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Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT

The Craft of the Wheelwright

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

The fellies (or felloes) are then made. The number required for each wheel varies according to the number of spokes in the wheel, each one taking two spokes, and a wheel can have up to 16 spokes.

The Craft of the Wheelwright

The fellies are held together by a dowel made of heart of oak and once all the necessary parts have been produced they are assembled into the basic wheel.

The Craft of the Wheelwright

Gus with a range of different sized wheels and parts, demonstrating how everything is put together.

The Craft of the Wheelwright

It is then time to make the enclosing metal tyre. A flat strip of iron is cut to the size of the circumference and the joint welded to make a complete circle.

The Craft of the Wheelwright

Once the wheel sections have been fitted together it is taken to the dished circular metal plate known as a tyring plate where it is clamped firmly into position using a metal bar that runs from the center of the plate through the tapered iron box. The traditional way of heating the iron tyre to obtain the required expansion is in a bonfire and the red hot band is then lifted by tongs and dropped over the rim of the wooden wheel.

The Craft of the Wheelwright

The wheelwright and his assistant now work quickly to hammer down the band to get it level with the plate and thus the side of the fellies, before pouring water on to quickly cool it before the timber catches fire and to ensure the metal shrinks evenly. As no adhesive is used in the assembly of the wooden parts and it is the metal tyre that ultimately ensures that everything remains in place and is fit for years of service it is vital that every care is taken at this stage, as indeed it has been during the earlier processes.

It now remains only to finish the wheel with the appropriate layers of varnish or paint, and this latter is the forte of John Barber (seen in the final photo). Known as Gus’s “apprentice” he has been warned by Gus that the apprenticeship will never end because this will mean increased wages that Gus cannot afford! But joking aside, John is a retired fisherman and a craftsman in his own right being a gifted sign writer and maker of model boats. He paints the wheel by hand with a primer, three coats of undercoat and two coats of gloss before applying the coach lines, thus putting the finishing touch to a marvelous piece of craftsmanship.

Spotlight On: Book Reviews

How To Prune

From Dusty Shelves: Pruning Guide from 1917

Work Horse Handbook

Work Horse Handbook

Horses are honest creatures. And, what I mean by honest is that a horse is almost always true to his motivations, his needs, his perceptions: if he wants to eat, if he needs water, if he perceives danger. He is incapable of temporarily setting aside or subverting his motivations to get to some distant goal. This is often mistaken as evidence for a lack of intelligence, a conclusion which says more of human nature than equine smarts. What it means for the horse is that he is almost never lazy, sneaky or deceptive. It is simply not in his nature.

Laying Out Fields for Plowing

Laying Out Fields for Plowing

There are four general plans, or methods of plowing fields. These are: (1) to plow from one side of a field to the other; (2) to plow around the field; (3) to plow a field in lands; and (4) to start the plowing in the center of the field.

Dont Eat the Seed Corn

Don’t Eat the Seed Corn: Strategies & Prospects for Human Survival

by:
from issue:

Gary Paul Nabhan’s book “WHERE OUR FOOD COMES FROM: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine” (Island Press, 2009) is a weighty tome, freighted with implications. But as befits its subject it is also portable and travels well, a deft exploration of two trips around the world, that of the author following in the footsteps of a long-gone mentor he never met, the Russian pioneer botanist and geneticist Nikolay Vavilov (1887-1943).

Haying With Horses

Haying With Horses

If the reader is considering the construction of a barn we encourage you to give more than passing thought to allowing the structure of the gable to be open enough to accommodate the hanging of a trolley track. It is difficult or impossible to retrofit a truss-built barn, which may have many supports crisscrossing the inside gable, to receive hay jags. At least allowing for the option in a new construction design will leave the option for loose hay systems in the future.

Art of Working Horses Another Review

Art of Working Horses – Another Review

by:
from issue:

One could loosely say this is a “how-to” book but it is more of an “existential” how-to: how to get yourself into a way of thinking about the world of working horses. Maybe we need to explain what a working horse is. A working horse is one, in harness, given to a specific task. So, in that context, the book illustrates the many ways Miller has worked with his equine partners over the years – helping them understand what he wants them to do, as both work together to create relationships that help achieve desired goals.

Art of Working Horses Hunter Review

Art of Working Horses – A Review

by:
from issue:

Over 40 years Lynn Miller has written a whole library of valuable and indispensable books about the craft of working horses. He has helped beginners acquire the basics of harnessing and working around horses, and has led those further along to focus on the specific demands of plowing, mowing, haying and related subjects. But, in a fitting culmination, his latest book, The Art of Working Horses, raises its sights and openly ponders secrets at the heart of the work that may over time elevate it to an art.

One Seed To Another: The New Small Farming

One Seed to Another

One Seed to Another is staggering and bracing in its truths and relevance. This is straight talk from a man whose every breath is poetry and whose heartbeat is directly plugged into farming as right livelihood.

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

How To Dry Up A Doe Goat

You are probably thinking why would I want to dry up a doe? If the plan is to rebreed the doe, then she will need time to rebuild her stamina. Milk production takes energy. Kid production takes energy, too. If the plan is to have a fresh goat in March, then toward the end of October start to dry her up. The first thing to do is cut back on her grain. Grain fuels milk production.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 2

How do you learn the true status of that farm with the “for sale” sign? Here are some important pieces of information for you to learn about a given selling farm. The answers will most probably tell you how serious the seller is.

An Introduction To Grasslands Farming

From Dusty Shelves: A World War II era article on grassland farming.

Basic Blacksmithing Techniques

Illustrated guide to basic blacksmithing techniques, an excerpt from Blacksmithing: Basics For The Homestead.

Training Workhorses Training Teamsters First Time Hitching

First Time Hitching

More from Lynn R. Miller’s highly anticipated Second Edition of “Training Workhorses / Training Teamsters.” Today’s excerpt, “First Time Hitching,” is from Chapter 12, “Follow Through to Finish.”

Haying With Horses

Hitching Horses To A Mower

When hitching to the mower, first make sure it’s on level ground and out of gear. The cutter bar should be fastened up in the vertical or carrier position. This is for safety of all people in attendance during hitching.

Farmer Pirates & Dancing Cows

Farmer Pirates & Dancing Cows

From humor-filled stories of a life of farming to incisive examinations of food safety, from magical moments of the re-enchantment of agriculture to the benches we would use for the sharpening of our tools, Farmer Pirates & Dancing Cows offers a full meal of thought and reflection.

Work Horse Handbook

The Work Horse Handbook

The decision to depend on horses or mules in harness for farm work, logging, or highway work is an important one and should not be taken lightly. Aside from romantic notions of involvement in a picturesque scene, most of the considerations are serious.

Starting Your Farm

Starting Your Farm: Chapter 4

Assuming that you’ve found a farm you want to buy, next you’ll need to determine if you can buy it. If you have sold your property, and/or saved your money, and have the means to buy the farm you are sitting pretty. If you do not have the full price of a considered farm, in cash or any other form, you will likely have to look for financing.

Making Buttermilk

The Small-Scale Dairy

What kind of milk animal would best suit your needs? For barnyard matchmaking to be a success, you need to address several concerns.

Small Farmer's Journal

Small Farmer's Journal
PO Box 1627
Sisters, Oregon 97759
800-876-2893
541-549-2064
agrarian@smallfarmersjournal.com
Mon - Thu, 8am - 4pm PDT