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The Spinning Wheel - De-Constructing an Original

Well, it seems my brother had been keeping great great granddad's old spinning wheel - I had forgotten the box that it was in when I left the homestead, and he had been storing it for me. After reading the last piece I did on spinning wheels, he must have read it and remembered he had it -and got it out in the mail to me - because it arrived a week or so afterwards:

Old spinning wheel

It's missing some pieces, but there's a good majority of it still there. The legs and pedal are gone, and it's missing the two pieces that hold the bobbin/axle.

It's an interesting piece to me on several counts... First, it was made by great great grandad... Second, it's a study in wooden machinery - everything has a purpose and yet it's still elegantly constructed. Third, it's an example of true frontier craftsmanship. I'm not sure of the exact date, my best guess would have been somewhere near the 1870 to 1890 range, in the Dakotas. This would have been made with the most meager set of tools, and quite far out in the country... I think I remember reading the nearest flour mill at the time was a full day away.

Parts of a Spinning Wheel

To have a discussion about the construction of the old wheel above, it would probably help to review just what the parts are called... I got much of this information off of various web sites, including The Joy of Handspinning, which is a wonderful resource for the enthusiast - I'm more interested in the construction, but that doesn't do you much good if you don't know how the thing works!... I'm using dad's wheel, which is a replica of the old one I'm looking at:

Parts of a Spinning Wheel


Tension Knob: A threaded knob, turned to raise or lower the bobbin and flyer assembly thusly reducing or increasing tension on the drive bands.

Maidens: The upright posts that hold one end of the bobbin and flyer assembly

Flyer Whorl: The pulley that drives the flyer - it has several different diameters so different speeds can be achieved

Flyer: The U-shaped piece with hooks - the hooks are there just so the fiber can be spooled evenly onto the bobbin. This is what spins the fiber.

Bobbin: A spool that collects the spun fiber

Orifice: Where fiber is fed into the wheel as it is spun

Drive Bands: Twine or string that drives the flyer whorl from the fly wheel

Mother of All: The upright piece that holds up the tension knob, bobbin, and flyer

Fly Wheel: The main drive wheel - the large wheel that is powered by the treadle

Footman: Hard to see in the photo above, it's behind everything- it's the wooden piece that connects the treadle to the fly wheel

Treadle: the foot pedal at the bottom



It's made from at least three, but more likely four distinctively different woods, from what I can see - and I think you can tell somewhat in the top photo. I'm not positive of the exact species, but from my experience with wood and my knowledge of the trees native to the area in which it was made, my best guesses would be birch or elm, maple, and basswood or poplar. I will get into where each was used as I deconstruct the thing.

Metal pieces would have been difficult to fabricate and expensive to purchase, so their use was kept to an absolute minumum. Could he have bought the metal pieces, or had a machinist make them for him? It's a possiblity. The pieces could have been ordered via mail order and shipped to the closest dry-goods store... yet they do all show at least some amount of fabrication. That eveidence could just be the technology of the time showing through, however - I'm just not qualified enough to say.

The only metal pieces are the axle/treadle drive on the fly wheel, the metal hooks on the spinner/flyer, and the axle for the flyer/flyer whorl assembly. The metal reinforcement on the flyer (the U-shaped piece in the photo below) shows signs of hammering to shape, and is riveted in place with metal pins and is surely of his own making.


The part that would have probably been the most difficult to make would have been the axle for the bobbin/flyer assembly... It appears it was made from something else, and made to work. I'm not exactly sure what it would have originally been had he fabricated it - it might even be two pieces, I can't really tell. The center was drilled out from the end and from the side to create the orifice that allows the fiber to be fed through it.... Both holes are off center, and show some evidence of being drilled and filed by hand.


You can see the orifice on the axle of the flyer on the right in the above photo, where the fiber is fed into the wheel. The far end of the axle in the photo above has a small taper to it - and is also threaded to hold the bobbin and flyer whorl on. It looks to me like the tapering was done by mounting the bolt in a wood lathe and tapering it using a file while turning. Fine metal work would have been difficult on the prairie in those days... and this is one of the things that lead me to believe this piece was at least partially fabricated by old great great granddad.

The bobbin (on the left in the above photo), the flyer, and the flyer whorl are all made from a very dense, close-grained wood - my guess is maple, though it could be just about anything of a similar nature. It needed to be, as the walls of the pulleys on them as well as the U-shape of the flyer makes using a strong wood imperative. The bobbinis made from a single piece... You can see by the breaks that it was made from a straight piece of about 3" round wood. The hole the axle slides through goes all the way through the bobbin, obviously - my best guess as to how this was made would be to first drill the hole through the rough blank - then mount the blank in the lathe and turn the bobbin to its final dimension. This would assure the axle hole would be centered on the bobbin. The far end of the bobbin is actually the first pulley you would use as part of the flyer whorl assembly - you see it in the next photo and the one two down that shows the whorl in it's place.

Here you can see the far end of the bobbin and the leather "bearing" that the axle is pushed into (the flyer whorl is not in this photo - it would take up the space between the bobbin and the adjuster piece the leather bearing is pressed into):

Leather bearing

Both ends of the axle were mounted in leather bearings... but unfortunately the maiden that holds the closer end was missing on the original. Using another wheel made by granddad's brother, he fashioned the maiden with a leather bearing similarly to how that wheel was constructed:

Leather bearing

You can see that it was simply a thick chunk of leather, glued into the maiden. This allows for the bobbin assembly to be easily removed from the wheel, simply by turning the maiden. There's not a lot of pressure on these bearings so they function quite well (as evidenced by dad's copy), and the leather would simply have been replaced as it wore out. Lubrication, if any, would have been tallow or beeswax.

The flyer whorl is made with two different sized pulleys so you can adjust the speed of the flyer - faster for more twists per inch in your yarn, and slower for fewer. More twists made for a stronger thread - but took more raw fiber. Fewer produced more "fluffy" yarns, good for sweaters and the like.... at least that's what I think - I have no experience spinning my own yarn. I still have the flyer whorl for the original, though unfortunately only half of it - but it does show how it is constructed pretty well:


You can see the differing diameters of the pulley to allow the flyer to spin at different speeds depending on where you placed the drive bands. The bobbin spins freely on the axle so is independent of the flyer whorl.  It is driven by its own pulley on the end next to the whorl that is a slightly different diameter - this is so the bobbin would spin at a different speed than the flyer.  Otherwise the yarn would only spin in place - with the different speed it slowly spools onto the bobbin as you feed more fiber into the orifice.

This is known as a "Scotch Brake"...  it basically means the yarn spools quite slowly onto the bobbin, while being twisted (for strength) many, many times for each single time it spools on the bobbin - which is the major function of the wheel.  It is this twisting that gives the yarn it's strength - without it, it would simply pull apart.

A good spinner feeds fiber into the orifice at a steady rate, thusly avoiding thinned out or lumpy yarn that is strong enough to knit.  More twists per inch results in a thinner, stronger thread - fewer provide fluffier, more insulating yarn.

The drive bands would have been simple twine or leather strips, or possibly even yarn - it didn't need a great deal of force to twist the fiber, so grip wasn't terribly crucial - speed was.

You can also see the tensioner knob assembly in the photo above at the top of the aptly named "Mother of All". It's broken as well, but it shows how it was made... A threadbox would have been pretty standard fair in most shops of the time, so that's not too surprising to find. It still works quite well, even after being exposed to the elements for many years.... The Mother of All is broken here as you can see in the photo above and below, but again at least we can see what it looks like:


The Mother of All is so aptly named as it is the main structural element of the wheel - everything pretty much hangs off of it. It, along with the maidens and most of the spindle work (with the exception of the spokes in the wheel) are made from a hardwood I would say is either elm or birch - it's hard to tell exactly as the wood is aged so. But those were common woods used in local furniture of the time - especially turned furniture. Oak was available and used extensively for standard casework, but wasn't preferred for turning because of it's open grain and it's tendency to tear out. I would imagine the elm or birch was riven and turned green, much in the fashion of windsor style chairs, and wedges were used to fasten the tenons to the half-moon shaped base (which I think was made of either poplar - but could be basswood)... There would not have been any kilns in the area, any dried lumber would have been air-dried.

Which brings me to the fly wheel, the most prominent piece of the spinning wheel, has some interesting construction methods. The outer wheel was constructed from four separate pieces. The wheel is made what I think is basswood, though it could be poplar, I suppose... both are plentiful in the area. There are a couple ofreasons that basswood would appropriate here. First, a lighter weight wheel would be easier to spin. Women using these wheels would often spin for many hours on end, for many days in a row... ease of use was paramount in their design. Second, basswood is a very easy wood to work... Mounting a wheel this size and turning it in a treadle lathe would have been quite a task... the easier one could make the task, the better. Third - since these wheels didn't carry a load, like say maybe a wagon wheel would, there would be little or no structural stresses on them, so basswood met the bill.

The pieces for the outer rim were first assembled before they were turned using splines and wooden pegs to hold them in place. You can see here where one of the pegs was placed too far out and was turned into:

Wheel Joint

The outer wheel itself was not constructed in the same manner as a wagon wheel - where the spokes have tenons that mount into the outer wheel - for the reasons mentioned above. It was first assembled and then turned without the spokes - they were added afterwards. Here you can see one I've pulled out:

Wheel Joint

After the main hub was turned, the spokes were made to fit inside the outer rim, then holes were drilled through the rim into the spokes - and a wooden dowel was driven in to hold the spokes in place. There just one problem with that - how do you make sure the hub is centered in the outer rim? Well - my best guess is that the hub and spokes were made first. The hub first, then the spokes, which could then be glued into the hub. The hub could then be mounted on a temporary axle and turned, allowing you to mark the end of the spokes in the same location as you turned the hub. The outer rim could then be turned to match this dimension... It's just an educated guess, mind you - but the best I can come up with given the circumstances.

As for the hub, it's one piece, with an axle that mounts into the adjacent spindles thusly:


The far side of the axle has an offset that attaches to the footman, which then is attached to the treadle. And yes - at the lower left of the hub in the photo above, that is a knot... As a matter of fact, it continues through to the other side:


Why would he have used a piece with a knot like that in it, you might ask? I would put forth that it was a matter of convenience... As I mentioned above, a lot of the wood used for the contruction of this wheel would probably have been worked green. The wheel would have had to be dried wood though. Most likely that meant that it was was harvested from already dead wood - possibly even seasoned firewood. There wasn't storage space available for storing wood while it dried... The house they lived in would probably have been the size of your living room and housed 5-7 people... The barn would have been similarly small was soley for livestock. The shed that served as a shop would have been more like a lean-to, perhaps with a pot-belly stove if the owner was well-off. So dried wood was a luxury most couldn't afford, but for the wheel it would have been necessary as green wood would have shrunk and rendered the wheel useless. So it's my guess it came from whatever was available - and since it didn't need to be all that strong, it wasn't a problem structurally. Also, I should mention that the knot would not have been this pronounced when it was made - this particular wheel was exposed to the elements for many years, so has weathered quite a lot. Originally, it would have been a very tight knot.

About all that's left is the base, legs, footman, and treadle - and all I have of those is the base... The base is made of poplar, it appears. I remember hearing the half-moon shape was a sort of trademark of his, but I'm not sure of this... compared to the other his brother did later, its a unique feature and was supposedly preferred by the people who used them as they were stronger. I do recall hearing that this makers' work was highly prized by those who received it, at least within the area he lived.

I may restore this old wheel someday - no, it will never be in working order again, but I may try to get it just so it is all in one piece and has all of the parts, just for display. I doubt it's worth much to anyone but me - but it sure is fun to have around to look at and to study, to give one appreciation for the original maker and the methods and material he used in creating it.

The maker, my great-great granddad, was a very adept turner, furniture maker, and woodoworker. He used green wood quite a bit, as I think can be seen in another of his works which I will show just for reference - a crib made of elm:


It appears he also used steam to bend wood, as you can see - obviously a very industrious fellow for someone truly out in the sticks... This crib was used all the way into the 1960's as I recall... It's been retired for obvious reasons since then, but still remains in the family, well over a century after it was made.




 I love your detailed photos!  I bought a wheel just like it but missing the tensioner knob, leather bearing and the flyer and bobbin!  So I've now got an idea how the missing parts fit into the whole!  Now I just need someone to build me the missing parts! :)



You might also want to check Stephen Shepherd's site for some of his work on spinning wheels: