TRADITIONAL SKILL: Patience and perseverance are at least two of the qualities required for the very exacting trade of being a traditional wheelwright.
Peter Thompson spoke to a very attentive and responsive audience at the opening meeting of Glendale Local History Society in September, describing and demonstrating his unique and intriguing work.
He said: “Having served my time as a joiner, with an initial wage of 27shillings and 3pence a week, my attention turned to repairing wooden wheels for a threshing machine and a horse-drawn corn drill in the 1960s.”
At this time ponies and traps were once more becoming fashionable. This inspired him to advertise his skills in Horse and Hound magazine. He hasn’t needed to advertise for 30 years!
As a member of The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights, Peter now repairs, restores and makes wheels for all purposes, examples being horse-drawn vehicles – carriages, traps, gigs, Romany gypsy caravans, brewery drays, agricultural wagons and carts, also bone-shaker bicycles, wheelbarrows and more. He has undertaken work for the Duke of Buccleuch and Duke of Northumberland, local farmers, museums and breweries.
We were told that ceremonial military gun carriages use different techniques, often using rubber or steel wheel rims. He told of the basic wheel designs and structure, which vary between England, Europe and the USA.
He follows the English traditional style, using elm, sometimes hickory (which is difficult to obtain), oak and ash for the main components – the naff, spokes and fellies respectively.
Most wheels have 12 or 14 spokes, although there are often exceptions. A carriage requires smaller wheels at the front (12 spokes) and larger wheels at the rear (14 spokes).
The wheel is usually ‘dished’, providing strength and preventing buckling when cornering. Every part of the wheel is fixed in place at an angle which makes the work very complicated. The spokes radiate from the central naff (central hub) and enter the fellie (outer rim) which is tapered, finally being secured with wooden dowels.
To create the naff, elm must be sought – now rare since Dutch elm disease took its toll. It must be dried, prepared and banded, an exacting task, taking time, without which the wheel would buckle. The fellies (several of which together make the outer rim) require the making of an individual pattern first. Typically a 60 inch wheel requires six fellies and 12 spokes.
The last stage in wheel construction is fitting the ‘tyre,’ a process known as hoping. An iron band, or tyre, is placed in a specifically-built, carefully-controlled circular open fire. Building the fire requires skill since it must produce equal heat for the whole radius of the fire, being unaffected by wind or draughts.
Once red hot the tyre is quickly placed around the wooden wheel within 30 seconds, before it cools. This is another exacting process learnt from experience and a calculated guess.
It is then quickly dowsed with 60 gallons of water, within about three minutes. As the expanded heated iron cools and shrinks it exerts huge pressure, thus supporting the various wooden components of the wheel.
Traditionally a blacksmith made the iron tyre for wooden wheels. However, Peter’s skill extends to making his own tyres. A blacksmith might use a hundred weight of coal for a fire taking one-and-a-half hours to heat. Peter uses waste wood and the fire is hot within 20 minutes – far more environmentally-friendly and efficient.
Peter has several ‘antique’ tools, which he maintains can not be bettered for their purpose, for example a ‘traveller’ used for measuring the circumference of the wheels had been used at the time of the battle of Waterloo!
Finally, cleaning is required and lastly raw linseed oil is used on the timber.
After four days of work, Peter can sigh with relief and satisfaction at another successfully crafted wheel.