The Lost Art of a Wheelwright
by Jo Chytka of Hemingford, NE
Being a wheelwright is a rather exclusive vocation, but that is what Allan Tullis of rural Rushville, Nebraska is.
Tullis said, “I bought an old army freight wagon that originally came from Ft. Robinson. The wheels needed to be rebuilt and I couldn’t find anyone who could do the work. I bought books and studied and got together with Andy Miller. Miller is an Amish wheelwright from Bloomfield, Iowa and he helped get me started. He would always tell me ‘truly experience is the best teacher’ and I have found he was right. I just had to work it out. I ordered the materials and got started and it did work out OK.
“There are a lot of variables in putting together a good wheel, it is not entirely an exact science, there is some art too. Wood is not consistent as far as expansion and shrinkage. Most of my wheel making equipment I’ve made myself with the exception of one or two pieces; there is just no store to buy it in.”
Spread by word of mouth, news got out that Allan made wheels for both wagons and buggies and he now builds between six and eight sets of new wheels a year. Allan said, “It has turned into a nice little business for me.” His wheels have gone to customers in Colorado, North and South Dakota and Nebraska.
Allan said, “I don’t do much repair, old wheels are generally too far gone. In my experience, unless a wheel is broken in an accident or something, it is always better to build new ones. I have rebuilt wheels on old hubs, but in my opinion it is best to replace them. I prefer to use roller bearing hubs that are all iron and steel.”
Tullis said, “Wheels now are made from Hickory wood, you don’t see oak any more. Hickory is stronger and more resilient, and springy. It will bend before it breaks and if it does, it breaks in one place. Oak just shatters, it is dangerous when it breaks, it can tear the heck out of a horse. Spokes in a buggy wheel especially need to be springy.
“When I build wheels, whether for buggies or wagons, they are usually in sets of four. They commonly have 16 spokes per wheel compared to early on, when they had 12 spokes in a front wheel and 14 in a back wheel.”
The process of building a wheel begins with shaping the tennons on the end of a spoke that inserts into the hub. They are fit into the hub as it sits on a wheel table and must be tight and true and at the correct angle. A flange is then put into place to hold them all secure. According to the desired diameter of the wheel, all the spokes are cut to the same length and those ends are pointed, again creating tennons, using a tool that resembles a big pencil sharpener.
Next step is the placement of the felloes or wood rims; these need to have holes for each spoke drilled into them. The felloes come in two halves and the spoke tennons are fit or sprung onto them. The felloe ends are butted together and bolted into place. Now placed on the newly created wheel, is the tire or iron band that goes around the circumference of the wheel.
“I buy the tires in a flat piece and run them through a machine that curves them to the shape of the wheel. They are then sized to slightly smaller than the wheel. After heating in a tire furnace to expand them, they are set on the wheel and doused with water. That causes the iron to shrink and draw down to fit the wheel. Part of the art is to draw them down to just the right tightness. If the tire is too hot it will burn the wood of the felloe and leave charcoal underneath and weaken the wheel. They will cool and draw down in 10-15 minutes.”
Another step there can be, is putting a solid rubber tire over the iron tire. You must use a channel-iron tire to do that. The rubber tire that sits in the channel comes with either one or two wires, depending on the wheel width, running through the core of the tire. “I use a machine to pull the wire tight and fasten it. You need to cut the rubber 4-5 inches longer than the circumference of the iron tire, so there will be a tight fit with no eventual gapping.”
There is also bolting, riveting, bevel and finish work yet to be done. Every wheel is soaked in linseed oil and thinner for about 1/2 day. Allan can also paint or stain the wheel depending on what the customer wants.
“A set of four wheels can take up to 6 days to complete, you handle 64 spokes and a wagon wheel can weigh 225 pounds when complete.
“Wheels are expensive, I always give a customer an estimate, but they are not cheap. I recently completed a set of four wheels and two axles for $1200 and they can go up to $2000- $2500 for big heavy wheels.”
The Amish say a buggy wheel will last two years, but that is with constant use. Most customers only use their wagons or buggies for show and in parades so the wheels last for many, many years.