Published Works on The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights
The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights of the City of London 1670-1970
The book is in the course of being brought up to date
Short Account of The Worshipful Company
It was first published in 1884 and subsequently re-published, but regrettably it now out of print today.
The revised edition (1961) was published by Witherby & Co. London.
A copy is still available for reference at the Guildhall Library however.
Making a Wheel - The Book
Originally published in 1997 by The Rural Development Commission the new edition is published by Baron Books of Buckingham in association with The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights and with the permission of Natural England as successors to the Rural Development Commission.
The co authors, Robert Hurford and John Wright, are both Liverymen of the Worshipful Company and have added a new chapter covering boxing or fixing the axle box. Also included are photographs of two fine examples of wheels. One made by apprentices in1993 and the other, in 1995, by the then Yeoman of the Company David Bysouth who became a Liveryman in 2000 and an Honorary Liveryman in 2012. Believed to have been the first working wheelwright to become a Liveryman for many years. See a separate article of the History of the Bysouth Family under "Craft News."
Copies of the book are available from:
Cost £16.50 including post and packing.
Please make cheques payable to the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights.
The Circle of Life
An article on wheelwrighting that was published in NFU magazine in August 2004.
The ancient craft of wheelwrighting is not only alive and well, but is thriving once again.
The advent of the combustion engine meant that after World War 1 the wheelwright seemed destined to become just another name on the endangered species list. However, with only a handful of traditional wheelwrights left in the country, the wheel has turned full circle and they are now in demand. The order books are full again.
Douglas Andrews took over an established wheelwrights business at Three Cups, East Sussex, in 1997, after he had served his nine-year apprenticeship there with David Bysouth. He now has as much work as he can comfortably handle.
With his assistant Daniel Lambert-Gorwyn, Douglas likes to select his own trees as much as possible. He then cuts them down and seasons the resulting wood on site at the yard. A wheelwright needs to have a feel for the different woods he uses and an intimate understanding of each of their peculiar characteristics.
The work is varied – anything from a kissing gate for a churchyard to the complete restoration of gypsy caravans. Bespoke work, such as the garden bench that can be wheeled around to follow the sun, is another side of the business and, of course, making wheels.
There are wheels everywhere. The yard is magical, heaped with wheels of all sizes and sorts.
Myriads of ancient, well-used hand tools are stored for use, and they have a dignified presence about them. These tools are probably similar to the ones that made the wheels found in Iron Age settlements of Britain. The main difference is that the rims of these ancient wheels were often made from a single piece of ash which was bent to form the complete rim.
Wheels made from solid circle of elm are even more primitive, although they were still used in the Yorkshire Dales and Wales until the early 1800s and called ‘Clog-wheels’.
The natural qualities of the different woods dictate where they will be used. The hub or centre of the wheel, the ‘nave’ is always elm. Elm wood has an even grain, giving it a uniform strength that does not split, even when the spokes are fitted into the mortices around the hub.
The spokes need to be strong and rugged so they are made from oak, which will take the knocks and jolts of a journey. The rim is constructed from individual pieces of curved ash, each known as a felloe. Ash is used because it is tough but has an inbuilt flexibility. These felloes are sawn to shape from a template and will form a perfect circle, each joined to its neighbour by a strong oak peg or dowel. Viewed edgeways on, however, the wheel is seen to be dished, just like a saucer.
This gives the wheel its lateral insurance, the extra strength needed against natural sideways movements and jolts. The spoke between the ground and the hub though, will always run completely vertically as it turns.
This is the basic wheel. The type and size depends on what it is for, perhaps a vintage car, an original hay-wain or a horse-drawn vehicle. But whatever sort of wheel, the ‘grand finale’ is putting on the iron rim.
The metal rim is forged slightly smaller than the circumference of the wooden rim. It is then heated to expand, placed over the wooden wheel and cooled to contract, thereby holding the wheel secure in a firm grip. Douglas makes it look deceptively simple, but this masks the skill required, of course.
When fitting the metal rim onto the wheel there is no modern technology involved – it is somehow exciting and mysterious all at once. The equipment is carefully laid out, each piece in its correct position. The fire is lit, the dogs are tied up and the metal rim placed into the flames.
Everyone now waits and watches. The heating can’t be hurried, but there is a palpable sense of expectancy in the air and once jackets are donned to protect against the intense heat, you know that the time is almost right.
The metal will be ready once it is a dull ‘cherry red’ colour and it is at this stage that it is all hands to the deck. The rim is taken from the fire and placed over the waiting wooden wheel. Smoke sizzles as it touches the wood. The metal is quickly hammered into place, a few slips of flames leap up and they are immediately doused with the waiting water – billows of steam erupt.
The hot metal hisses angrily and the helpers become engulfed in turns, emerging then disappearing into the mists. It is dramatic. Somehow these basic elements of fire, water and steam touch a deep primal recall button.
Water is constantly poured on from the human chain, reaching out to the water trough, and the wood creaks as the metal rim contracts and tightens. In these final moments of cooling, the last adjustments for perfection are done by hammering the rim to position it exactly.
Then as suddenly as the drama started it is over, it is calm, and, from an onlooker’s perspective, it feels like an anti-climax. The wheel is checked and rolled away, the fire doused and it is tea and biscuits for all. Normality is restored. Even Douglas, who has done this so often, says it is like going through a new birth.
The end result is a beautiful, properly crafted, wooden wheel, which is strong and durable – the antipathy of a modern throw-away plastic society.
(This article appeared in NFU Countryside Magazine in August 2004 and is reprinted above by kind permission of Dorothy Hollamby)