Reinventing the wheel

I’m fascinated by hinges of technological transition—moments when the modern world realizes, almost a little too late, that it’s saying good-bye to the traditional one. Years ago, while reading Matthew B. Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft, a book about finding work that feels meaningful (which, Crawford believes, often turns out to be work with one’s hands, and in his own case was motorcycle repair), I came across a reference to a book about the lost art of making wooden wheels and wagons, and jotted down the author and title.

It wasn’t until years later, however, that I found a copy of George Sturt’s The Wheelwright’s Shop, and it wasn’t until last month that I finally read it. Sturt’s book is indeed about how to make wheels and wagons, or rather, how to make them without using machines or any power other than human and equine muscle. It is so comprehensively about this that by the time a reader reaches the end, he will likely feel that—except for the small matter of lacking the tools, skills, experience, and enough physical strength—he could probably build a wagon out of a few fallen trees himself.

In 1884, Sturt began working in a wheelwright’s shop that had been in his family for three-quarters of a century. He gave up schoolteaching for it; having read Ruskin, he had come to believe that “man’s only decent occupation was in handicraft.” Unfortunately, a month after he started work, his father became sick, and five months later, died. Even in 1884, Sturt writes, to call the business old-fashioned was “to understate the case.” But in spite of knowing almost nothing about the business, and in spite of the threat that the industrial manufacture of wagons posed even then to the artisanal manufacture of them, Sturt didn’t sell out. Instead he set about learning the trade from the eight workmen and apprentices he suddenly found himself the employer of, seeking to acquire the difficult, intricate knowledge that, according to tradition, only came to an apprentice after seven years, if not more.

Sturt’s book about what he learned, first published in 1923, almost four decades later, is ruminative and even scholarly about the vanished working-class world it describes. In the back there’s a glossary of wheelwright vocabulary, and at least a few of the words aren’t in the Oxford English Dictionary. Exbed (an axle-bed) and jarvis (a tool for shaving spokes), for example. From Sturt you may learn that the base of a tree—the part where it spreads out its roots like a settling octopus—is called a stamm.

Sturt’s sequence of description is methodical. He begins with the title-deeds to his family’s shop, which date back to 1706. He next describes the floor-plan: the timber-shed stood next to the smithy, and the lathe-house looked across the courtyard at the strake chimney (not that the reader knows yet what any of these things are). In the shop’s early days, there was no glass in the windows. “With so much chopping to do one could keep fairly warm,” Sturt writes; “but I have stood all aglow yet resenting the open windows, feeling my feet cold as ice though covered with chips.” The workday was twelve hours long, a span that included half an hour for breakfast and an hour for dinner (which was a mid-day meal), but if the shop went into overtime, the hours could number as many as fourteen (another half an hour of which was in that case set aside for tea). The schedule wasn’t as oppressive as it sounds, Sturt argues:

In those days a man’s work, though more laborious to his muscles, was not nearly so exhausting yet tedious as machinery and “speeding up” have since made it for his mind and temper. “Eight hours” today is less interesting and probably more toilsome than “twelve hours” then.

A labor historian might demur. Sturt is probably correct, though, that wheelwrighting was more cognitively engaging than work on an assembly line was to be. A wheelwright, Sturt explains, had to “live up to the local wisdom of our kind.” He had to know, for example, that in his part of the country, ruts were traditionally five foot ten and a half inches apart, and that the wheels of a new wagon therefore had to be spaced the same, as rigorously as the wheels of a train have to match the gap between the rails it travels on. A new wagon that didn’t fit into the old ruts wouldn’t be able to get down a muddy road on a wet day. Sturt can wax a little mystical about this kind of lore: “A wheelwright’s brain had to fit itself to this by dint of growing into it.”

Experience eventually gave a wheelwright a faculty of judgment so fine, and so incarnated (for lack of a better word), that it couldn’t be transmitted via writing. Trees look different, Sturt explains, to someone who has spent a lifetime making wagons out of them with hand tools:

Under the plane (it is little used now) or under the axe (it is all but obsolete) timber disclosed qualities hardly to be found otherwise. My own eyes know because my own hands have felt, but I cannot teach an outsider, the difference between ash that is “tough as whipcord,” and ash that is “frow as a carrot,” or “doaty,” or “biscuity.”

When a wheelwright considered buying a tree, he took into account not only the species but also the soil it had grown from, the season of the year when it was “thrown” (that is, cut down), and its natural curves, which were to be made use of. “Trees were rarely crooked in more ways than one,” Sturt writes; “and the object was so to open them that this one curve, this one crookedness, was preserved.”

The opening of a tree was done by sawyers, that is, by men who sawed for a living. Without the help of gas-powered engines, sawing was laborious. It required dexterity, muscular strength, a fine sense of rhythm, an intuitive understanding of how to section differently shaped volumes, and a stoic capacity for hours of persistent attention. “The least deviation from the straight line might spoil the timber,” Sturt warns. Sawyers, who worked in pairs—a top-sawyer yoked to a bottom-sawyer—were usually alcoholic and often quarrelsome. Sturt saw them as sorrowful, somewhat noble figures; by the time he wrote his book, they had almost completely vanished.

What was it that at last caused the disappearance of the sawing craft? For although there may be a few sawyers left, I do not personally know of one, where of old there were several couple. Of old you might catch sight of a sawyer—perhaps at a winter night-fall on a Saturday—trailing off with his saws and axes for some remote village. Long before he could get home he would be benighted—the country lanes would be dark; yet sawyers never hurried. They dragged their legs ponderously, and they looked melancholy—I do not remember seeing a sawyer laugh. A sort of apathy was their usual expression. They behaved as if they felt they were growing obsolete.

There’s a whole world in the sentence “Sawyers never hurried.” I am reminded for some reason of writers.

The next step was to season the sawn timber. Here I’m going to digress: what reminded me that I owned Sturt’s book, and what got me to read it, finally, was that I had been reading George Chapman’s translation of the Iliad, and there I came across this beautiful, almost architectural description of the killing of Simoeisios, son of Anthemion, by Ajax:

He [Ajax] strook him at his breast’s right pap, quite through his shoulder-bone,
And in the dust of earth he fell, that was the fruitfull soil
Of his friends’ hopes; but where he sow’d he buried all his toil.
And as a poplar shot aloft, set by a river side,
In moist edge of a mighty fen, his head in curls implied,
But all his body plain and smooth, to which a wheelwright puts
The sharp edge of his shining axe, and his soft timber cuts
From his innative root, in hope to hew out of his bole
The fell’ffs, or out-parts of a wheel, that compass in the whole,
To serve some goodly chariot; but (being big and sad,
And to be hal’d home through the bogs) the useful hope he had
Sticks there, and there the goodly plant lies withring out his grace:
So lay, by Jove-bred Ajax’ hand, Anthemion’s forward race

It’s one of the first deaths narrated in the poem. In the Greek, as near as I can tell, the fallen Simoeisios is indeed likened to a fallen poplar, as Chapman has it, but Chapman seems to have made Homer’s epic simile a little more epic than it originally was. It’s Chapman who adds the suggestion that Simoeisios’s “head in curls” resembles the leafy top of the fallen tree, and whereas Homer simply leaves the imaginary poplar where the imaginary wheelwright threw it down (“and the tree lies hardening by the banks of a river,” is how Richmond Lattimore translates the line), Chapman further imagines an explanation: the timber has had to be abandoned where it fell because it’s too “big and sad” to haul home across a marsh—a danger mentioned by Sturt, by the way: “It behoved the wheelwright buyer to refuse if, as sometimes happened, a tree had fallen in an inaccessible place. . . . The tree must rot where it lay.”

When I read Chapman’s version of Homer’s simile, I wondered whether Chapman, in his elaboration, was drawing on a traditional knowledge of wheelwrighting. That’s what reminded me that I possessed a book on exactly this topic, which I’d been meaning to read for a decade or so. And now that I look at the passage in Chapman’s Homer again, as I write this, it seems to me, in the light of Sturt’s book, that Chapman may in fact have the advantage over Lattimore here: if the poplar was growing in a marsh and was cut down there, as Homer says it was, then maybe a reader from the world of traditional wheelwrighting, to which both Homer and Chapman belonged, would understand that however beautiful the wood from the tree might have been, it would probably have to be left to “wither” where it fell. Lattimore’s decision to translate the word ἀζομένη as “hardening,” instead of Chapman’s choice, “withring,” may miss the point, which is waste and uselessness. The Greek word seems elsewhere to mean “being parched” or “being scorched”—to refer to kinds of drying that have a negative connotation.

Seasoning was a delicate process, by the way, that could hardly have been performed in a marsh. Planks had to be stacked in perfect alignment, so as to minimize warping, with strips of board between each plank, so that “no two planks might touch,” lest the moisture that they sweated out lead to rot. Drying took years. “A year for every inch of thickness was none too much,” Sturt says. And even with the best of care, “elm boards insisted on going curly.”

The fact that Chapman supplies a gloss for fell’ffs—the “out-parts of a wheel”—suggests to me that even in Chapman’s day, the wheelwright’s terms of art must have been specialist knowledge. By the late 19th century the word had evolved into the form felloes. Sturt gives a pronunciation tip: “In this word leave out the o. Make the word rhyme to bellies.” Felloes were the curving pieces of wood that made up a wheel’s circumference. They were mounted on the spokes and attached to each other either by strakes or a tire—the two options for “shoeing” a wheel. “A tyre was a continuous band, like a hoop, put right round a wheel,” Sturt explains. “A strake was an iron shoe, nailed across one joint only, where two felloes met.”

In the center of the spokes went the stock, or hub, which was always made of elm, just as spokes were always made of heart of oak. “A newly-turned stock was a lovely thing,” Sturt writes. “Butter-colored, smooth, slighty fragrant.” In Sturt’s father’s shop, stocks were turned on a lathe that had been created by Sturt’s grandfather. The lathe was powered by workmen turning a large old wagon wheel, which served as a pulley to drive the lathe. The stock of the large old wagon wheel, however, had not been turned on a lathe—it couldn’t have been, since it had been created before the lathe—and its hub was only “rounded up very neatly with an axe, in the old-fashioned way.” A neat symbol of technology being born out of the technology it displaces.

The "dish" of an old-fashioned wheel, a diagram in George Sturt's "The Wheelwright's Shop"

I can’t go through all the steps for making a wagon here, alas. But I can’t resist quoting Sturt’s appraisal of one of his workmen: “I think his idea was to slip through life effective and inconspicuous, like a sharp-edged tool through hard wood.” And I can’t resist relaying Sturt’s ingenious discovery—recovery?—of why wooden wagon wheels were not vertically symmetrical but instead had what was known as “dish.” (See the diagram above.) The wheels on modern automobiles are straight up-and-down, but those on the wagons of yore resembled “saucers, with the hollow side outwards,” Sturt observes. He also likens the shape to “a flattish limpet.” Sturt admits that “for years I was careful to follow the tradition, without fully seeing the sense of it.” He knew only that a wheel without “dish” was “sure to turn inside out like an umbrella in a gale.” Then one day, while Sturt was watching a cart being pulled by a horse, he noticed that the cart gently swayed from side to side, and it dawned on him: a horse doesn’t move straight ahead. It moves forward one step at a time, so its motion is also, slightly, from side to side. “Wheels were built to meet force in two directions, not in one only. Besides the downward weight of the load there was the sideways push right at the very middle of the wheel, all the time the horse was moving.” The “dish” of an old-fashioned wheel was a structural compensation to this sum of vectors.

One last recovery: Years ago, I was puzzled by a line of Emerson’s, in which he praises transcendental love as “extinguishing the base affection, as the sun puts out the fire by shining on the hearth.” I understood the Platonic idea—a higher and impersonal love displaces lust, or is supposed to—but I didn’t understand the metaphor. How could the sun be said to put out a fire? It turns out that Emerson was referencing a blacksmiths’ saying. Smiths need to be able to make nice judgments of how hot their fire is, and that’s easier to do in a dim room, as one of Sturt’s workers, named Will Hammond, explained to him:

Excepting for light through the open half-door, or from the window over the bench and vice, the smithy was kept pretty dark. Will Hammond preferred it so. If the skylight did admit a splash of sunshine, as it sometimes tried to do on summer noons, he was prompt to veil it with an old sack he kept nailed for that purpose to the sooty rafters. The sunshine, he said, put his fire out; and very likely it did affect the look of the “heat,” so all-important to a blacksmith.

Hammond could have been a reader of Emerson, but the likely explanation is that both he and Emerson were drawing on a common store of folk-wisdom, now extinct.