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The Craft of the Wheelwright

The Craft of the Wheelwright

by Daphne Turner of Ovingdean, UK
photographs by David Baker of Ovingdean, UK

In these days of standardization and the extensive use of metal wheels you might think there is little call for the centuries old craft of wheelwrighting, but the many demands on the skills of Gus Kitson in Suffolk, England, show this to be very far from the truth.

Despite many years experience of renovating all types of wagons and wheels even Gus can still be surprised by the types of items for which new or restored wooden wheels are required. Among these he can list a velocipede, an early type of wooden bicycle propelled by the rider’s feet pushing on the ground, the Maxwell motor car, hand barrow organs, wheel barrows both utilitarian and decorative, plus the more usual vehicles that range from small tip carts through baker’s and game carts to large farm wagons. Possibly his most widely known work to date has been the restoration of the Barron tree transplanter for the Botanical Gardens at Kew (see Small Farmer’s Journal, Winter 2002).

To cater for all these many and varied requirements he has renovated, or made in their entirety, wheels with diameters from 1 foot to 5 feet 5 inches and a width from 1 inch to 6 inches. But whatever the diameter and width the process is the same and the following photographs take the reader through methods used by Gus to produce a complete wheel from start to finish.

The Craft of the Wheelwright

The work commences with his colleague Basil Saunders turning a suitable piece of timber to produce the appropriately sized hub (or nave). Generally elm is the wood of choice but in some English counties where elm is not available other woods are used. The center of the hub is cut away in order to fit in a cast iron tapered box. The box has wings on its exterior and these fit into slots which hold it tightly in position and stop it spinning inside the hub when the wheel turns. Because the stub axles put on the end of the oak axles are of steel the different metallurgical properties of the cast iron box prevent the friction that would occur if the same metal were used for both parts.

The Craft of the Wheelwright

The hub is then taken to Gus’s workshop where he cuts out the marked mortices. These are holes into which the spokes are fitted and are stepped or staggered, not placed all on one level, to increase the strength of the hub between the spokes. The oak spokes are largely shaped by hand. Because all wheels vary in size it is not possible to implement a standard manufacturing process.

Once the spokes are prepared, the next stage is to push them into the prepared hub. No glue is used so it is vital the ends fit snuggly into the mortices. The two metal bands around the hub are put on by the same heating process used in the tyring — see further on.

The Craft of the Wheelwright

The Craft of the Wheelwright

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