The origin of the Spoked Wheel is unknown; apparently, Persian Chariots had Spoked Wheels as early as 2000 BC. There is also evidence to suggest that spoked wheels existed in Britain before the advent of the Romans. It is interesting to think that Wheelwrights may have worked for Millennia, possibly using similar methods. The Wheelwrights, independently of the Coachmakers made a separate petition for Incorporation and on 3rd February 1670, Charles II Granted the Wheelwrights a Royal Charter.
A typical Wheelwright’s Shop of the 17thC would have comprised a Master Wheelwright, several Journeymen & 6-Apprentices. The Wheelwrights Trade in the 17th & early 18thCs was one which, whilst requiring great skill, needed, like the Blacksmiths Trade, a powerful Physique & brawny Arms. Probably it never provided a lavish lifestyle.
Until the invention of Motorised Transport in the early 20thC there was almost certainly a Wheelwright in every Village & Town in the Country. English Farm Waggons are a testimony to the skill of the Village Wheelwrights. Their skilled use of Tools & Knowledge of different Woods enabled them to shape all the parts of the Waggon, reducing weight, making it stronger & more durable as well as producing a most elegant finish. Nowadays whilst there are no more than 25 full-time Wheelwrights in the UK, some have thriving Businesses. They are involved with making & restoring Vehicles, creating Replicas, maintaining HM The Queen’s Carriages, The Lord Mayor’s Coach, Kings Troop RHA carriages and those privately owned. They were found Universally up to the advent of the Motor Car, as even in the Railway Age the Goods had to be ferried to the Station. There would be a line of Horse-wagons outside the Station, with their blinkers & feedbags and the smell of them as you walked past. Alas their time has gone. The “Art & 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 1st Bicycle & then the Motor Car, not only did the Craft rapidly diminish, but also its very language has almost been forgotten.
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 1st Wheels were simply solid discs, carved out of one lump of wood. Solid Wheels made from 3 shaped planks followed, and the earliest examples of these date from about 5000BC. They were discovered in Mesopotamia, but wheels of this type spread rapidly through Asia Minor and into Europe. Solid Wheels had 2 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 2000BC. The Rims of the early Spoked Wheels were made of one or 2 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, 2nd Millennium BC [Bronze Age], and they are exquisite pieces of Craftsmanship. As the Iron Age proceeded Wheels developed as well, Tyres & Nave Bonds came to be used, by the Roman Period many Wheels were very much as the Victorians were making them, with sectional Felloes & one-piece Tyres.
Wheels were of different sizes, from the very large Heavy Wheels of Farm Wagons, specimens of which can still be seen at the Museum of Rural Life at Reading University, to small Wheelbarrow Wheels. The Wheelwright is employed in making Wheels for all manner of Carriages; This requires more Labour than Ingenuity; a Boy of weakly Constitution can make no hand at this Trade. 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. It is abundantly profitable to the Master who earned 20s per week. 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. Tyre-smiths was 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 6am to 8pm. The cost of setting up as a Master Wheelwright is reckoned at between £100 & £200.
The Construction of a Wooden Wheel
The main parts of a Wooden Wheel are the Nave or Hub, the Spokes, the Felloes which are Sections forming the Rim of the Wheel, and the ‘Box‘, an Iron Ring in the centre of the Nave which forms a Bearing to take the Axle Arm or ‘Axle Tree‘. The Wheel was Tyred either with lengths of Iron called Strakes or an Iron Hoop enclosing the Felloes.
The Nave was usually ‘heart‘ of Oak or possibly Elm and was originally rough-hewn with an Adze, but when available a huge hand-powered Lathe was used. The Wheelwright then marked out the places where the Spokes were to be morticed into the Nave, and bored the holes for them. A lumpish cylinder in shape – 11 or 12ins in dia & 12 or 13ins from end to end – a newly turned Stock was a lovely thing….and now it lay, butter-coloured, smooth slightly fragrant, soon to begin years of Fieldwork, after much more skill – the Skill of Ancient England – had been bestowed on it, though already telling of that Skill in every curve.
The Blacksmith applied the Iron Nave Hoops to ‘bind‘ the Nave. Then the Mortices were cut into the Nave to take the Spokes. The spokes of Oak were then shaped by Adze, Saw & Spoke Shave to have the maximum of strength with the minimum of weight. The ‘tongues‘ were cut on the Spokes & shaped to fit into the Felloes; this was done with an Adze together with a Spoke-shave and a Plane known as a ‘Jarvis‘. The Spokes were driven into the Nave with a Sledgehammer, not straight, but at an angle to give the right amount of Dish. In the past strips of Iron called Strakes were generally used to Tyre the Wheel. For Shoeing, the Wheel was then set up over a Pit of Water. The Wheelwright took out the strip of Iron, already curved by heat and punched with nail-holes, and laid it Red Hot on top of the Wheel Rim. As the hot Iron burned into the wood, the Wheelwright punched in big rose-headed nails and then turned the Wheel round into the Pit of Water. While the newly fastened Strake was cooling, the operation was repeated on the opposite side of the Wheel, until the 6-Strakes completed the job of Tyring. Shoeing a Wheel in this manner continued until the latter part of the 19thC. Later they only continued to be used where Heavy Loads were carried over difficult Terrain. They had the advantage that they could be nailed back on by a Farmer in an Emergency. The Hoop Tyre came later.
Hoop Tyres were not introduced into Britain until the last quarter of the 18thC. The Wooden Rim was measured using a ‘Traveller’, a measuring device with a Wheel, and then a Bar or Iron of the right length was selected to form the Tyre, with the Blacksmith, by experience, knowing how much it would shrink to make a tight fit. Solid Bars of Iron bent into a full Circle & Welded, were put on Hot and nailed into position on the Wheel Rim. To apply the Hoop Tyre it was heated until Red Hot and the Wheel was put on a Tyring Platform and the Hoop was dropped into position on the Rim. Using Iron Tyre ‘Dogs‘, the Tyre was quickly levered over the Rim and was Sledgehammered on to the Wheel. When it was on correctly, Water was poured over the Hot Tyre and as it cooled the Felloes were forced close together. The Wheel was then placed in a Tank of Water to cool. As the Tyre cooled & shrank, it pulled the Spokes into exactly the right amount of Dish. The Nave bonds were also heated & driven into place on each side of the Spokes. Finally, the Wheel had to be ‘Boxed‘. This meant that the centre of the Nave had to be hollowed out and a Cast-Iron Box inserted & fixed with wedges. Into this Box the Axle-arm was fitted. It was a punishable offence to sell Wheels before they had been Boxed & Shod.
For most Wheelwrights, however, Wheels were only part of their work. They often built the Cart or Wagon, complete with Shafts & Axle-beds; it would be their responsibility to see that the Wheels were properly hung from the Axle-arms. The Iron Axle-arms were given a slight downward & forward slope, so that in a Dished Wheel the lowest Spoke, which was at that moment taking the full weight of the Load, stood Perpendicular.
The Introduction of Dished Wheels
Except that they were working with more commonplace materials, the 17thC Wheelwrights and their successors into the 21stC have made Wheels in exactly the same way. There was however one important improvement 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 2-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. Wheels turned inside out – like an Umbrella in a Wind – where the Dish was too feeble.
The loaded Body of Cart or Waggon, Swinging to the Horse’s Stride, becomes a sort of battering-ram into the Wheels, 1st this side and then that. It slides to & 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 Near-side. 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.
NB: A Cart is a 2 Wheeled Vehicle whilst a Waggon or Wagon has 4-Wheels and, for the convenience of Turning, the Front Wheels are smaller than the Rear.
But too much Dishing was equally weakening to the Wheel, and was one of the earliest concerns of the Wheelwrights 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 & other Vehicles – for all these were part of the Wheelwrights Trade.
Homer, writing in about 1000BC or even earlier, referred to Wheels in terms the Wheelwrights, would readily understood. Here, in a 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 8-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
Wood Used for Making Wheels
The Woods in this area provided Timber for the construction of the Wheels. Beech was used for Felloes, often called ‘Vellys‘ locally. In 1667, in an Inventory of George Cranfield, a Timber Merchant of Henley, he had ‘800 longe Beechen Velleyes’ and ‘400 Dry Velleyes’ on his Wharf waiting to go to London. In 1776 at Cane End (Nr Gallowtree Common) there is an Account presumably of a Wheelwright called George Hyde, of various Relloes: ‘1300 Coach Vel’ and ‘135 Long Vel’. Whether these were being made at Cane End or elsewhere is unknown as they appear in a general Account Book including Wood Accounts. Along with these Felloes are various other items such as ‘Extrees‘ which can be presumed to be Axle Trees, and others which are unknown but are probably local names for parts of Wheels. If anyone knows the origin of some of these terms please advise: 100 quarters (there is a reference to ’03 quarterns of quarters’ in the Cranfield Inventory), 100 Wood Mongers, 300 Clefts (these might be the result of Splitting Oak for Spokes as apparently the Spokes were from Oak Cleft in the Wood from the Heart of the Oak where the Timber is strongest & the grain straightest; others were 456 Randmers, 5 Sharpes, 7 Pulleys and 4360 Touch-planks (these may be used in the construction of the Body of a Wagon).
Beech was still being sold for Wheels even up to the 1940s. In the Accounts of the Goring Charity, 1000 cu ft of Beech were felled in Bensgrove Wood and cleaved to order from Messrs Peal & Co for 3000 Spokes, largely for Export.
Ash was sold to Wheelwrights and was another Wood used for Felloes & sometimes Spokes. Strangely, locally a Trunk of Ash was usually referred to as a ‘Stick‘ – was any other Timber so described, although in a Dictionary of Woodland Terms it is stated that a Stick is a felled Trunk, with no specific Tree mentioned. In the Cane End Accounts, 43 Sticks of Ash from various Woods were sold to Thomas Green, a Caversham Wheelwright, for £9-5s.
The Elm is used for its interwoven grain, this prevents the Nave from splitting with the force of the Spokes being driven in tight.
The Oak is used because it doesn’t bend, compress or flex and transfers any load pressures directly from the Felloes to the Nave.
The Ash is used for its flexibility & springy nature, this acts as a form of suspension and protects against shock damage.
Locally there was probably a Wheelwright in every Village and sometimes the same Firm would make & repair Wagons & Carts. Nettlebed had 3 Wheelwrights in 1850; as Nettlebed was on a Main Road they may have been needed for Repairs to passing Traffic. Burgess was mentioned in the 18thC Cane End Accounts as a Wheelwright and probably the Family continued working until the 19thC, as there was a John Burgess, a Wheelwright in Goring Heath in 1853. In 1864 Thomas Cox, described as a Carpenter & Wheelwright was working at Gallowstree Common.
Albert Paddick took over his Business in 1881 and his son Charles lived at Coxs Cottage until his death. The Tyring Platform was still in existence as is the Paint Shop but the Sawpit has gone. In Albert’s time, a Horse walking on a circular Track of Granite Blocks powered a Saw Bench. Later a Traction Engine & Saw Bench came to the Yard every so often. He made Coaches & Carts and repaired them and was proud of a Wheelbarrow which Charles described as ‘a Rolls Royce of a Wheelbarrow‘, which cost £4 and was designed by Albert. Some of these went to several of the ‘Great’ Houses.
OS 1st Series Map of Oxford County
The late Charles Paddick of Gallowstree Common referred to his father walking through the Woods to choose the Shape of Wood for his Wheels & Wagons. The Paddick’s took on Apprentices, 2 at a time, who lived with the Family. The Goring Heath Charity School mostly provided the Boys for Apprenticeship and paid the £40 Indenture Fee. The sons of men working for the Paddick’s were taken on for free. Sadly the connection with the Paddick’s is lost and Cox’s Cottage is now called Withy Copse after the Wood behind, part of which was owned by them. Charles Paddick had a wealth of knowledge about the Woods and the men who worked in them.
J Plater’s Cart, Van & Carriage Works in Haddenham, Bucks c.1903. Management, Blacksmith, Wheelrights & Coachbuilders pose for posterity with Tools in hand. Note the Boy Apprentices who are barely 12-yrs-old can be seen working alongside the Journeymen.
James Plater’s Carriage Works in Townsend, Haddenham, c.1903
George Sturt’s book ‘The Wheelwright’s Shop’, 1st Published in 1923. His Shop was located in Farnham, Surrey which is the home of the Crafts Study Centre.
Farm Waggon Glossary
Axle Arm, or Stub Axle: the end of the Axles on which the Wheels are fitted. These were of Wood and part of the main Axle Beam but later replaced with more hard wearing Iron.
Bed: The Floor & Interior of the Body
Body: The section of the Waggon that carries the Load
Bow Waggon: a design of Waggon with extensions over the Sides to increase the Load capacity. These sections or Raves curve in an elegant Hoop over the Rear Wheel. Bow Waggons also have a curved Top Rail on the Front Board.
Crooked Bed: the inset section or Waist, built into the Side of the Waggon to allow a tighter Lock
Dish Wheel: Waggon Wheels were built with a Concave section that gave them more strength and allowed the top of the Wheel to stand out wider from the side of the Body.
Felloe: The wooden Rim sections of a Wheel, there are usually 6 to form the complete Rim. Each Felloe has 2 Spokes fitted into it. They are made from Ash a Timber with a natural spring to it.
Front Board or Head Board: the front section of a Waggon Body often with a Concave Bow Top Rail & Lettered with the Name, Address & Date of the Owner.
Hub, also known as the Knave: The central part of the Wheel where the Spokes come together and the Wheel is fitted on the Axle Arm. The Hub is made from Elm for its ability to withstand Stress without Splitting.
Ladders: A Gate like Frame fitted to the Front & Rear of a Waggon as an extension to carry larger Loads at Harvest time.
Long Board, planks that run the full Length of the Bed. Elm was the most common Timber used for these Boards, cut by hand in a Saw Pit by 2 men using a long Pit Saw.
Lock: the ability of a Waggon to turn in a tight Circle, the Lock of a Waggon was increased by an inset section being built into the side of the Bed, a ‘Crooked Bed.’
Out Rave: Section at the Top of the Body side extending outside over the Wheels this Extension increased the Carrying Capacity of a Waggon
Spindles: section of doweled wood, used to support the Waggon Side Boards and to make up the Out Rave. These were made by hand using a rounding Plane or ‘Stale Engine’ usually made from Ash but replaced by Iron on some later Waggons.
Spoke: the radial section of a Wheel that takes the full weight of the Vehicle. There are usually 12 on a Farm Waggon. They are made from Riven Oak which has a high compression strength and Riven, Split not Sawn, so as not to cut across the natural Grain of the Wood.
Strake: Sections of Iron Tyre Rim fitted in section each overlapping 2 Felloes.
Tail Board: at the end of the Bed, in many cases this was formed into a Ladder for easy access to the Waggon.
Tyre: An Iron Rim fitted to Waggon Wheels to prevent wear and give added strength.
Undercarriage: the Structural Framework underneath the Waggon.
Waist: an inset section built into the side of the Waggon to enable more movement for the Wheel & greater Lock.
The Farm Waggon has become an Iconic Symbol of England’s Rural Past. The recognition of different types of Waggon, specific to Local Counties has engendered a sense of place & belonging in the Rural Landscape. They look back to a bygone age before Industrialisation & Intensive Farming. To a time when there was a greater role for the skilled Craftsman, and a slower pace of life on the Land.