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History of the Wheelwrights Craft

Although The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights has been in existence for only some 340 years, the "art and mistery" of the wheelwright's craft are amongst the oldest known to man. The method of making wheels for horse-drawn vehicles was unchanged in its essentials for 4,000 years, but with the development of the first bicycle and then the motor car, not only did the craft rapidly diminish, but also its very language has almost been forgotten.

Since the Wheelwrights Company was constantly concerned with enforcing and complying with laws about the manufacture of the wooden wheel, a large part of its history would be incomprehensible to a modern reader without an explanation of the methods used and of the technical terms of the trade. In 1923 George Sturt added a glossary to his book “The Wheelwright's Shop”, as did Liverymen John Wright and Robert Hurford, in their book “Making a Wheel” first published in 1997 by The Rural Development Commission. Click here for more details.

The Origins of the Wheel

The origins of the wheel are lost in prehistoric times. It is probable that even in the Stone Age men realised that a rolling stone or a round log of wood moved more easily than an object which had to be pulled or pushed. The first wheels were simply solid discs, carved out of one lump of wood.

Solid wheels made from three shaped planks followed, and the earliest examples of these date from about 5000 BC. They were discovered in Mesopotamia, but wheels of this type spread rapidly through Asia Minor and into Europe.

Solid wheels had two disadvantages: they were heavy and they broke across the grain of the wood. The problem was how to lighten the wheel and yet retain its strength. The answer came with the spoked wheel, which was certainly in existence in Asia Minor by 2000 BC. The rims of the early spoked wheels were made of one or two pieces of wood, bent to a full circle. The rim was connected to the hub, known to wheelwrights as the nave or stock, by wooden spokes. Some Egyptian chariots survive, second millennium BC [bronze age], and they are exquisite pieces of craftsmanship. As the iron age proceeded wheels developed as well, tyres and nave bonds came to be used, by the Roman period many wheels were very much as the Victorians were making them, with sectional felloes and one-piece tyres.

Liveryman Robert Hurford had an opportunity to reconstruct an iron-age chariot when the BBC made a programme about a find from Wetwang in Yorkshire in 2000. The chariot's excavation and reconstruction featured in the BBC 2 "Meet the Ancestors series". For this programme he postulated a suspension system based on pictorial evidence, including Roman coins, and drew evidence for the wheel construction from various sources including some actual surviving spokes and stocks from Glastonbury. The photographs show hoops of timber which act in part as springs, the result has been well received among archaeologists.

The one-piece hoop tyre seems to have disappeared after the Roman Empire faded, to re-emerge in the 18th century. Wheel construction in the period before the 18th century used short strips of iron, called strakes [or sometimes shoes], nailed across the joints of the felloes. From early times in England wheels with iron strakes were referred to as being shod.

Homer

Hera's Chariot
Homer, writing in about 1000 BC or even earlier, referred to wheels in terms the wheelwrights, who formed their Company in the seventeenth century, would readily understood. Here, in Chapman's translation of the Iliad, is his description of the goddess Hera's chariot:

Her golden-bridled steeds
Then Saturn's daughter brought abroad; and Hebe, she proceeds
T' address her chariot; instantly she gives it either wheel,
Beamed with eight spokes of sounding brass; the axle-tree was steel;
The fellies incorruptible gold, their work of wondrous grace;
The naves, in which the spokes were driven, were all with silver bound
 

 

The Introduction of Dished Wheels

Except that they were working with more commonplace materials, the seventeenth century wheelwrights and their successors into the twenty-first century have made wheels in exactly the same way. There was however one important improvement in that about a hundred years before the wheelwrights of London made their first petition for incorporation, the dished wheel had appeared. Dished wheels were shaped like saucers, with the hollow side outwards. The spokes were driven into the nave at an angle, so that the lowest spoke stood perpendicularly to the load, the upper part of the wheel was sloping away from the body of the cart or carriage. This produced two advantages. It enabled the body of the vehicle to be wider at the top than at the floor, and it helped the wheel withstand the lateral thrust of the axle caused by the action of the horse.

To quote George Sturt:

The loaded body of cart or waggon, swinging to the horse's stride, becomes a sort of battering-ram into the wheels, first this side and then that. It slides to and fro, on well-greased arms, right into the nave of each wheel. Now the off-side wheel gets a ramming, and promptly throws the weight back to the nearside. And so it goes on with every horse, all day long. The wheels have to stand not only the downward weight of the load; a perpetual thrust against them at the centre is no less inevitable.

Note: A cart is a two wheeled vehicle whilst a waggon or wagon has four wheels and, for the convenience of turning, the front wheels are smaller than the rear.

He adds:

I saw wheels turned inside out - like an umbrella in a wind - where the dish was too feeble.

But too much dishing was equally weakening to the wheel, and was one of the earliest concerns of the Wheelwrights Company to inspect the wheels made by its members and to fine those who had made wheels "too dishing".

Wheelwrights were clearly craftsmen of a high order. They apparently used neither mathematical formulas nor even drawings, but passed on the acquired knowledge of their craft from father to son, from master to apprentice. But patterns were used for felloes; for the bottom timbers of a wagon; for a dung cart; and a raved cart. Raves were side rails added to a cart or wagon to allow a bigger load to be carried over the wheels.

There were also traditional patterns for wagon shafts, cart shafts, tail-board rails; indeed for every part of a cart, wagon, timber carriage and other vehicles - for all these were part of the wheelwrights trade.

The quality of the wheelwright's skill and the variety of his craft were not, of course, always appreciated. Campbell in The London Tradesman (1747) was disparagingly snobbish:

The Coachmaker is a genteel, profitable Business both to Master and Journeyman; but requires a great Stock of Ready Money to set up and continue Trade; they deal with none but Nobility and Quality and according to their Mode must trust a long time, and sometimes may happen never to be paid.

The Wheelwright is employed in making wheels for all manner of Carriages; I mean the wooden work. This business requires more Labour than Ingenuity; a Boy of weakly Constitution can make no hand at this Trade. It is abundantly profitable to the Master and a Journeyman earns from 15 to 20s. per week. A Youth may be bound about Fifteen.

The Cart-Wheeler differs nothing from the Coach-Wheeler, but that he makes wheels for carts only and is not obliged to turn his work so neatly finished as the other.

A boy designed for this trade requires to be of strong robust Constitution and ought not to be bound till the age of 15 or 16, when his joints begin to knit and he has arrived at a moderate degree of strength. A Journeyman earns from 12 to 15s. a week.

Campbell also mentions tyre-smiths as a separate trade, with journeymen earning 22s. a week and an ordinary workman 15s. He puts the cost of an apprenticeship to a wheelwright as from £5 to £10 and the working hours from 6 am to 8 pm. The cost of setting up as a master wheelwright is reckoned at between £100 and £200.

The Book of English Trades and Library of the Useful Arts (1818) made more understanding reference to the wheelwright:

This artizan's employment embraces the making of all sorts of wheels for carriages which are employed in husbandry, as well as those adapted to the purpose of pleasure. Road waggons and other vehicles constructed for burden are also the manufacture of the wheelwright.

In London this business is divided into two distinct branches of work; one of which being confined to the purpose of manufacturing wheels.