I frequently get asked to repair wooden carriage wheels, and they are always a voyage of adventure as you never know what your going to find, which also makes it the hardest to price, which is another problem as everyone wants to know before you start what its going to cost.
A typical example would be the wheel in the picture which came in to have a broken spoke replaced. In order to replace the spoke you have to first remove the rubber tyre, steel rim, and a section of felloe to get to it. Usually at this point I discover all manner of issues, and that the old time craftsmen where just as capable of a “bodge Job” as modern ones.
So the blue wheel pictured illustrates this perfectly. It came in with a broken spoke which turned out to be rotten and riddled with wood worm to a point where the wood crumbled away when touched. The Carriage had obviously not moved for a while and water had got into the joint between felloes and spokes, causing the felloes to swell and also rot along with the end of several spokes. Our tale of woe continues as the wheel I suspect originally from America with steam bent felloes covering 7 spokes each, rather than the European Sawn felloes which conventionally bridge 2 spokes, had previously been worked on, and one half of the wheel steamed felloes had been replaced with sawn, some of which were solid and some rotten, all of which had been hidden under many layers of paint.
To cut a long story short I ended up replacing several spokes, most of the felloes, but retained the hub, rubber tyre and steel rim which were refitted. Once its had a new coat of paint its good to go, back on the carriage.
My latest Video is now available on the Heritagecraft YouTube Channel, which is about the process of restoring a Costermongers Cart
It follows the progress of a Vintage Costermongers cart dating from before the First World War. If you have never come across the term Costermonger, they were effectively Market Porters, lively gregarious characters, who would transport goods from the wholesale markets to the retailers. For more information have a look at some of my previous posts
This particular cart belongs to a elderly gentlemen who before his retirement worked at Spitalfields Market, and it was a gift when he retired. At the time the market was moving from central London to a new sight on the outskirts and these carts were being burnt as they weren’t needed at the new sight. His family had been connected with the market for generations although he had never made it to Market Porter.
In those days jobs in the market were tightly controlled, and you needed a relative in the market to get you a job. Porters were paid by the parcel regardless of the size to take the goods from the wholesaler to the customers vehicle in the car park, they didn’t hang about, and god save anyone who got in the way. However I am told 30 years ago £1000 per week for a porter wasn’t unusual. No wonder the jobs were controlled.
Before my customer was given the cart its clear to see it was a working vehicle, and my customer has had it in his garden for years. So it was in a pretty sorry state.
I have made new wheels for it, repaired and where necessary replaced the rotten woodwork. Repainted in the traditional market cart colours of Red and Green, and added as a request from my customer an elegant touch of yellow in the form of a couple of pinstripes. As you can see from the picture below it came out well.
As a wheelwright I repair lots of wheels, which include Traditional Market Cart Wheels, and Costermonger cart wheels. All wheels come with their own challenges but market cart wheels come with added extra.
When Markets carts were an everyday sight at markets the stall holder would rent the cart for the day, from a local carriage master. Each market would have a local firm usually a family whose business it was building, maintaining, and hiring out market carts to their market. To differentiate their carts from their competitors in the next market, they would carve the name of their firm on the wheels, usually in a very distinctive script.
When we are restoring Market Cart wheels, the felloes ( the wooden rim sections) are usually the first to rot and therefore need replacing which means they need the name carved back on them in the same distinctive script
In the case of the wheels shown I was asked to retain parts where I can and replace where necessary sufficient to allow the market cart to be used again. Two of the hubs were replaced, all of the felloes and a couple of spokes, and then they are returned to the customer for painting.
If you have wheels that need repairing do get in touch, if you would like to see examples of some of the new carts I build have a look here
My latest video which is posted today explains the process behind making a Traditional Market Cart in this case a Costermongers Barrow. There are really two types of Market Cart. The Four wheel Market stall, and the two wheel Costermongers Barrow.
There is a long and interesting history about costermongers and you read about it on my blog www.tomgreencraft.com they were the for runners of what we now knows as the pearly kings and Queens, based in the street markets of London
The Traditional Cart has a traditional colour scheme. Green for the body and red for the wheels, although these can be made in any colour scheme. In the video I have taken the traditional idea forward and added decoration in the form of pin striping and scalloped edges, as a way of expanding my skills. When you watch the video the striping of the wheels section is painful for me to watch. I know how it ends but I still find myself holding my breath to see if the two ends meet up.
The other variation from a traditional market cart on this one is the addition of Solid Rubber Tyres. A Traditional Market Cart would be plain iron shod however in discussion with fellow wheelwrights – we are a very small but friendly community I decided to use rubber. Should I ever decide to use the cart indoors, plain Iron wheels would likely damage the floor, which wouldn’t make me very popular. Therefore it makes sense to spend the extra and fit solid rubber.
I do make the wheel Costermongers carts and four wheel Market Stalls for customers. They can be made in any size and colour scheme, with or without decorations. For further details get in touch. Email
A chance conversation about replacing a half size gyspy caravan led to us designing and building this Dockside Cabin at Canary Wharf, West India Quay. The Customer Skuna Boats who operate the UKs first floating Hot Tubs and Barbeque Boats wanted a modern stylish space in which they could greet customers. The Planners wanted something very traditional in keeping with the location and Heritage of the Area.
The final design is the product of several months discussions, during which time the scheme changed radically. The original carriage lost its the wheels turning it from a carriage to a cabin. When fully fitted it will incorporate a Bar, An Ice Cream Counter, and a Lounge Area. All within a very compact 3.5 x 4.5mts.
On the outside it is a traditional Dockside cabin with black corrugated Iron Sides with a curved roof, and porthole windows. On the inside however its bright and airy, with a modern trendy design reflecting the company and its customers.
From start to finish the project took six weeks with three weeks in the workshop making the roof beams, doors with portholes and porthole shutters. This was followed by three assembly weeks on site. In addition to the structure we have also made a copper pipe chandelier and illuminated mirror.
We have now been commissioned to create a very modern Bar and Ice Cream Counter so watch this space
A chance meeting with an old friend led to me being commissioned to make an Arts and Crafts Style Sideboard from Solid Oak.
The customer had been searching for several years for a sideboard to match a piece he had purchased from another maker alas no longer with us, so he wanted to match the style, and as important it had to fit a particular space in his house.
Over a period of time with an exchange of drawings and pictures the final design was arrived at, and a space found in the diary.
As can be seen from the photos I started with 26 planks of solid Norfolk Oak supplied by my local forester which had to be milled to size, and jointed to create the board sizes I needed, which then over a period of 3 weeks was transformed into the finished piece. Even the handles were made in the workshop.
If you have a piece of furniture you would like then get in to
This year to promote my business I am appearing at several country shows which has caused me a problem but then I have thoroughly enjoyed creating the solution. I suspect the first of many miniatures I make.
As a wheelwright all of my work is for someone. A customer has come along, commissioned me to repair or build a new wheel, and when I finish they take it away. I never really have examples of my work lying around to show, and certainly not enough to make a stall look busy.
The solution then is to make some. I have now made a several types of wheel, ranging from a carriage wheel with a rubber tyre to a wheel barrow wheel with a steel tyre, so something for everyone.
The Hardest Wheels
However along the way I decided to make as a demonstration piece, a miniature carriage which can be used to ferry “stuff” around a garden. Based very loosely on a American Conesta Wagon it features 4 traditionally made wagon wheels with steel tyres, of which fitting the tyres was the hardest part. The traditional method is to heat the steel tyre in a fire so it expands. Then whilst hot you quickly slip it over the wooden rim, and then shrink the expanded steel rim by pouring on water. When it goes well its great fun, when it doesn’t ……. The problem with small wheels is there isn’t sufficient length of steel in the tyre to get any meaningful expansion, and that’s why smaller wheels are the hardest wheels to make.
For the first time I have used an enamel high gloss paint, designed for the steam trains so once cured it provides a tough shiny finish – perfect when I then add some white enamel pinstripes
The end result as you can see from the picture is a magnificent miniature wagon and I can see it being very popular at our rural shows this summer, starting at the Suffolk Show in May. See you there.
A recent project which also turned into a video for the heritagecraft youtube channel was to make a pair of wooden wheelbarrow wheels.
Now its often said the smaller the wheel the harder it is too make and having made a number of small wheels lately I can understand the sentiment.
A wheelbarrow wheel differs from a conventional carriage wheel in that its set flat. If you look at a carriage wheel you will see the spokes are set at an angle which causes the rim to set out from the vehicle which is referred to as being “dished”. the degree of dish is a much debated topic at wheelwrights gatherings. The theory has it that the heavier the load the greater the dish up too a maximum about 5 degrees. Whereas a wheelbarrow wheel doesn’t have dish, its flat as its designed to be supported between two shafts.
This project comprises two 16 inch wheelbarrow wheels each with 8 spokes. By way of a change the spokes were turned on a lathe, rather than using a spoke shave. The wheel is then finished by the fitting of a solid steel tyre, heated up in a fire to expand the steel, slipped over the wheel and then shrunk back with water. So watch the process have a look at the Heritagecraft youtube channel.
We are now making these wheels as a standard design and can be purchased online via www.fitzrobbie.co.uk
With a few days spare between projects I have been looking ahead to the summer where I shall be exhibiting at some Rural Shows in the East of England. I earn my living as a wheelwright, a maker of wooden wheels, and that’s what I will be primarily concentrating on. However in an effort to broaden my appeal I shall be featuring some of the other wooden items I make including my latest project.
Which brings me nicely to the latest item to emerge from my workshop, a rocking chair. Over the years I have made a number of rocking chairs including a double rocking bench for the Garden. The common theme or style is the American Shaker style. I rather appreciate the elegant simple lines, and having studied a number of books on the subject I have come to understand the simplicity of design is matched with a ruthless efficiency designed to maximise the raw materials and reduce labour costs.
As wheelwrights we build the rims of wooden wheels in sections, by cutting them out of a solid plank, therefore when we were looking to make the rockers in the past we cut them out of a solid plank. The shaker method is too steam a straight piece of wood into shape, Cutting a straight piece is much faster than shaping a curve, and by steaming it into shape you reduce considerably your waste material. So for this project out came my steam box for the rockers, the back posts, and the curved back sections.
For this project I have used Beech wood, an excellent wood for furniture and steaming, but if I am honest its not the most exciting grain pattern to look at, therefore a perfect opportunity to try Black Polish something I have had waiting on the shelf for the right project to come along. The end result as you can see from the picture is rather smart but it could be suggested has strayed away from Shaker towards Gothic, or has been suggested a “Nervous Goth” ( shaky gothic).
For someone who doesn’t claim to be a chair doctor I spend a lot of time working with chairs. Historically a wheelwright would have worked on chairs as the skills and techniques are complementary.
In this instance I found this Victorian chair frame in a local farm sale for the princely sum of 50p. At Some point in its life someone had attempted a refurbishment and had cut away the original woven cane seat and back, replacing it with plywood, and then liberally and badly applied gloss white paint.
The first task was to remove the plywood and strip back the paint to reveal a fine mahogany frame underneath. The freshly revealed wood work was then sanded, sealed, and French Polished, including one coat of Red Polish to accentuate the colour of the natural wood.
Finally the seat and back was re caned with the original split cane. We cant claim its as new after all its a 150 year old chair, but its certainly good for a number of years yet. Having finished it we can attest to its comfort. A very comfortable chair.
There is a natural affinity between making wheels and making chairs, both require similar tools and techniques. Both involve working with wood, jointing it at odd angles, turning on a lathe and steaming wood to shape. We cut similar joints, circular tenon’s and use the same tools to cut and shape the wood, Drawknives and Spoke Shaves
If you look back in History before the days of industrialisation, The wheelwright would create anything made out of wood for a village in the same way the blacksmith would craft anything from metal. So in addition to wheels the wheelwright would make furniture, and even serve as the undertaker, building the coffins and the hearse. Now it so happens I have made a few coffins for theatrical purposes, however that’s a facet of life I am quite prepared to let others deal with.
So Whilst I may have bypassed Coffin making I continue the practice of a wheelwright who looks at all forms of wood work, in particular I practice the trade of a Chair Doctor. I make new and repair old chairs. I am particularly fond of making Shaker style chairs and rocking chairs, I appreciate the design and it fits my skill set. Turned wooden legs and woven seats be it rush, cane, or shaker tape. The picture at the top shows a shaker style bench, with turned cherry wood with a woven rush cord seat. A product of our workshop. If you would like one or something similar get in touch.