The hurricane of 1987 was momentous for many people, not least young Douglas Andrews. “My father and I found a huge ash tree that had blown down near us. It seemed a terrible waste, so my dad got in touch with David Bysouth, a local wheelwright, as we thought he could use it,” recalls Andrews.
“As a child I really enjoyed woodwork. I’d made various things, including a rudimentary pole lathe, which I showed to David, who asked whether I’d like to come to work with him in the holidays. When I left school two years later, I started full time with David. If it weren’t for that tree, I doubt I would have become a wheelwright,” he says.
Andrews did a four-year apprenticeship through the now defunct Rural Development Commission and attained a City and Guilds qualification in wheelwrighting. When Bysouth retired in 1997, Andrews took over his business. “This certified training doesn’t exist any more, so I’m lucky to have benefited from it and the experience of a wheelwright like David Bysouth.
“These days, the only way in is to find someone to take you on as an apprentice. However, there are probably fewer than 20 wheelwright firms in the country and, as most are one-man bands, employing an apprentice is a big deal, not made any easier by all the health-and-safety and employment laws,” adds Andrews.
Traditionally, wheelwrights made and repaired wooden wheels as well as the vehicles they go on. “I do all sorts of things; about half my work is making wheels for veteran cars, 30% is carriage wheels and agricultural work, while the rest is gypsy caravans and odd jobs. At the moment I’m making a bread board,” explains Andrews. “Wheelwrighting attracts a lot of romantic dreamers but ultimately it’s about making a living.”
Historically, wheelwrights have taken on an assortment of roles. “Often they’d also be the village undertaker, blacksmith or general builder,” reveals Andrews. “So even in the heyday of wooden vehicles and wheels, it was necessary to take on different jobs.”
Sourcing materials is an important part of his work: “I’ve always got plenty of timber in stock. Most of my wheels are made from English hardwoods, typically with an elm hub, oak spokes and ash felloes. We’re lucky here in Sussex that we have a population of the largest standard elms in the world. Elm is the ideal wood for the job because it is so hard to split, whereas oak is good for spokes because it is exceptionally strong under compression. Likewise, ash is flexible and can absorb shock.
“I get my wood from tree surgeons and sometimes I might not use a log for 10 years. From a business point of view, it makes no sense having stock for so long but wood isn’t something that can be rushed,” insists Andrews. “When I get a hub blank log, I’ll remove the bark and bore a hole in the middle to remove some of the tension and help the drying process. Usually, it dries at a rate of an inch a year plus one for thickness, which means it will be about four years before I can use a 3in plank, for example.”
Once the wheel has been cut out he’ll set it aside to season further. “How dry it needs to be depends on its use. Something that will spend most of its time inside needs to be drier than wood that will be outside,” he explains. “While the wood is seasoning, I’ll get on with other jobs such as making the rims and spokes. I have the odd cordless drill but most of the tools I use haven’t changed in generations.”
The work is physically demanding but also requires an astute brain. “A lot of people have the skills to be a wheelwright but not so many have ‘the know’, as we say here in Sussex. To be a wheelwright you need to be able to see how things work and understand how they are put together but this has to be done with the eye of an artist,” says Andrews. “It requires concentration and an eye for detail; it’s not the sort of work that can be rushed.”
Some of Andrews’ most enjoyable commissions have been heritage work on wind- and watermills. “We made the great spur wheel and pit-wheel cogs for Talgarth Mill in Wales. It was six weeks’ work all done from drawings sent by the millwright. I’ve never been to the mill but I’d love to see our handiwork in action one day. On the other hand, I also make wooden signposts, which are dotted about and I see them almost daily.
“Aside from the satisfaction of getting paid, it is wonderful making something from scratch from your hands,” he adds. “It’s rewarding and makes all the painstaking hours, cuts and splinters worthwhile.”
Douglas Andrews Wheelwright, Nettlesworth Lane, Vines Cross, Heathfield, East Sussex
TN21 9AS. Call 01435 810166.
To obtain more information from The Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights, call the the clerk on 020 8306 5119.