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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.

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