|Craft category||Vehicles / Wood|
|Historic area of significance||UK|
|Area currently practised||The 2020 survey indicates a regional split between 50% in the Midlands and 25% between the rural South West and South East. Wales Scotland and Northern Ireland have representation.|
|Origin in the UK||Bronze Age|
|Current no. of professionals (main income)||30-50 (based on a 2020 survey carried out by the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights)|
|Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
|Current no. of trainees||2 apprentices|
|Current total no. serious amateur makers
|Current total no. of leisure makers
|Minimum no. of craftspeople required||21-50 (see ‘Other information’ for further details)|
The wheelwright’s craft is amongst the oldest known to humanity. 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.
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.
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.
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: the Government’s new arrangements for apprenticeships are not helping those crafts that only need small numbers of apprentices to sustain them for the future. The Wheelwrights’ Livery Company is having to put in place its own arrangements on limited resources.
- 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.
- 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’ makers 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.
To enable new wheelwright apprentices to be trained the Charity of the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights in conjunction with the Charity of the Worshipful Company of Coachmakers & Coach Harness Makers are now jointly providing funding to support an apprentice in Sussex, over a 3-year period (2018 to 2021). The Wheelwrights’ Livery Company is arranging for the assessments, mentoring support and is working with the Livery Companies Apprenticeship Scheme Ltd to monitor progress and ensure that the apprenticeship is backed by an electronic log of evidence.
Within the Wheelwrights Charity a separate Craft Fund has been set up, with a view to that providing funding to support apprenticeship in the future. At the same time the Wheelwrights Livery Company has launched a 100 Club, (i.e. a small lottery) and monies raised from this will go towards the Craft Fund.
Craftspeople currently known
- See the list of Working Wheelwrights on the website of the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights, compiled in 2009. The list undergoing a review in line with a recent survey conducted in 2020.
Training: The Wheelwrights’ Livery Company 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. While funding has been put in place for the current apprentice, there are no guarantees that sufficient funds will be available for future apprenticeships. It is also dependent on the Livery Companies Apprenticeship Scheme Ltd providing the administrative support needed to run the apprenticeship and the agreement with them only goes through to 2021.
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 December 2020, there are two apprentices working for a coachmaker and repairer in Kent and a newly qualified journeyman wheelwright in Sussex.
- 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