weeks. The hardware was dug out of the catch-all coffee can in the back of the shop. Even if you pay top dollar for all the materials, it can still be made for, I would guess, 30 or 40 dollars. If you don’t have sheep of your own, just ask around. You probably won’t have to look far to find someone who will give you wool or sell it for not much and be glad to find someone who will use it.
Working Principles of the Saxony Wheel
When fibers of any kind are twisted together, a thread or yarn of any length can be made that is much stronger than the fiber itself. The fibers can be twisted by hand, between the thumb and index finger. A step up from this is the drop spindle. This is twirled and fiber held in the hand is paid out; as the spindle spins it twists the fiber and as more fiber is paid out the yarn lengthens until the spindle is lowered to the ground at which point the newly spun yarn is wrapped around the shaft of the spindle and the process is started again. The Saxony wheel twists the fiber and winds it tightly onto a bobbin as fast as it can be fed into the orifice of the head, which consists of the flyer, the bobbin, and a frame that holds everything together but can be opened to remove full bobbins of yarn.
First I’ll go through the head piece by piece and explain what each piece is and how they work together. I’ve made sketches of each piece but it would undoubtedly be very helpful if you could find a spinning wheel to look at first hand. If you do, keep in mind that there are variations in design, though they all work on the same principle. This head has a single belt driving the flyer, which drives the bobbin which is attached to it by the yarn being spun. There is another kind with two belts which drive the bobbin and flyer independently. From what I have seen, the kind with two belts is more commonly seen in antique wheels, and the kind with one belt in newer ones.
Here is a short description of how the head works. I am not including a detailed description of how to spin. A few minute’s lesson from someone who knows how will be worth more than anything I could write. Likewise, although I have included sketches, watching a spinning wheel at work will do a lot more to help you understand it.
a: The body of the flyer is carved out of well seasoned hardwood according to the pattern given in figure 9.
b: The shaft of the flyer. I made mine out of 7/16” copper tubing.
c: The drive pulley is turned out of well seasoned hardwood and fastened perpendicular to the flyer body. A belt around this transfers the power from the treadle.
d: The opening in this end of the shaft is called the orifice. As the yarn is spun, it travels through the orifice, then out a hole drilled at “e”, then around one of the hooks marked “f” and onto:
The bobbin is made of a short piece of 1/2” galvanized conduit, “a”, which slips over the shaft of the flyer, and a pulley, “b” turned out of hardwood. The pulley is in contact with the brake band.
Flyer and Bobbin Spinning Together
As yarn is spun, the flyer is turned by the belt, and the fiber held in the spinster’s hands is being twisted together with the yarn already on the head. As long as tension is kept on the yarn, the bobbin rotates at the same speed as the flyer, since it is being pulled around by the yarn looped around a hook on the flyer. When there is slack on the yarn, the brake band slows the bobbin down, which causes the flyer to wrap the yarn tightly onto the bobbin.
Here is a sketch of the frame with the flyer mounted to it, and the bobbin removed. The frame is hinged at “a” so it can be opened. “b” and “c” are a screw hook and screw eye to latch the frame shut when the head is running. The flyer shaft goes through a hole in the frame with the orifice sticking out, while the other end of the shaft fits into a matching hole drilled into the moveable arm of the frame. Another screw eye, “d”, is where one end of the brake is anchored. The brake is not shown in this sketch for clarity.
How to Make It
As I go along, I will describe the exact materials I used. They are all commonly available, but if you happen to have something at hand that will serve a purpose, don’t hesitate to make substitutions. This design is simple enough to be very flexible.
The only power tools I used were a lathe and a bandsaw, both in a neighbor’s shop. If you don’t have access to a bandsaw, you can get by just whittling out the flyer, but the pulleys will have to be turned on a lathe.
Step One: Make the Flyer Body
Trace the pattern in figure 9, then cut out with scissors and trace onto a piece of well seasoned hardwood 1” thick.
Saw out the flyer on a bandsaw, then round off the edges with a utility knife and smooth with a rasp and sandpaper.
Step Two: Turn the Pulleys
Figure 5 shows all the dimensions for the pulleys.
Step Three: Fasten Pulley to Flyer Body
First, trace the template given in figure 9 on a piece of paper. Then cut it out and cut the rectangle out of the center. Place the template on the back of the flyer pulley and trace the rectangle on the back of the pulley. This will help you center the flyer body on the pulley. Fasten them with two dots of epoxy and two screws as shown in figure 6.
Step Four: Bore Hole in Flyer
After the epoxy is fully cured, drill a hole through the center of the pulley and on through the crosspiece of the flyer body. Find a drill bit that will give you a nice, snug hole for the shaft to fit. Since your tubing might be a slightly different size than mine, I can’t give you an exact measurement. Drill a test hole in a piece of scrap wood and see how the shaft fits. Clamp your flyer in a vise and drill a hole through the pulley, using the mark left by the center of the lathe as a guide for where to start. After you get through the pulley, take your time positioning the tip of your bit on the crosspiece and making sure it is centered and straight. I took this step too fast and ended up drilling out through the side of the crosspiece. I was able to pull back and get the hole going in the right direction, but I had to plug the false hole with epoxy after the shaft was in place and the flyer has been very slightly lopsided ever since. This does show the flexibility of this simple design, though. Even after such a major mistake, the flyer still works very well.
Step Five: Mount Flyer Shaft
The shaft is a piece of 7/16” copper tubing, 8-1/2” long. Just slip it through your nice, straight hole with 1-1/4” sticking out past the pulley. Before you push it all the way into place, put a ring of epoxy around the shaft where the epoxy will end up inside your pulley and crosspiece holes to fasten the shaft to the body.
After the epoxy is fully cured, use a center punch to make a light dent in the shaft in the opening between the pulley and crosspiece (at “e” in figure 1) and drill a hole 1/4” across through one wall of the shaft.
Use a small nail to start holes to put screw hooks at each of the dots on the flyer pattern in figure 9. The holes should be on the same side of the flyer as the hole in the shaft.
Step Six: Make Bobbins
I used half inch galvanized conduit for my bobbins. It actually has an inside diameter closer to 5/8” so it is quite loose on the flyer shaft. My inelegant solution was to wrap several turns of duct tape around the flyer shaft to take up the extra space; it is also kind of gummy and helps the flyer and bobbin spin together yet slips to allow the flyer to wind yarn onto the bobbin. If you can find something that fits better, that’s good. If not, just make do with what you have, as long as the bobbin slips easily onto the flyer shaft without rattling around.
Once again, find a drill bit that will give you a snug fit in the pulley. Make a test hole in a piece of scrap wood to test fit the center of each bobbin pulley. Saw off as many pieces of tubing as you want to have bobbins (you’ll probably want half a dozen) each 3-1/2” long, and epoxy each into its pulley.
Step Seven: Make the Frame
The frame is made of three pieces of well seasoned hardwood, each 1” by 1-1/2”. I used poplar from the firewood pile that I split with a froe and planed down by hand after it had dried in the house several weeks. Cut one piece 6-1/2” long and one piece 5-1/2” long. Round off one end of each with a rasp and smooth that end with sandpaper. The third piece should be 7-3/4” long, with both ends left square.
With the same bit you used to drill the hole in the flyer pulley, bore a hole in the 6-1/2” piece. Center the hole on the broad side of the piece, 4-1/2” from the square end. Then drill a matching hole in the 5-1/2” piece 3-1/2” from the square end. These holes will be the sockets that the flyer will ride in when the head is spinning.
Now use two 3” screws to fasten the 5-1/2” piece to the 7-3/4” piece. The screws should go through the end of the longer piece and into the butt of the shorter piece, as you can see in figure 4.
Attach the 6-1/2” piece to the other end of the long piece using a small hinge. Now the frame should be able to swing open, the flyer shaft fit through the hole in the 5-1/2” piece, the bobbin slip onto the flyer shaft, and the 6-1/2” piece should swing shut, its hole fitting on the end of the flyer shaft that projects past the end of the bobbin pulley. Use a small nail to start a hole at “c” in figure 4, and screw in a screw eye. Start a hole at “b” in figure 4 and screw in a screw hook (like you might see on a screen door) that will hold the frame shut when it is hooked into the eye.
Now the frame is complete, except the brake, which will be the very last step. Now we need to look at:
The electric sewing machine strikes me as one of the silliest examples of the over-electrification of society, along with the electric can opener, toothbrush, and carving knife. Since a treadle runs smoother, is more responsive to speed control, makes a nicer sound, and works without industrially produced power, hanging an electric motor on the back of a sewing machine looks like a step backward to me. Now, if someone in your household is interested in spinning, they probably already sew. Neither of you will regret taking a technological step backward, I mean forward, by finding an old treadle machine, which should cost less than $100. If they can’t get along without a zigzag stick, it won’t be hard to convert most modern machines to be used with a treadle. (See post script.)
Mounting the Spinning Head to the Treadle
The spinning head will be mounted to a leg which is made of a common 2×4. This is notched to fit the leg of the cabinet and a bolt slips through a hole drilled in both.
The head will stick out in front of the cabinet and the spinner will sit sideways to the sewing machine and treadle with their left foot.
Step Eight: Make the Leg
Saw a common 2×4 about 36 inches long. One end will be notched to fit around the leg of the sewing machine cabinet, as shown in figure 7. Make this measurement fairly tight, since a little bit of slop here can make a lot of motion at the other end of the leg, where the spinning head is fixed. This might cause the belt to come off while it is running.
My cabinet is made of wood, but many have iron legs. If yours does, you will have to proceed a little differently here.
For Wooden Legs: Slip the notched end of your leg over the leg of the cabinet. Drill a 3/4” hole clear through the 2×4, which will of course also pierce the leg of the cabinet. Slip a 3/8” bolt through the hole. This will make a tight fit; it will be hard to get in and out the first few times until the hole wears slightly. Now the leg is attached at the bottom but it will swing up and down. To hold it in position, screw a long screw hook into the leg, and a matching eye into the cabinet. You’ll have to judge the best position for the hook and eye for yourself as you go. You want the leg to be as near vertical as possible without hitting the bottom drawer of the cabinet.
For Iron Legs: There were a lot of different manufacturers who made a variety of models of sewing machine, each slightly different. There might be a place on your machine where a bolt can fit tightly through the lacy metalwork, or you might have to clamp your leg on, or weld some kind of attachment, or come up with something else.
Make sure the leg of the spinning wheel comes on and off easily, though, since it is a little unhandy to sew while it is attached.
With the leg in place, have the person who will be spinning most sit in front of the machine facing the leg, and decide what will be a comfortable height for their hands to work at. They should try treading with their left foot while deciding so they know how far to be from the cabinet. Mark the leg at the place she wants it, then take it off and saw it to length.
Step Nine: Fasten the Head to the Leg
Attach the leg back onto the cabinet. Hold the head against the top of the leg and sight across the flyer pulley to the flywheel of the treadle. Move the head around on the leg until the pulley and flywheel are lined up, then mark the head and the leg so that you will be able to find this position again. THE HEAD MIGHT NOT BE SQUARE TO THE LEG OR CENTERED ON IT, AS LONG AS THE FLYER PULLEY IS IN LINE AND PARALLEL TO THE FLYWHEEL OF THE TREADLE.
Now take the leg back off the machine and use two 3” screws to fasten the head to the leg.
Step Ten: The Belt
Belting for treadle sewing machines isn’t a common item in stores today but windshield washer tubing, from an auto parts store, works fine (actually, as far as I can tell it’s the same thing at a lower price). Cut a length that will loop around your treadle flywheel and flyer pulley and attach the ends with a push-in barbed coupling. If for some reason you can’t find one, saw the end off of a 1/4” bolt and push that into the ends of the belt. The threads will hold as well as the barbs of the fitting would have. The spinning head will probably need a slightly longer belt than the sewing machine. You can keep two separate belts on hand, or use a short section of belting and another coupler to make your belt longer and shorter as you need it.
Now try treading with the belt on the flyer and see how it spins. If the belt flies off the flyer pulley, either the belt is too long or the head isn’t in quite the right position on the leg. Back out the two screws and reposition them if need be.
Step Eleven: The Brake
The brake slows the bobbin down relative to the flyer so that the yarn will be wrapped onto it. It is nothing but a piece of string with a 4” piece of belting on it that loops along the top of the bobbin pulley and is fastened to the frame of the spinning head. The other end is tied to a small spring, which helps keep the tension right. The spring is tied to the head of a bolt with another short piece of string. The bolt goes through one end of a corner brace (a thin piece of flat steel bent at a right angle with screw holes drilled in it). A nut holds the bolt to a corner brace; this nut adjusts the tension on the brake. If it keeps breaking as it is being spun or pulling out of the spinner’s hands, loosen the nut. If the yarn won’t pull into the orifice but keeps kinking up tighten the nut. The corner brace is screwed to the leg of the spinning wheel.
I hope that you enjoy building your spinning wheel as much as I did mine, and that it gets a lot of use!
P.S. Converting Electric Sewing Machines to use with a Treadle
This is easier than you might think. Most modern sewing machines have a mounting system just like the hundred-year-old treadle machines. I guess this is so that they could have all been interchanged on all types of cabinets all along. It should be a simple matter to slip the sewing head into the cabinet and tighten two screws, but you might need to saw or file on the cabinet or the base of the head to get them to agree with each other. When you have it mounted, it might not fold up like the original did. My wife just keeps a piece of cloth over the machine to keep the dust out when she isn’t sewing.
Next, you have to disable the electric motor. If you leave it hooked up, it will turn into a generator when sewing and it will pedal hard. Since there are so many makes and models of sewing machine, I can’t give you detailed instructions, but I figure if you can make a spinning wheel from scratch, you can do this too. Either take out the brushes, or clip some appropriate wires, or mechanically disconnect the motor from the workings of the machine, being sure that whatever you disconnect isn’t integral to the function of the machine. Put back on whatever cover or what have you that you took off, and run the machine by hand turning the big wheel on the far right end. Make sure that the needle goes up and down, that the feed (the serrated plate under where the needle is) moves up and down, forward and back, and the presser foot stomps up and down, all in time with each other. Open the plate below the presser foot and see that the bobbin is spinning in its carrier. Let the operator examine it as well. They should be able to spot any problems caused by you tinkering so far.
Now, with the machine mounted on the cabinet, peer straight down along the big hand wheel and through the two holes where the belt is supposed to come up through the top of the cabinet from the flywheel of the treadle. You can hold a ruler in your line of sight and figure how far from the edge of the machine the belt will run. Use that figure to turn a wooden pulley that will fit tightly over the hand wheel and be epoxied to it. I can’t give you definite dimensions, except that the groove for the belt should be 1/4” wide and just as deep (a little too big is better than too small) and the pulley can be up to 4” in diameter where the belt rides on it. Here is a sketch of the one I made:
Since there is a clutch built into the center of the sewing machine’s handwheel, your pulley should be hollow like a doughnut so that when it is epoxied to the wheel you can reach in and turn the clutch. Use a pair of dial calipers to get the inside diameter of your pulley to within a few thousandths of an inch of the outside diameter of the handwheel. If you don’t have calipers, you’ll have to repeatedly take the pulley off the lathe to check the fit. You’ll want it good and tight.
Some of the newest machines have computers built in. This might make a good boat anchor, then you can probably find a perfectly good machine at a yard sale or thrift store for $20.