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Our History: Wheelwrights helped history move along

One of the oldest crafts known to man is wheelwrighting, which dates to prehistoric times. I recently recalled that my maternal grandfather was a wheelwright, an occupation he pursued in Europe and continued after he emigrated to the United States in the 19th century, settling in Yorkville, Manhattan.

I recall my mother telling me that he often brought home variously shaped pieces of wood, left over from his work, for the children to use as building blocks. Wheelwrights belonged to guilds back then, as was true in their early history. Up until the advent of the automobile, wheelwrights held an important place in society here and abroad.

Stone Age man was probably the one who first recognized that a rolling stone or round log moved more easily than something which needed to be pushed or pulled. The first wheels, in about 5000 B.C., were solid discs. They were heavy and had a tendency to break, so the need for a lighter wheel became apparent. By 2000 B.C., spoked wheels began to appear in Asia Minor. Throughout the Iron Age the wheel developed, and by the Roman period wheels were very much like those made in the much later Victorian period.

Wheelwrights, except for using different materials, have made wheels in the same way as in the 17th century. Craftsmen of the highest order knew a great deal about different timbers, and their knowledge passed down from generation to generation and master to apprentice.

Should he wish to practice his craft, the budding wheelwright first had to find a source of specific timber, obtaining oak in late spring and early summer and ash, beech and elm during winter. The timber would be cut in winter using marks made by the wheelwright. It was left to season for about five or six years before being sent to work as sawn timber.

Traditional patterns were followed in constructing wagons and various different woods were used for different parts of the wagon provided that the wood was seasoned. The wheelwright used a variety of patterns for the traditional parts of the wagon.

Elm was the choice for wheels because it had strong cross-grained fibers and splits could be avoided. When the hub was made, a blacksmith, who worked closely with the wheelwright, would attach the iron bands, which gave added strength. The wheelwright then marked the places for the oak stokes, which were shaped by an axe. The blacksmith completed the final step, which was fitting the iron hoops around the circumference of the wheel.

Later, a method of bending timber into a circular form was invented so the whole rim of the wheel was only in two pieces and covered with a "tyre" in a single piece. This insured that the circumference of the wheel was equally strong everywhere.

Wheelwrights like my grandfather made not only wheels, but wagons, coaches and carriages that provided transportation of materials, goods and people before the automobile was accessible.

It is interesting to note that this occupational name became an English surname: Wheelwright. Should you wish to see how this trade was practiced, visit the Wheelwright Shop at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, where wheelwrights work on carriages, wagons and "riding chairs" using colonial techniques. You will learn that producing wheels requires strength, ingenuity and the talents of a carpenter and blacksmith. As in ages past, they also use properly aged wood such as elm.

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