2019 Created by The Old Machinery Magazine

It's a wheel thing

* This story was originally published in issue #184 of The Old Machinery Magazine and was submitted by guest author, Keith Hall

Maybe it's just a bad case of shed envy, but I can't resist looking inside someone else's shed, especially when it is crammed full of vintage machinery - you just never know what you might find in there. So, when I was offered the chance to look inside Arthur Voss' shed during a recent visit to Albany, on the south coast of Western Australia, I was quick to take him up on the offer. 


I had been told that he had a huge collection of vintage hand and power tools, but was still surprised by the size of his collection. As Arthur showed me around, it turned out that he actually had five sheds, and they contained a lot more than just tools. In fact, there was everything from spanners to vintage farm equipment, blacksmithing and wheelwright's tools, dowel cutters, vices, hammers, spanners, a collection of old box wagons and sulkies, and much more. Two of the sheds were set up with displays of tools and machinery, one was for restoration work in progress, one for future projects and one for the workshop. 


 ^ The view inside the large display shed, with wooden wagons, vintage farm machinery and much more


The sheer size and scope of the collection was a bit overwhelming at first sight. However, it became easier to comprehend when Arthur explained that, until he retired, he was a wheelwright, He specialised in making wooden wheels for horse drawn wagons and farm machinery. Many of the tools and machines in his collection were used for building wooden wheels, or have wooden wheels themselves.

He explained that he has been a wheelwright for about forty years, and learned his blacksmith and wheels writing skills from the Wakes brothers in Katanning, a town about 170km north of Albany. He added that his grandfather was also a wheelwright, so he may have inherited the ability from him. You don't come across wheelwrights very often, and Arthur said that he was the only one that he knew of in Western Australia. In fact, he only knew of one other wheelwright's workshop in all of Australia, and that was in Sovereign Hill, in Ballarat. 


Arthur had a small business building wheels for other people, but has recently given up the wheelwright business, since it is very heavy work, At present he is passing on his skills to a younger man in Katanning. When that traineeship is fully completed, he will probably be the only wheelwright in WA. 


 ^ Vintage power tools in the smaller display shed


When I asked how many pieces of tooling and machinery he had in the collection, Arthur replied, "Maybe there are about 7,000 pieces. I started cataloguing them several times, but each time I get part way through and then discovered that I had missed some pieces. I started collecting about forty years ago, while I was shearing part time. 

"At that time, I had a farm at Broomehill, about 150km north of here, and had about 40 horsedrawn vehicles in my collection. I left the farm 35 years ago, moved to Albany, and then moved again to another part of Albany. At that time, I reduced the collection to 20 vehicles, which included box wagons, drays, sulkies, a spring cart and a family wagonette. 

They are all restored or are planned for restoration. I have made the wheels for all of them. 


^ Wheels awaiting restoration.  


He explained that the orange wagon in the main display shed was from 1900, and was built with first rate blacksmithing skills. In that year, it won a prize at the Perth Agricultural Royal Show. In the 'work in progress' shed, there is a green and yellow box wagon from the early 1900's, which is one of his current restoration projects. 

As he showed me around the collection, Arthur pointed tout some of the tools that he uses to build or restore wooden wagon wheels. The wheels are much more complicated than they look, and have quite a lot of parts. The tyre around around the outside is a steel ring, while the hub, spokes and rim are made of wood. He explained that, "The wood has to be curvy, twisty wood. I use tough, hard Swamp Yate for the spokes, and either Swamp Yate or York Gum for the felloes, which are the curved pieces that go on the end of the spokes to make up the circular wooden rim of the wheel. Those are local timers in the south of Western Australia. Different timbers are used in the other parts of Australia."


The spokes are produced on a copy lathe, which dates from about the late 1920's. Arthur bought it from a farmer in the nearby town of Narrikup, about 40km north of Albany, and added that it was covered in superphosphate when he got it. He also uses the lathe to reproduce handles for axes and hammers. 


Two vintage braces, one made by the British firm of JA Charman, have been fitted with specialised tools for cutting and shaping the dowels that go on the end of the spokes. They operate in a similar manner to a common pencil sharpener. 

Arthur uses what he calls a "a modernish drill" to cut the holes in the felloes into which the spokes will fit, but added that, "In the old days hand drills would have been used. But this one is a Craft brand 12-speed drill press, which was manufactured in Taiwan in 1986." He uses a band saw to cut the tenons on the end of the spokes that fit into the hub. 


^ Early 1900's wooden box wagon undergoing restoration.  


When the wooden parts of the wheel are all assembled, the steel tyre is heated and fitted to the wheel. This process is carried out in the open air, not inside a shed, and is termed 'firing up'. The metal tyre is heated to red hot, removed from the fire using long metal hooks, placed over the wheel on a metal stand, and hammered into place with sledge hammers. 


As soon as the steel tyre is in place, buckets of water are thrown over it to cook the hot metal, in order to prevent it from damaging the wood. As the steel shrinks onto the felloes, it pulls them together into a tight rim.


The wheel is initially assembled with half inch gaps between the felloes, to allow for the contraction of the metal tyre. The spokes are sanded before the wheel is assembled, while the felloes are left rough, and planed after the wheel is assembled. Since the wheels are very heavy, Arthur has a crane that he built for lifting him.

A surprising amount of time, effort and specialised equipment goes into making wooden wheels. Arthur indicated that it takes over 200 hours to make a set of four wagon wheels.  He added that the collection of wagons, tools and machines in his sheds is not just for his own personal enjoyment. It is actually a private museum that is open to interested visitors by appointment. If you would like to see his collection, you can contact Arthur Voss by phoning him on (08) 9844 4813.


Click below to see more photos from Arthur Voss' collection - 






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