Wheelwright and Blacksmith
3033 Summit Crossing Road
Fredericksburg, Va. 22408
Wheelwright - Part Woodworker and Part Blacksmith
The trade existed before recorded history. When the tribes migrated from the near east to Europe, they brought the wheelwright trade with them. For many hundred years the craft remained virtually unchanged as far as tools (simple and few) and the methods of building wheels. During this period all wooden parts were hand cut using saw, adz, draw knife and spoke shave. The spokes had square tenons that went into a square mortise in the felloe. The tapered hole in the center of the nave (hub) for the boxing was hand cut with a gouge. The tires were in sections, half lapping over the felloe joints and held on with nails driven into the felloe. This was called a strake tire.
When the industrial revolution came along, because of improved tools and equipment, different manufacturing procedures were adapted to the wheel making business. Although the basic wheel design did not change, the new processes used to make wheel parts changed the parts, thus changing greatly the wheel manufacturing process. The change in parts design greatly improved the final product (completed finished wheel). The wheel was far stronger, could be made more fine and delicate (lighter weight) at the same time able to withstand harder use and carry heavier loads (increased load-bearing capacity).
The redesigning of parts was evident on every part of the wheel. The hub now was turned on a lathe. This process was faster and more accurate. Also the mortises for the spokes are cut with a morticing machine instead of by hand and the tapered hole in the center can be cut as the wheel is turning on a machine (boxing cutter) (approximately 80 RPMs is ideal). As an adjustable boring bar (later a power cutting tool) could be fed through a pilot hole in the center of the hub, eventually cutting a taper hole in the center of the hub, then the iron boxing could be pressed tightly into the hub. The inside of this iron boxing was machined to accommodate the end of the axle (or skein). Also now iron bands could be made and Ahot shrunk@ on the Apoint@ (outside), Abrow@ (areas each side of the spoke) and the Aheel@ (inside) greatly improving the strength of the wooden hub by greatly reducing the likelihood of longitudinal (along the wood grain) cracks leading to hub splitting.
Now machining was available to put a round tenon on the felloe end of the spokes and this allowed for a round hole to be drilled in the felloe to receive it. This round tenon in a round hole design was far superior to the square tenon into a mortise (square hole). The round joint was faster to prepare and easier to establish the proper fit of tenon to hole.
The felloe (rims) was now also improved: could be cut, steamed and bent to make halves. These steamed and bent felloes carried the grain of the lumber parallel through one half of the circumference of the wheel, thus a stronger felloe because cross graining as in cut felloes was eliminated. Bent 2 rims are some what flexible making the wheelwright=s job of setting them on the spokes a lot faster and easier.
Instead of the strake tire sections nailed onto the outside of the felloe, the industrial revolution gave us a machine to roll a bar of iron into a one piece hoop that could have its 2 ends welded together resulting in a solid tire without joints. By using a traveler (tracing wheel) to measure the outside of the felloe and the inside of the tire, the inside of the tire could be made a fraction (depending on size of the wheel) smaller than the outside of the felloe. The wheelwright could then heat this undersized hoop (tire) causing it to grow in length enough to fit over the felloe of the wheel. As the tire cools, it contracts back to its original room temperature size. This contraction of the iron is a very powerful force. As this very powerful contraction of the iron tire takes place, the joints of the spoke to felloe and spoke to hub are pushed tight and secure. This tightening of the joints and securely holding the wheel parts together was only minimally accomplished with the sections of a Astrake@ tire.
As the machine age progressed, screw machines were developed. Now a special tire bolt was available which could be inserted through a counter-sunk hole drilled in the tire and continued on through the felloe. A nut applied to the threaded part of the bolt protruding through the felloe gave added security to the wheel by keeping the tire on the wheel if it should become loose.
These conditions will cause a tire to loosen: wood rot or wear, shrinkage from lack of humidity or tire fullering.
Wood rot is quite self explanatory. Wood wear is the result of chafing of two pieces of wood or wood rubbing on an iron part. Wood wear occurs if the wheel is used after the parts (joints) become loose.
Fullering is the natural result of the iron tire elongating because of repetitious pounding against the road surface. The application of rubber tires eliminates tire fullering.
Wheelwrighting is 10% theory and design and 90% what I call AOld Indian Tricks@. “Old Indian tricks” are tidbits of information about cutting, bending, measuring and positioning which can be pulled out of the bag of tricks and used as needed. The more tricks a wheelwright has in his bag, the greater is his ability to do good wheel work.
Theory of wheel construction is a Avery simple@ concept and if this concept is kept pure and follows through from the center of the hub to the tire during the entire process of building the wheel, the result will be a very complex item that can be very satisfactorily applied and used for a complex situation. To try to explain this better, the parts of a wheel are relatively simple objects as individuals. Now let us put the spokes into the mortises of the hub. This gives us what is known as a Aspider@. A spider has minimal structural integrity. Now let=s put the felloe on the spokes. This gives us a three tier construction but the application of the felloe does very little to add to the structural integrity of the wheel. Even though our wheel is now 85% complete and looks like it will do its job, if put to use would very quickly fall apart. But when the tire shrinks tight on the wheel, structural integrity is created. If the tire has the proper tension, the structural integrity is at maximum.
An examination of the wheel can determine if the proper tension has been applied and the maximum structural integrity has been achieved.
First visually look to see if all wood joints are as tight as they can be without compromising the structure of the two parts. If the ends of the felloe joints are tight but the shoulders of the spoke tenons are not tight against the felloe, the wheel is considered felloe bound. On the other hand, if the spokes are tight against the felloe, but the ends of the felloe are not tight against each other, then the wheel is considered spoke bound. Another check is to examine the space between the tire and felloe. If the tire is not tight, the whole wheel is subject to disintegration. On the other hand, if all joints are tight and the tire is tight putting proper tension on the wheel, enough compression should be applied to the spokes so that the wheel as a unit reacts like a spring. A wheel without proper tension and compression lacks resiliency. This wheel cannot smile because each ground structure it encounters has a damaging effect and he knows he is prematurely doomed! Because the wheel is spring loaded from the tension and compression, the wheel will react resiliently as it travels over rough terrain. This wheel will travel many miles with a smile on its face because its resilient characteristic defies each damaging ground structure it encounters.
Before the industrial revolution, tools were few and simple and remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of years. Once again during this period the wheelwright trade was 10% theory and design and 90% dependent on the repertoire in his bag of Indian Tricks. Wheelwrights of this pre-industrial revolution period could have saws, adz, draw knife (draw shave), spoke shave, chisels and gouges, ax, maybe some form of auger drill and a vice or shaving horse.
First concern when selecting lumber for wheels would be according to which species were best suited for wheel construction. The next consideration was the manner in which the tree grew. Straight grain sections were split and used for spokes while if a tree had a section where the grain grew in a curve might be cut for felloes that conform to that particular curve.
Hubs might be made from the tight grain area where a large bottom limb grew from the trunk After the sawing took place the lumber was stacked and “stickered” (small sticks to create air space between layers) for drying maybe up to 4 or 5 years before it was considered ready to be made into a wheel.
A wheelwright would most likely start by rough chopping a particular part with the adz, then refining it with the draw knife and spoke shave. Mortises were first a drilled round hole then the corners would be cut square with a wood chisel. Sandpaper had not been invented so smoothness of finish depended greatly upon the skill of the wheelwright. Because the joinery in wheel work had to be so precise a lot of wheelwrights= developed a skill level far superior which elevated them above finish carpenters. It was considered that a wheelwright was qualified to do carpentry, but few carpenters had the skill level to be a wheelwright.
After the woodwork part of a wheel was complete it was then taken to a blacksmith to have the strakes shrunk on. A ASampson@ was a clamping device used to pull the felloe joints together while the strakes were nailed into place.
After the industrial revolution, more productive and more accurate equipment became available. Until the takeover of the automobile, there was a large production machine specifically for each step of the wheel production process. Machines were available to accurately make multiple parts (spokes, hubs, felloes, tires) in various sizes and styles. Then these parts were accurately assembled on a production basis on other machines built specifically for that purpose.
After the demise of horse transportation, the need for wooden spoke wagon wheels almost ceased. Although at first some automobiles used wooden spokes and felloes, soon the all steel wheel became the norm. At this point all the wonderful large production equipment for making wheels was obsolete and sold for scrap. Except for the remaining few pieces, all we have of these wonderful pieces of mechanical genius is the pencil sketches showing only the exterior of the machine. Wheelwrights of today can look at these sketches in reprints of old tool catalogs and only dream about the internal workings and wish that we had them to use.
God has created a great world for us, so instead of pouting about machines from the past that we don=t have anymore, let=s look around us and discover the new materials and technologies that progress since 1920 has given us. We still have the old standbys B hardwood and iron, but now we also have fiberglass, aluminum, roller bearings, rubber, high tech glues and adhesives, propane, brazing, powder coating, sandpaper, stains and varnishes. Also modern machines originally designed for other jobs can be retrofit (reaching into your bag of AIndian Tricks@ and pull out your thinking hat) for wheelwork.
I have re-tooled engine lathes and converted them into boxing machines that are equal to or better than the originals. I have mounted an indexer on a mortise machine and cut perfectly positioned hub mortises. Duplicators can be adapted to engine or wood lathes to do production hub turning. High speed fixed head tenon cutters make tenon cutting a one step process. Duplicators are available that follow a spoke pattern and can make hundreds of identical spokes in one day. Modern lumber kilns have cut lumber drying time from 4 B 5 years down to 2 weeks. Planers, saws, sanders, lasers and infrared heat sensors have eliminated handwork and still maintain perfect accuracy. With the equipment available today it is possible to have a wheel manufacturing facility that equals factories of yester year.
Tour a Wheelwright Shop
Let’s take a tour of a modern day wheelwright shop, where I am very well acquainted. I’ll go to the office to pick up the work order for a particular wheel. With work order in hand we proceed to the solar kiln and select the lumber for our wheel.
First the lumber is graded to be sure it is free of imperfections like pith, knots and cracks. Now let’s cut, jointer and glue the blocks together that will be our hub block. After the gluing clamps are removed we put our hub stock in the lathe and turn it to the proper dimensions as per our work order. Next step is mortising for the spokes. Wheels can have 10, 12, 14, 16 and maybe even 18 spokes, so the hub is mounted in an indexer. An indexer is mounted on a mortise machine on an adjustable table and fitted with the proper size hollow chisel. After the mortises are cut in the bands need to go on.
“Point” band goes on the outside (front), “brow” bands go on each side of the mortise and “heel” band goes on the inside (back). The bands should be “hot set” (shrunk on) very tight. The bands reinforce the hub and prevent splitting.
Now let’s make a spoke for our wheel. A straight grain piece of lumber with the growth rings properly located is selected for our blank. Also we go to the pattern shelf and select the proper spoke pattern. Put the pattern and the spoke blank in the duplicator, run the machine.
After spoke turning, we shall proceed to the tenon cutter, make the proper adjustments and cut tenons on our spokes that will properly fit the mortises in our hub.
Next the hub should be securely fastened down and the spokes pressed into the hub. This will tell the tale of how well we put the mortises in the hub. Because mortises are cut accurately the spokes will be tight, the tips equally spaced and in a straight line. After the spokes are all in the hub we have built a “spider”.
A round tenon needs to be cut on the felloe end of the spokes. A tenon cutter size is determined by the size of the hole in the felloe where the tenon is to be in
It is time to select the proper felloe pattern, lay the pattern on our plank of lumber and trace as many sections as needed. Cut the sections on a band saw and sand them. Mark for the tenon holes and drill 2 holes in each felloe. These holes are for the spoke tenons.
Line up the holes in the felloe with the tenons on the spokes and push the felloes onto the spokes. All felloe joints should be trimmed so they fit properly together except one joint (expansion gap) does not touch.
We are finished in the assembly area so we can proceed to the tiring shop. Select the steel for the tire and roll it in the tire roller so it is the diameter of our wheel. Taking traveler in hand, we will measure the outside circumference of the felloe. Now keeping traveler in hand, transfer this measurement to inside of tire we just rolled. Cut the tire so it is a little shorter than the measurement we transferred from the felloe. This negative difference is determined by experience. After the two ends of our tire are welded together, we need to heat the hoop to create expansion. A temperature as close to, but not hot enough to burn the wood is ideal. When the hoop has reached this temperature, place it down over the felloe so that it is even on each side of the wheel. Quench it in water and as the tire shrinks and tightens, we can hear the joints snap and creak as they tighten together and the tension of the tire creates a uniform compression throughout the wheel
Our wheel has been through a lot of changes and now has a lot of stress, so it is a good idea to take a break and let the wheel settle down for a day.
Now the wheel has settled down and dried. Let’s take it to the boxing machine. There we will spin our wheel at about 80 RPM and cut a taper hole in the center of the hub exactly the size of the outside of the cast iron boxing. Press in the boxing.
Back to the assembly area, countersink and drill holes for the tire bolts and install them.
If our work order had called for the wheel to have a rubber tire, we would have had to install a channel in place of the steel tire, but the procedure would have been the same.
In the rubber tiring area we find rolls of different size and styles of rubber tires. Each size has to mate correctly with a particular size of channel. Cut enough rubber to go around the circumference of our wheel, plus some extra. The rubber has two holes through which we push spring steel wires. The rubber tire machine pulls on the wires tightening the rubber in the channel. When proper tension is reached, the ends of the spring steel wires are brazed together. As the wheel is removed from the rubber tire machine, the excess rubber tends to automatically close the gap creating a nearly invisible joint in the rubber.
Before we complete our tour, let’s drop our wheel off at the paint shop where it will receive two coats of boiled linseed oil. This will give our wheel a protective coating until someday some one will give it a high gloss paint job accented with some striping.
Maybe some day we might see our wheel rolling along with a smile on its face and twinkling in the sunlight, bringing pleasure to its new owner because he can “use it with confidence and display it with pride”!
Contact me for inquiries, price quotes, terms and shipping information.
3033 Summit Crossing Rd
Fredericksburg, VA 22408
Wheels made by Pete Robertson –
“Use them with confidence and display them with pride!@