Coachbuilding and wagon making
The making of horse-drawn vehicles such as coaches and carriages (‘coachbuilding’) or wagons (‘wagon making’ or ‘wainwrighting’).
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK|
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required|
|Current no. of trainees||2|
|Current no. of skilled craftspeople||1-5|
|Current total no. of craftspeople||1-5 (in two businesses)|
‘Traditional coachbuilding’ refers to the making of complete horse-drawn vehicles such as coaches and carriages. (In contrast, ‘contemporary coachbuilding’ refers to the making of the bodies of automobiles, and also to making such things as bespoke buses and horseboxes, and is not covered by this research).
‘Wagon making’ refers to the making horse-drawn wagons, including ship wagons, bow wagons, bowtop wagons and gypsy caravans.
Wagon making at Mike Rowland and Son, Wheelwrights, Colyton, Devon. Photo: Greg Rowland
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
Market issues: The market for newly-built vehicles is small – primarily for private drivers and private collections. The wedding market is growing, but usually favours the cheaper Eastern European import.
Market issues: Changing tastes – in the 1980s there was a demand for brewers drays which has now disappeared.
Market issues: Farm wagons are not worth the amount they cost to repair (value of £3-4000 compared with £7-8000 to repair), so very few people are repairing them and so there aren’t many wagons left. This will eventually turn a corner and wagons will become so rare that their value will increase and the demand will rise.
Foreign competition: The main threat is competition from Eastern Europeans, particularly Poland, making at very low cost – this has completely knocked the bottom out of the English-made coach market. A new Eastern European vehicle costs approximately £8,000, while an English one costs about £30,000. The cheap pound is helping, but won’t last forever.
Loss of skills: Today, most coachbuilding work is restoration. Very few people buy new English vehicles – they either buy English vehicles to repair, or new Eastern European vehicles. The skills that are most in danger of dying out are those needed to make a new vehicle from start to finish – restoration is relatively easy because the bits are there for you, but it’s very difficult to make a new vehicle from scratch.
Loss of skills: The skills that are most in danger of dying out are those needed to make a new vehicle from start to finish. The main market for coachbuilding is in restoration – very few people buy new English vehicles, they either buy English vehicles to repair, or new Eastern European vehicles. Most wheelwrights can repair a wagon (how it always was), but there are perhaps 3-4 places who can make wagons from scratch.
Dilution of skills: There is a huge issue with the dilution of skills. Anyone can buy a workshop and call themselves a coachbuilder or a wagon maker, without necessarily having much experience or skill.
Business rates: Need big workshop to fit the vehicles in, so business rates are very high.
Craftspeople currently known
Mike Rowland & Son – wheelwrights and coachbuilders. Based in Colyton, Devon. Have one apprentice.
Crofords Coachbuilders – wheelwrights and coachbuilders. Based in Ashford, Kent.
The traditional progress of the craft was from wheelwright to wainwright to coachbuilder. The work of a wainwright is not as fine as that of a coachbuilder, with fewer trimmings etc. There are currently two wheelwrighting apprentices – one working with Mike Rowland & Son (coachbuilders and wheelwrights), and the other working with Phill Gregson (wheelwright and wagon maker)