Using a wheeling machine or ‘English Wheel’ to create compound curves in sheet metal, usually for car body work or aviation. See also coachbuilding.
|Historic area of significance
|Found in manufacturing centres in the UK e.g. alongside car manufacturers etc.
|Area currently practised
|Origin in the UK
|Late C19th early C20th
|Current no. of professionals (main income)
|21-50 companies with the skills in house
These would be companies with the skills to build a whole car body from start to finish.
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Manufacturers may still have them and use them occasionally.
|Current no. of trainees
|The Heritage Skills Academy apprenticeship (coachbuilding and trim) programme includes all aspects of heritage coachbuilding.
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
The earliest versions of the wheeling machine were thought to have been used in France in the 1500s to make armour. However, it was the 1800s in Britain that saw them in wide use in manufacturing. They were used for a wide range of applications where a double, or compound, curve was needed in sheet metal.
By the early 20th Century the car was becoming popular and the wheeling machine was a low cost way to produce the curves needed for car bodywork. Skilled coachbuilders and panel beaters would produce panels for high end cars. Ranalah, Besco (FJ Edwards) and Kendricks were some of the main companies producing wheeling machines.
With the increase in aviation came the need for more bespoke panels and most of the skills moved from coach built cars to making aircraft.
Up until the 1980s, the panel beater would have been considered a skilled craftsman but as lower cost production methods became available, such as mass- produced pressed components, fibreglass and high-tech composites, the use of wheeling machines declined.
Today they are still in use in classic car restoration and specialist coachbuilding.
A wheeling machine is like a rolling hammer that stretches and forms sheet metal into complex curves. It is a manual process that relies heavily on the skills of the operator, no electric, pneumatic or hydraulic power is used. The final results are dependent on the skills of the craftsperson manipulating the material.
Its key advantage is that it can be used to produce many different, bespoke panels without having to make up a die for use in a stamping press. It is therefore very useful for low-volume and specialist production such as classic car restoration and sports car production.
Using a wheel is a process that gives the metal a smooth or mirror finish, which can be difficult to achieve with other techniques.
The machine is shaped like a large, closed letter “C”. At the ends of the C, there are two wheels. The wheel on the top is called the rolling wheel, while the wheel on the bottom is called the anvil wheel. The operator of the machine passes the sheet metal between the anvil wheel and the rolling wheel. This process stretches the material and, as it stretches, it forms a convex surface over the anvil wheel.
- Aviation body work
- Car body work
- Sculpture – wheeling has been used by contemporary artists to create sculptures
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: Modern production techniques such as mass-produced pressed components, fibreglass and high-tech composites are cheaper and more efficient for large production runs.
- Market issues: It is a time consuming process to make a handmade panel meaning that it is less cost-effective than modern techniques.
- Market issues: Whilst the market has declined, there is still a niche but high-end market for the skills.
- Skills issues: It takes a lot of time to learn the skill to a high level. Skilled panel beaters would have taken years to become skilled in their craft.
- Lack of available equipment: The wheeling machines are expensive and rare. There are some companies now making smaller versions but don’t always produce the same results. Ranalah have started producing cast iron machines again in small numbers.
- Ageing skilled practitioners: most people with the higher-level skills in companies such as Aston Martin are reaching retirement age.
- Heritage Skills Academy
- Association of Heritage Engineers
- Aston Martin Heritage Trust
Craftspeople currently known
- Geoff Moss – MPH motor panels
- Roach Manufacturing
- James & Bob Smith – RS Panels
- Dom Chinea – trainee and owner of Ranalah Ltd.
- Clive Smart & team – Shapecraft
- Toby Southan – Toby Southan Metal Craft
- Nick Finburgh – Classics Autos
- Andy Hunter – Envisage motor group
- John Smith – CKL Developments
- Jesse Morris – apprenticed at Aston Martin 1988-92
- Laurant Amman – Storik Ltd
- Steve Parmiter – Atelier Ugo, formally Roach Manufacturing and British Aerospace
- Mark Cole – Mark Cole Metalforming Ltd
- Darren Edwards – Thornton Restorations
- Jack Lant – Prestige Coachworks
- Daniel Clazy – Longford Coachworks
- Miles and Andy – Ashley and James Coachbuilding
- Gary Yates – Mouland and Yates
- Victor Mouland – Mouland and Yates
- James Mcmahon – Empacombe Classic Panels
- Matthew Warburton – Aluminiumart
Companies that employ two or more makers:
- Coventry Metalcraft Ltd.- Martin Holt, Steven Lobley, Toby Courts, Matthew Godsell, Lyndon Atherton, Sam Holden
- Bodylines – Alan Pointer & team
- Aston Martin Works
The Heritage Skills Academy provides apprenticeship opportunities in a wide range of heritage engineering skills. They have two training pathways:
- Level 3 Apprenticeship, Mechanical Technician
- Level 3 Apprenticeship, Coachbuilding & Trim Technician
- Dom Chinea, The English Wheel https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=51zN22KUYyY&t=0s
- Dom Chinea, Stripping down the Ranalah https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mWZJb9sMyE
- An American’s View of the English Wheel by Kent White (DVD)
- Advanced Techniques for the English Wheel by Kent White (Series of DVDs)
- Ron Fournier (1990). Metal Fabricator’s Handbook. ISBN 0-89586-870-9.
- Ron Fournier (1989). Sheet Metal Handbook. ISBN 0-89586-757-5.
- Tim Remus (1999). Ultimate Sheet Metal Fabrication. ISBN 0-9641358-9-2.
- Tim Remus (2003). Advanced Sheet Metal Fabrication. ISBN 1-929133-12-X.
- Robinson, W.A. Livesey (2006). The Repair of Vehicle Bodies. ISBN 978-0-7506-6753-1.