A wheelwright, or wainwright, builds and repairs wheels in the traditional manner for horse-drawn vehicles such as carts, carriages, and wagons. The craft began in ancient Mesopotamia, over 6000 years ago, and the techniques have changed very little since.
It is a trade which fell naturally beside that of a blacksmith as the wheel components would be held together by an outer-rim of metal. Originally this would have been formed by strakes – lengths of iron that were nailed to the outside of wheels. However, around the middle of the nineteenth century, iron strakes were replaced by tyres – iron rings which were custom made by the blacksmith to properly fit each individual wheel. In addition to this tight fit, the wheel was fixed with tire-bolts instead of nails, which were smooth on the tyre’s surface. This made them much less likely to break off and the wheel more dependable as a result.
Components of a wheel
Typically a good wheel was constructed out of three different types of wood and metal. The hub, where the wheel slotted onto the axle, was carved from one piece of elm. The elm’s twisted grain protected it from splitting when the spokes are driven into it. The spokes themselves would have been made from oak, a strong wood, traditionally used in constructing roofs or ships because of its ability to support a great amount of weight. These would be slotted into the hub, and the rim, or felloes (pronounced ‘fellies’), would be slotted onto the spokes. The rim, made of ash, is comprised of segments, and gradually brought together through even tapping. No nails are used up to this point – the joins between the wood will expand and the iron rim will hold everything tightly together.
Setting the tire to the rim is quite a dramatic moment. Visitors to the Forge may notice that there’s a circular plate set into the river bank on the south side of the building. This is a Wheelwright’s Platform, and would have been used during this final part of the wheel’s construction.
Wheelwright Plate at the Forge
The over-sized tyre would have been laid on the stone, propped up by wood to create small air-vents. A fire was constructed around it and left until the metal was red hot. Then the fire would be raked away, and the tyre lifted into place around the wooden wheel. A great deal of water would’ve been used to cool the iron and put out any fires on the wood. The other workers quickly knocked the metal into place before the iron cooled, and grew too tight to move – thus creating a secure and complete wheel.
Even by the end of the nineteenth century the use of pre-manufactured wheel parts such as iron hubs, or factory-made wooden spokes, became more and more common. As it became cheaper to purchase these items the blacksmith’s role in producing the metal elements was much reduced. The defining blow to the wheelwright’s trade however, came with the decline of horse-based transport, particularly in farming and industry, where increasingly reliable motor-vehicles revolutionised costs and speed.
Marshall Cavendish, Traditional British Crafts, (Surrey, 1989) ISBN 0862837537