The Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Wheelwrighting

 

The construction and repair of wooden wheels.

 

Status Currently viable
Craft category  Vehicles / Wood
Historic area of significance  UK
Area currently practised  UK (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
Origin in the UK  Bronze Age
Minimum no. of craftspeople required  21-50 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
Current no. of trainees  2 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)
Current no. of skilled craftspeople  21-50
Current total no. of craftspeople  21-50

 

History

The wheelwright’s craft is amongst the oldest known to man. Some of the earliest examples of solid wheels date back to 5000 BC, while spoked wheels were in existence in Asia Minor by 2000 BC. A complete wheel dating from the Bronze Age was discovered in Peterborough. Other ancient preserved specimens have been found in various parts of Britain, for example preserved in Irish bogs, and of Roman date from Somerset (where a wheelwright was active in the Glastonbury Lake Village) and Edinburgh. There are records of trade in wheel parts among finds at Vindolanda, a Roman fort and settlement near to Hadrian’s Wall.

In the nineteenth century almost every village had a wheelwright for he was essential to the movement of goods by cart, but with the advent of motorised transport and metal wheels the need for the craft declined. The craft has developed over time reaching the point in the Victorian era which furnishes most antique vehicles being preserved by wheelwrights today, and the designs upon which most modern wooden wheeled vehicles are based.

The basic wheel making technique now practised was developed in the mid-eighteenth century, using a tyre shrunk onto the wheel to hold it together by compression. This technique had previously been used by Celtic peoples but it disappeared in western Europe after the end of the Roman Empire. Late-nineteenth century developments include fitting solid rubber cushioning onto the iron tyres, which were formed into a channel shape to receive it.

 

Techniques

A wide range of woodworking skills are used, as well as those of the blacksmith. The techniques differ in some details from other wood trades because of the forces acting upon wheels when in use. The wheelwright has to appreciate these forces fully, so it is desirable that he/she is familiar with the vehicle being worked on and seeing it in action.

 

Local forms

The wagon and cart builders from one county to the next would have made distinct designs, which were locally acceptable. Coach builders within England tended to follow the example of London designs closely as they were a fashionable commodity. Slight stylistic differences can sometimes be detected between Scottish and English patterns, and from country to country across the Continent. This would be true of artillery pieces as well, but in all areas of the trade, such as guns, carriages, farm vehicles, still more distinct differences exist across time.

 

Sub-crafts

It should be noted that the wheelwright’s trade depends on other trades for the complete construction of vehicles. These include engineers (for axles and other parts), spring makers, foundrymen, coach painters, coachbuilders, upholsterers and coach trimmers.

At one time there were separate disciplines for making different types of wheels e.g. for carts, coaches/carriages and motor cars. Nowadays they are frequently made or repaired by the same person

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

  • Market issues: Much of the work of the wheelwright is associated with the maintenance and conservation of vehicles that are an important part of social history and their upkeep is dependent upon the availability of private/public funding. In times of economic restraint the availability of funding to carry out the work is likely to be constrained. At the same time there is competition from abroad (e.g. Poland) to take on the work traditionally carried out by wheelwrights in the UK.
  • Training issues: Most wheelwrights in the UK either work alone or with one or two other people. This makes it difficult for a wheelwright to take time out to train an apprentice and pass on the skills, without detriment to their business. Through government funding, the Livery Companies Skills Council, the Wheelwrights’ Livery Company and its associated Charity, it has proved possible to support two wheelwrights to provide training to two apprentices over a 3 year period. The Wheelwrights’ Livery Company are currently putting together proposals to enable such apprenticeships to be sustained in the future, are planning for up to 20 apprentices over the next 40 years. This number of apprenticeships is believed to be sustainable and will maintain the current healthy position of the craft – there is currently enough work for everyone, but too many new people entering the craft would mean less work for all and would be detrimental to the skills.
  • Shortage of raw materials: There are serious issues relating to the woods traditionally used by wheelwrights, such as sudden oak death syndrome, Dutch elm disease, and ash dieback. However these do not currently seem to be affecting the supply of raw materials to the trade.
  • Dilution of skills: There is a huge issue with the dilution of skills and ‘have-a-go men’ in the craft. There are quite a few people practising the craft, but the quality varies.
  • Dilution of skills: In the 1970s the craft was at its nadir and many people taught themselves. These people are now retiring and are passing on their skills. However, because they were self-taught they do not have the lineage behind them and are not passing on a depth of knowledge because they’ve never had it.
  • Market issues: Many wheelwrights are now diversifying their market and expanding into producing gun carriages.

 

Support organisations

  • The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights. In 1630 the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights (‘Wheelwrights’) along with the Coachmakers & Coach Harness Makers applied jointly for a Royal Charter but it was not granted. However In 1670, the Wheelwrights on their own applied again and were successful. The Company governed the operation of their trade in the City of London by ensuring that wheels were made of good material and properly constructed. They also looked after the well-being of the Master Wheelwrights, their journeymen and their apprentices. Today, the ‘Wheelwrights’ still maintain an interest in the craft of making wheels by supporting, promoting and maintaining close contact with ‘working wheelwrights’ and their apprentices. In conjunction with the Livery Companies Apprenticeship Scheme the Company have administered and maintained the Wheelwrights’ Apprenticeship (2013 to date). The Company has been supported in this endeavour through funding provided by its associated wheelwrights’ Charity and government. Over the next few years the Company proposes to establish stronger links with wheelwrights across the UK in order to support the craft and better gauge the level of activity.

 

Craftspeople currently known

  • See the list of ‘Working Wheelwrights‘ on the website of the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights, compiled in 2009. The list currently undergoing a review.

 

Other information

Area craft currently practised: Wheelwrights are currently spread thinly across the UK in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. As far as can be ascertained in England they are located in a number of Counties including Bucks, Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Kent, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Shropshire, Somerset, Suffolk, Sussex, Warwickshire, Wiltshire and Worcestershire. Some are also based in our major cities, such as Birmingham, Durham, Sheffield and Southampton. That said a number of them are approaching retirement age and some are not fully employed as wheelwrights.

Minimum number of craftspeople needed: The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights estimates that the current number of craftspeople is in the range 21-50 and that level is just about sufficient to make the craft viable.

Number of trainees: The traditional progress of the craft was from wheelwright to wainwright to coachbuilder. As of September 2016, there are two apprentices – one working with Mike Rowland & Son (coachbuilders and wheelwrights), and the other working with Phill Gregson (wheelwright and wagon maker) – who are going through a formal training programme and they should complete their 3 year apprenticeship in 2016/2017. There is also one wheelwright who has recently passed on his wheelwrighting skills to his son.

 

References

  • Felton, William. A Treatise on Carriages.
  • Berkbeile, Don H. Carriage Terminology: an historical dictionary.
  • Philipson, John. The Art and Craft of Coachbuilding.
  • Jenkins, Geraint. The English Farm Wagon.
  • Sturt, George. The Wheelwright’s Shop.
  • Bennett, Eric. The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights of the City of London 1670-1970.
  • Wright, John and Hurford, Robert. (1997). Making a wheel, how to make a traditional light English pattern wheel.