Reinventing the Wheel

The wheel may be one of geometry’s simplest shapes, but the technology behind its creation is surprisingly complex. Add to that the variations among English wheels, French wheels, carriage wheels and cannon wheels, and the story gets even deeper.

Colonial Williamsburg wheelwrights apply their expertise to the challenge of recreating the wheel for a French cannon carriage.

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Transcript

Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter. Today our guest is Journeyman Wheelwright Andrew DeLisle. Andrew, thanks for being here today. 

Andrew DeLisle: Thanks for having me.

Harmony: Historic Trades are something we are so proud of here at Colonial Williamsburg because we continue to practice these trades as authentically as we can using the same methods, the same materials, in as closely as we can replicate them.

The wonderful thing to me about that is, not only do we preserve these trades, but we continue to learn about them by practicing them. So we’re learning new things just by doing them. That’s what I think is one of the interesting aspects about a new project that you’re working on now to recreate some French cannon wheels in cooperation with the museum in Braintree. So tell us a little bit about this new project that you’re doing and what is entailed for you.

Andrew: Sure! Well about a year ago, the Braintree Historical Society contacted our shop here at Williamsburg looking for somebody who could build appropriate cannon wheels for a 1793 French cannon, which we certainly can. And we talked more with them about the whole project, and it turned out they had this original cannon barrel, and they had a carriage built in 1980 for it that had rotted pretty badly over the past couple of decades. So they decided to replace the wheels and try to refurbish the carriage.

Wheels were beyond their ability, so they contacted us, and we talked to them about it and agreed to the project, in that we had never built French wheels before and were excited to try it. So it has been quite a learning process. We’re used to building Anglo-American style wheels, particularly with an English bend, because Virginia was, after all, an English colony and it had a lot of English in its material culture. So French material culture is different, both aesthetically and in some of its construction techniques.

Harmony: My mouth is hanging open as you’re talking because I would think, to the uninitiated, a wheel is a wheel. So what is it about the construction of wheel? What are some of the complex components of that? And then, a carriage for a cannon. A cannon is tremendously heavy. Is that a different technology? You’re asking the wheel for something different that point?

Andrew: Sure, well I mean, whether they’re French, English, Dutch, Spanish, doesn’t matter, wheels have to be round. That is something they all have in common. And cannon carriages, you’re right, cannons themselves weigh a fair amount. The gun barrel, the cannon barrel at Braintree, is a 4-pounder. It’s a pretty heavy barrel, but it’s bronze.

Harmony:  When we say a four-pounder, what we mean is what it shoots is four pounds.

Andrew: Indeed.

Harmony: But the cannon itself is several hundred.

Andrew: Yeah, it’s a couple hundred pounds. The ball it fires would be four French pounds, which are slightly heavier than the English pound. In addition to the weight of the barrel, and the ammunition you’re carrying with the cannon, you also have to consider that when the cannon fires, there’s an immense amount of force from the recoil of everything.
Cannons have to be all-terrain vehicles. Their carriages are constructed out of fairly heavy timber, fairly tough timber. And there’s a lot of iron reinforcement on everything.

But as far as what makes a French wheel different from an English wheel, some of the techniques... The mortise, where the spoke goes into the hub, is actually cut a little bit differently on French work. We’re used to angling one of the mortise walls on the front, and the French angle both, which isn’t really particularly hard to do, but it is different from what we do. And it requires adjusting some of our gauges and patterns.

Until we looked at the original drawings we were able to work from, we weren’t sure if they were doing that or not. We had seen other French illustrations of work, civilian work, that indicated that. The French curve their spokes, pretty noticeably on the cannon wheel themselves. So if you were to look, if you were to be right behind the cannon and look at the wheels on edge basically, you would notice sort of a swoop to the spoke. We still have no idea why they did it. But, it’s there in the drawings we have from the 1760s and '70s, and so we duplicated that.

Harmony: This is where I feel like through research and through practicing the trade, this is where this rediscovery happens. This is where this deeper understanding of the technology comes through practice. I think that’s some of the magic of historic trades is that some things you don’t really understand why they were done a certain way until you do it yourself. Have you found this with the French cannon, that you’re understanding the whys behind some of this technology?

Andrew: Definitely. In the apprenticeship I served in the shop, I learned the basics of building those Anglo-American style wheels, how to cut it, mortise and tenon joints. As far as problem solving skills, I have those for the work, but that doesn’t mean I’ve solved every problem. No one in the shop has.

So when we got to the French wheels, one of the tricky parts, we realized right off the bat was that we’ve looked at French artwork over the years, there’s for some reason, a lot of illustrations of French wheelwrights, in a treatise on carriages by a man named Garceau, there are a lot of images of these French wheelwrights doing their thing, making wheels.

There aren’t corresponding English images from the period. We’ve often looked a this French stuff and gone, “Wow! Okay, that looks kind of weird!” compared to the way we do know that English wheelwrights were working, and that American wheelwrights were working. But none of it was weird once we started building the French wheels. Everything started to make a lot more sense, especially with some of the specialized patterns and gauges the French used. 

Harmony: Give me an example of that.

Andrew: Well, a good example would be the way when you build a wheel to make sure that it is a perfect circle, you never cut your spokes to length until after you’ve hammered them into the hub. And you never cut the tenon, or tongue as we call it, on the end of the spoke until after again, it’s in the hub. That way, you can measure out from your hub to make sure that each spoke is a perfect radius of your complete circle. The hub, being turned on a lathe, you’re guaranteed that that’s cylindrical.

The way this is done in normal work for us is we have a long marking gauge. All it is, is really a stick that one end of the stick rests against the hub, and then you have an adjustable fence on that stick that you can wedge in place at the desired length for the spoke. Then you scratch a little line with the point on that fence where you need to mark the spoke to length, either to cut it to length, or to cut that tongue I mentioned on the end.

Well, because these French spokes are really extremely curved, that tool wouldn’t work to give you an accurate measure. In French artwork, they have a stick bolted to the front of the hub, which we do use during part of the process in cutting the holes for those spokes to fit into the hub. But in French artwork, they show them actually using that stick bolted to the front of the hub, to mark where all of those tenons, those tongues on the ends of the spokes go.

If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. It’s bolted to the center of the hub. So it is a perfect radius, kind of like the arm on a clock. It makes a lot of sense, but if you’re not used to doing it that way, you don’t think to do it that way at first.

Harmony: As I’m hearing you talk about the research that you did for this project -- you looked at print sources. You looked at written sources. I haven’t heard you mention seeing any existing examples. Are they very scarce? Is it very hard to find an existing period example?

Andrew: Well I’m glad you mentioned that. There are, amazingly enough, surviving French cannon carriages and surviving French army wagons from about 1780. These are housed in the Musée de l'Armée in Paris. We did not go over to look at those. We did not have the time to be able to do that, but a colleague of ours who was over in France about 2 years ago for some research was kind enough to send us some photographs.

We used those photographs to get an idea of whether or not the French wheelwrights who were working for the French government making this stuff actually did follow all the drawings, and they did. That also gives us an idea of the level of finish of the work, because the one thing the drawings don’t indicate, they look perfect. But how cleanly-made were the spokes? Would there be faceting on them? Do they follow the exact shape of the drawings or not? And the work looked pretty clean. Done quickly, but pretty clean. 

Harmony:  When you compare the French wheel to the English or British/American wheel, what are the differences you see? It sounds to me like maybe the American, the British style is a little be more rough and rugged, while maybe the French wheel is a little bit more ornate.

Andrew: No, I think people often look at the curved spokes on French artillery and assume it’s very decorative. We just came up with a theory today that it may actually have been a way to speed up production in that it can allow you to get away with perhaps sloppier mortising in your hub. We don’t really know cause we’re not going to try to mortise a hub sloppy just to see if that theory works.

The problem is, we don’t have a lot English artillery to compare this stuff to. We have drawings of English artillery from the periods, but to our knowledge, and the Master Wheelwright, John Boag, has looked into this quite a bit over the last few years. The only surviving English cannon carriage of any kind that we know of is a Howitzer carriage, and there’s only one. From the photographs we have seen, it looks to have been repaired, or altered pretty significantly at some point in its history. We are trying to get over to England to look at that carriage at some point in the future, but again, we only have one to compare several French cannon carriages to.

Harmony: Wow, think about preserving trades! You’re preserving one that sounds like it’s nearly extinct.

Andrew: Nearly. There are other wheelwrights out there. We joke in shop that there are more, probably more astronauts right now than wheelwrights. But I think you could say that about most of our men and women in historic trades here. Some of them are pretty rare. We do keep in touch with a few wheelwrights over in England. There are a few here in the U.S., most of them do work with a more modern shop than we have, but some of the same techniques and traditions stick around.

Harmony: Another interesting aspect of this project is that it’s allowed us to cooperate with some of our colleagues in the museum trade. Talk to me about this collaboration with the Braintree Historical Society.

Andrew: That’s been another real fun part of this project is the folks up at Braintree were very eager to get this cannon back on its carriage. In part because the town of Braintree, Massachusetts turns 375 years old on May 13, I believe. So they are trying to get this all set up for that. And we get to work with another institution like that, we get to share knowledge, and it spreads our work and the idea of what we do here in historic trades to another institution, and I think encourages people who were maybe on the fence about coming to Colonial Williamsburg, it encourages them to come here.

We get a lot of visitors from Massachusetts through our shop. Everyone who comes through knows exactly where Braintree is, and many people live near there. They’re all going to Braintree to see this thing as soon as it’s all set back up. It’s exciting that we’re also helping that museum out get some more visitation.

Harmony: This has been a great chat today, and I hope the project goes well. And I hope that all of our listeners make in by to see you guys in the wheelwright shop, and learn a little bit more about this deceptively simple-looking technology. Thank you for being our guest today.

Andrew: Thank you.

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