Conjuring a wheel from elm and iron is one big geometry problem for John Boag, Colonial Williamsburg wheelwright.
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Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is Behind the Scenes, where you meet the people who work here. That's my job, I'm Lloyd Dobyns; and mostly I ask questions. This time, I'm asking John Boag, and at Colonial Williamsburg, he's a wheelwright. Which leads to the obvious question: what's a wheelwright?
John Boag: Wheelright builds wheels and vehicles, work vehicles. Things like oxcarts and wheelbarrows and wagons and things like that.
Lloyd: OK, I am now a typical guest, and I'm going to ask the question. How hard is it to build a wheel?
John: Well, we do get that question pretty often.
Lloyd: I figured.
John: Our answer is really dependent on who's answering. If it's an apprentice, it's really hard -- particularly a beginning apprentice. After 22 years of doing it, it's pretty easy, to be honest. You follow the rules, you do the work right, and the wheel comes out round.
Lloyd: Twenty-two years you've been building? You must have started as an apprentice.
Lloyd: How hard was it for you 22 years ago?
John: I was the king of self-doubt. I think I worked hard every day of a six-year apprenticeship. It wasn't really until I was a journeyman for about three years that I said, you know, I think I'm getting this. So, it's hard.
Lloyd: What makes making a wheel hard? What's the part that, when you were an apprentice kid, you looked at and said, "Oh my God, I don't want to do that today?"
John: It's the precision. You have to be incredibly precise with certain parts of the work, primarily the mortises, and the slots in the hub where the spokes go in. If they're not done correctly, the whole thing is ruined. You're dealing with a rare piece of wood for the hub, a piece of American elm. That is getting harder and harder every year to get. If you mess up one little bit, it could ruin the whole wheel. Then you build it, and then you shrink a big iron tire around it. So, you have this stress of compressing all your work with an incredible amount of force with the tire. At the beginning, there are some sleepless nights before you put the tire on a wheel – would it break?
Lloyd: If you're going to compress an iron tire around a wooden wheel, if you get it too tight, that's not going to work.
John: Right, and you know, the master of a shop – in my experience, and how I teach today – allows his apprentice to make certain mistakes. They learn better when they make mistakes, but on certain areas, you don't want them to make mistakes.
Lloyd: Don't make a mistake here.
John: Right, so you know, they all say, "Well I'd like to take three-quarters of an inch out of that tire, compared to the wooden wheel." And you go, "Do you want to think through that one again?" That makes their life a little bit more stressful. You have to sit down and talk to them about why you want to do it one way or another way. It can be challenging.
Lloyd: You said American elm is getting more and more difficult to find.
John: Right. Certain projects need bigger logs, certain projects need smaller logs. You have to dole out your logs and get them cut to the right sizes in order to keep working down the road. We have to allow white oak to dry a year for every inch of thickness of the sawn material. If you have a five inch thick piece, you put that wood away for five years before you can use it. You have to plan way ahead on what your projects will be.
Lloyd: Why American elm for a wheel?
John: Elm has a twisted grain structure that doesn't split very easily. So, if you turn a hub – the center part of the wheel – out of it, and cut the mortises there for the spokes to be fitted in, and you drive the spokes in with a sledgehammer, it won't break the hub. You can imagine how upset you'd be if the first spoke you drove into a non-elm hub and it would pop in half. You'd have to start over again.
Lloyd: You're working with round and straight, and hubs and wheels. What tools do you use? When you walk in the shop in the morning, what do you pick up?
John: Depends on what I'm working on that day, of course. We work with a variety of wood planes to dimension the material. We also use axes, and saws, and chisels. Mortises, the rectangular or square holes that you put in the hub, and then the outside curved sections have mortises that we cut with augers, and then chisels. So we have basically a kit of tools that would be best described as everyday carpenters tools. Only a few that are specific to our industry.
Lloyd: So there's no tool that you could carry through the street in the 18th century that would make everybody point and say, "He's the wheelwright, because he's got a wheelwright's whatchamicallit."
John: There are a couple, but they're big, so you probably wouldn’t want to walk down the street with them.
Lloyd: (Chuckles.) OK, what do they do?
John: The most interesting, and most challenging to work with, is the tapered reamer. It's the process that comes at the very end of the job. You core the hub for a cast iron bushing, and you just simply have to get it through straight, or else your wheel wobbles along on the axle.
Lloyd: That would not work very well.
John: Our biggest ones require three people to turn it to the hub. It's a day's job that you don't look forward to.
Lloyd: That's three people. That means a lot of power is needed.
John: Yeah, and as you get older, it gets harder.
Lloyd: (Chuckles.) What attracted you to wheelwrighting, for lack of a better word?
John: It was, to be honest with you, it was the trade shop apprenticeship that was open. I think I would have been just as happy in the cooper's shop, for instance, or the house carpenter's yard. What led me into trades work in a museum setting is the simple fact that my college history professors all told me that you couldn't make a decent living doing what I was hoping to do. I've proved them wrong.
Lloyd: Obviously, you have an interest in history, and you like wood, because the three things you mentioned are all wood. And it was available.
John: It's all come out. Things work out. The job came open, and I got accepted, and the big problem next when I came to the shop was that I suddenly realized it was a gigantic geometry problem, building a wheel is. I didn't do well in geometry. There's a reason that people go into history: they're no good in science or math. I had to re-do all my geometry, and learn how deal with the geometry problems that a wheel presents you in an 18th-century manner. Then it's not too bad.
Lloyd: What do you make wheels for? Is it just carriages, is it farmer's carts, is it dogsleds?
John: Well, first of all, we take care of all the vehicles in town, like the carriages that are giving visitors rides. That's a big priority. Then all the work vehicles: oxcarts, wagons, the vehicles that honestly are out there to kind of bring life to the street. Then wheelbarrows, artillery carriages, the occasional job for other museums. We've even done work that didn't involve wheels. Recently we built a plow for Mt. Vernon that was really kind of interesting.
Lloyd: What does building wheels and making plows have to do with each other?
John: The only thing I can think of is that there's an obscure 18th-century treatise that was written by a guy who was a wheelwright and plowmaker, so they decided when Mt. Vernon wanted to build one that I was the guy they were going to tap.
Lloyd: Because somebody wrote about it 200 years ago. Well, that makes sense, why not?
John: Here you are building something that, we discovered as we were doing the research on it, there wasn't a complete one surviving. We had to work with what we had available, and then look at 18th-century patent drawings to figure out what was missing from the surviving ones, then build something that you've never constructed before so that it could be exhibited as an example of the thing in a museum. So, it was fun.
Lloyd: Well, I guess after you make it, that's the example.
John: Yeah, who's going to tell me I'm wrong?
Lloyd: Since there are not many wooden plow makers running around making a living. In a standard year, how many wheels of any size get made in your shop?
John: We've averaged it out to about 16. Of course, you're also dealing with the bodies of the vehicles, and some wheels will take much longer than others. A coach wheel might take 100 hours of production time, where a wheelbarrow wheel only takes 12. A good example would be, we're just finishing up a wagon now that three of us have spent five months building. There's four wheels in five months, if you want to look at it that way. Then we'll turn right around and build four coach wheels before Christmas. Some years are more productive. Other years, we have bigger fish to fry, and we don't get many wheels built.
Lloyd: Speaking of bigger fish, what is the biggest wheel you've ever had to handle, build?
John: The ones we have right now are amongst the heaviest. They're 60 inches tall and three inches wide. The hub is 16 inches long and 13 and one-half inches in diameter. They weigh about 225 pounds.
Lloyd: Just physically moving those around …
John: You can roll them though, you don't have to pick them up.
Lloyd: (Laughs.) If you have a fairly large wheel, a wagon wheel kind of thing, how many spokes are you going to have? Do you have to drive them in on both ends? How, really, do you do that?
John: Well, the 18th-century craftsman – I'm sure folks prior to the 18th century as well – had come up with all sorts of interesting ways to make their lives easier. They were thinking, "How can I make this hurt less?" At least, that's how I look at it. Special benches were devised to put the hub on, with a trough cut in the floor. So when you drive one spoke in – say it's 30 inches long – and then you turn the wheel around and drive the opposite one in, and you're still only reaching a normal hammer blow. You can build a tall wheel conveniently by sinking half of it into the ground. It makes your life a lot easier, not reaching over your head with a sledgehammer. You can make a really good, steady blow with it, and make it more accurate as well.
Lloyd: You were talking earlier about if you get the iron tire on, and you try and shrink it too much, you could damage the wheel. How do you get the iron tire on, and shrink it enough that it fits solidly?
John: That's all in regards to measuring the circumference of the wheel, and then determining how much shorter to make the iron tire. Part of it is strictly measuring the gaps where they occur between the wooden curved sections on the perimeter of the wheel. Some of my compatriots will say nothing of it is guessing, but you have to figure out how much the wood will squeeze. That's just dealing with the wood over time. Some of it just takes that knowledge of experience to figure out. Every now and then you make a mistake; hopefully it's not on something really important. When you see somebody's eyes get bigger and bigger as a tire is contracting and it's making all sorts of noises, then you know that maybe we took a hair too much out of this one.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check history.org often, we’ll post more for you to download and hear.