How to make a Spinning Wheel

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Its hard to figure out where to start when it comes to making a spinning wheel. You get interested in making some yarn, maybe get a few different hand spindles. And then you get to the point where you want better quality yarn faster. For me that meant figuring out how to make a spinning wheel. Look around for plans a bit online and you come to the conclusion that the most difficult bit of the whole affair comes down to the wheel itself, making a large accurate circle. And if, like me, you don’t own a lathe that can throw a 30″ circle, you need a work around. Thankfully in woodworking there is always more than one way to get something done.

I’d like to say thanks to Carson Cooper for his excellent work publishing his guide to making spinning wheels and flyers, and the various plans of wheels that he puts out with excellent dimensioned drawings and fabrication instructions. Without having a collection of spinning wheels to work from for basic dimensioning and design Cooper’s books were an invaluable aid. That said, you have to know your way around a woodshop to make use of his work.

A spinning wheel starts, from a design perspective, with the wheel. Build the wheel first, and all else follows.

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I figured if I could build a large wheel, then a small one would be a piece of cake, so I started with a 30″ wheel. The most useful thing to note about how I made an accurate wheel is the piece of Baltic birch plywood my wheel blank is resting on. It serves as both circle routing jig and assembly jig, using a central pin drilled in the middle and being the same diameter as the wheel axle shafting.

Cutting the mortices for the splines that hold the segments together was done with saw and mortice chisel. Frankly, it would have been much, much easier if I had used a straight cutting bit on a router, but I like to try things the old fashioned way first, even if I know it will be time consuming. I cut the corners off of each side of the six wheel segments to decrease the length of the mortice, making it much easier to keep things accurate, but making it much more difficult to hold the work securely while cutting with the chisel. Once the pieces were glued together I screwed the wheel down in three places to the jig, being able to use those same screw holes to locate the cut rim back exactly to its concentric position around the axle for assembly.

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Drilling the holes for the spokes required the fabrication of two different V blocks and a center finder for my drill press. Even with the routing jig to align the parts, accurate hole drilling is a must if you want parts to actually fit together.

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Here is the assembled wheel, on the routing jig. I had to make the wheel hub in three pieces so that the rim would lie in plane with the hub on the jig. I would definitely recommend some holes cut in the jig so that clamps can reach through and press the two main halves of the split hub together against the spokes.

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With the wheel together you can decide upon the angles for the splay of the legs, and the distance between the wheel and the flyer. You want the wheel as far away from the flyer whorl as possible to give the drive band as much wrapped angle as possible on the smaller drive whorl. The wheel can’t lean back too far though, or it will want to tip over. A happy balance occurs if you put the center line of the wheel over where the two front legs meet the ground.

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The main challenge of making the flyer was getting my Rigid lathe to accurately center drill small metal parts. Cooper recommends brass for the flyer orifice, as it is soft enough to turn on a wood lathe. As difficult as CR steel is to work, at least it is cheap. I even made the bobbin bearings out of 1/2″ CR rod. And don’t get me started about threading the flyer shaft for the drive whorl nut. Save yourself a great deal of trouble threading free hand with a die and use a collet to hold the shaft on your lathe and a tailstock die holder. I thought that my dies were just cheap because of the gnarled look to the threads. Turns out holding the die in a stable alignment while threading is everything when it comes to getting clean threads.

Well, I know I left a great deal out if you’re reading this and trying to figure out how to do it yourself. It took me a couple years from when I first conceived of making a spinning wheel to gain both the knowledge and tooling to make something that doesn’t look too bad. So don’t give up, keep studying anything you can get your hands on. Find a store that sells wheels and study them in person. From never having used a wheel to building a quality heirloom is totally possible. If you have any specific questions about how something was done, please leave a comment and I’ll be happy to put up another blog post.

 

5 thoughts on “How to make a Spinning Wheel”

  1. I saw your site today (10-20-2015) and the plans are none but the pictures are great. I was hoping that you might have plans for a “Modern (upright) spinning wheel. Maybe plans for ‘Schacht Ladybug Wheel’ or ‘Ashford Kiwi Spinning Wheel 2’ or ‘Zephyr Spinning Wheel’. I have been looking for three days at the library computers with no luck. IF you can help me, I would be very thankful.

    Martin Gonzalez

    1. Hi Martin, the best spinning wheel plans and reference for fabrication is the work of Carson Cooper. He’s a modern wheel maker and has plans for many different styles at http://www.ztwist.com/WheelMakersCraft.htm

      His books are expensive, but he’s the only one that has good quality plans and modern fabrication techniques. If you’re thinking of making spinning wheels as a business you need to buy every book he’s written, I have them all. Hope that helps!

  2. Hi Gabe, I’ve been wanting to make my own spinning wheel for a little over a year now. I’ve gathered lots of info and have drawn up some plans and even started a bit of the work. I have ordered the Carson Cooper book and will be devouring it shortly. The biggest problem I have encountered is that of hardware. Did you make your own hardware as well, or did you have someone make it, or did you find existing hardware? (Axle, flyer orifice, etc.) Thanks so much!

    1. Yes, all the metal parts were fabricated, but I simplified my sourcing to keep costs down. For instance, the drive wheel is running on simple CR steel rod, not the best tolerances, but its not that important when the rpm is low like the drive wheel. The bearings for the wheel were lignum vitae wood, dovetailed inserts. I also didn’t use bearings for the foot treadle, which means that with a lot of use they will eventually wear and require counterboring, but even then I’ll probably just use some more lignum vitae.
      The flyer is the hardest part, I made the orifice by slipping a piece of 7/8″ steel round drilled to accept 1/2″ rod, flush riveted the two together with brass rod. The flyer shaft was also 1/4″ CR steel, filed down and threaded for the drive whorl on the lathe, and very carefully match drilled on a v block for a brass pin to lock it. I tried using the threading die by hand, but it turned out terrible, had to make another and cut the threads with the die held makeshift in the tailstock of my lathe up against a Jacobs chuck. Much cleaner threads! Cooper goes through a rather complicated procedure to drill and tap the threads of his drive whorls with a hidden square nut inside the whorl. The whorl needs to be made out of a nice dense wood like hard maple or you’ll have problems with grain compression when you tap the threads, and wind up with a sloppy fit and out of balance whorl. I found the thick (1/4″) leather for the flyer bearings at a saddle shop, good place to look for small bits of leather instead of buying half a tanned hide or something ridiculously expensive like that.

      I bought parts from McMaster Carr for my next wheel, using ground o-1 drill rod, much better tolerances and wear resistance, as well as bronze bearings. Brass rod for the flyer orifice would also be much easier to fabricate than mild steel, but I didn’t want to spend the money and I have plenty of mild steel round bar. The other thing I would do differently would be to drill the flyer orifice on both sides (where the yarn comes through the orifice to the flyer arms). I made a jig to spin the flyer assembly and check the balance. If you only drill one exit for the yarn it will leave the flyer noticeably out of balance for spinning very fine stuff like cotton at high ratios and twist rates. Oh, wait, there’s two things I would do differently…should have made a double treadle assembly. Almost every wheel on the market that sell well these days is double treadle. If you think you’d might have to sell your wheel one day it will help a lot to do the extra work for a double treadle.

      I hope the wheel comes out well, its a lot of work, but we need more wheel makers out there, all the old ones are retiring. Feel free to ask if you have more questions, there’s a lot of tricky details to making a good wheel. I had hoped at one point to get a custom lathe built that could finish turn a 30″ wheel. The routing jig that I used worked pretty well but my wheel is slightly eccentric side to side, still works great and I spun a good bit of fiber.

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