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Ulster American Folk Park

Wheelwright

American Street, building 31

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Wheels are such common things that you might think they’re easy to make. This is not so. Poorly designed, a wheel will disintegrate under modest pressure. Wheels are complex, dish-shaped structures, balanced to absorb the stresses and shocks of driving on uneven roads. Each element of a wooden wheel requires different wood—elm for the hub, oak for the spokes, and ash for the rim (or felloes). The whole structure is held together by an iron tyre, heated in a fire to cause it to expand, and forced onto the wheel with hammers. Cooling it with water causes it to contract and hold the wheel together. Building a wheel in this way requires skills in carpentry and blacksmithing.

The onset of industrialisation in the early 1800s caused the economy to grow, prompting higher demand for wheels. But wheelwrights were soon faced with competition from mass-produced wheels as the century progressed. American buggies were made on production lines years before the Ford cars were.

The wheelwright’s skills could also be turned to making wooden barrels. Wet coopers made barrels that were watertight—quite a skill. The wheelwright’s shop contains tools for both wheel making and coopering.

Take a look at the wide variety of tools line the walls and benches. Each had a specific use in wheel making or coopering.