Thursday, 11 September 2014

Heart & Hand: Spinning Wheel Restoration with Reed Needles

Spinning wheel restorer Reed Needles answers a few questions about his craft and gives us some tips on what to do with that antique spinning wheel you find at the flea market!
Reed will be at the Heart & Hand Festival Sept. 27 with a variety of spinning wheels. Come by with your questions and say hello!

How did you get started repairing spinning wheels and what keeps you interested in the craft?
      I have always been interested in colonial and pioneer crafts, and experimented with a number of areas and articles over the years. In my teens I worked with a barn-framer, learning to build timber and log buildings. As I learned more, I took up carving and cabinet-work. I was also fascinated by machinery, especially mechanical clocks and watches. For the last 20 years or more, I have concentrated more and more on lathing. It was that skill that brought me my first wheel – a flax wheel from the late 1700s given to me by my sister-in-law. Having successfully repaired one wheel, it wasn’t long before more members of her guilds sent me their wheels. Each wheel taught me something new about the craft, and about the variety of skills involved in building wheels. 

      Now, some seven years later, I have repaired about a hundred wheels, and have a stock collection which (try as I might) never seems to be less than 30. I’m one of about three people in Ontario who do this on a regular basis. The irony is that I’m not a particularly good spinner. I know enough to be dangerous or, more accurately, to know when a wheel is working properly, or what needs to be done to make it work properly. 
      I’m continually amazed by the depth and variety of skills that old wheelwrights possessed. They weren’t just technicians, but artisans – capable of producing remarkably attractive and functioning articles, that were both useful and visually appealing at the same time. 
      What makes a wheel worth repairing? 
Not every old wheel can or should be restored. There are a number of considerations in deciding whether a wheel is worth repairing.
First, it has to be of some value, perhaps 
 because it was built (and signed!) by a known maker, represents an unusual or particularly fine example of a certain type of wheel, or is simply built well enough to be of some future service. However, it might be so old, or unusual that it should only be conserved, and not refurbished. (Some museum pieces for example, should never be altered, refinished, heavily cleaned or re-built. To do so 
would destroy their heritage and historic value). 

Next, it has to be practical to rebuild. There are no spare or after-market parts available for old wheels. They have to be made – usually by hand and usually by eye. And repairs frequently cost little in material, but a significant amount of time – and that cost is passed along to the customer. So - a vintage wheel that cost perhaps a hundred dollars at a flea market or lawn sale might involve two or three times that much in repair – especially if important pieces are missing and have to be built from scratch. If you’re not careful, you may well end up with a wheel that cost more to repair that it’s worth on the open market. Another question – will it work well enough when finished to justify the repair? Not every old/antique/vintage wheel was perfectly designed or flawless in operation. 

Finally – is the wheel matched to the spinner? Many experienced spinners will tell you that there are very few, if any, antique wheels that were originally designed to be used by a novice. For example, the Canadian Production Wheels from Quebec that were built for very experienced spinners, often prove frustrating for a novice spinner, since they were designed to be used by women (and men) who had spent their lives mastering the craft.

      Why repair old wheels when there are modern wheels available? 
      Many modern wheels by makers such as Lendrum, Louet, Ashford, Majacraft, Kromski and others, are beautifully designed, flexible in use, portable and sturdily built (with warranties!!). For a new spinner especially, these are the wheel of choice, since they can “grow” with the user. Older wheels do but one thing – and usually very fast. However, old wheels have that indefinable something that makes them both visually and historically appealing. They may perhaps be a family heirloom, or from a known maker, or just so obviously old that they convey a sense of the time and a faint aura of the people that used them, so that owning and using them connects the user to the past.

      New wheels are surprisingly more expensive (sometimes much more expensive) than antiques. A new Kromski or Majacraft wheel will cost at least $500, and over $2000 if you pick one of the fancier or custom-made models. You can pick up a good vintage wheel in working condition for sometimes less than $100 – so there’s a price advantage in rescuing an older wheel. Mostly however, I think people choose an older wheel for its aesthetic value, and the joy of seeing something so old still produce useful and beautiful fibre.

How can you tell when and where a wheel was made? 
Dating a wheel and uncovering its provenance is a daunting task – and requires a lot of experience in observing, handling and using wheels. Sometimes it’s relatively easy – the wheel is signed and dated by either the maker or the owner. (Frank Young wheels came from Nova Scotia in the mid-1800’s).  Sometimes the style is unique to a certain area and a certain era. (Small, narrow-based and steeply-angled Saxony flax wheels are known as “slantys”  and are frequently of Baltic origin, even though they show up in Minnesota or Wisconsin.) Sometimes, we know from historical research that certain designs of wheels were used in certain areas at certain times and for how long, (flat rim Acadian wheels were in use in Eastern Canada from the late 1700s up to the mid 1800s) which helps to identify a wheel and its provenance.

On older wheels especially, types of wood used, tool marks and design features, including tensioning and drive systems, give a clue as to its age or origin. (Indian Head spinners from the West Coast were built to be mounted on a Singer sewing machine treadle base – and folded into the table exactly the same as the machine did). Frequently, no matter who made them or where, we can tell how long they were used by observing the wear on various parts of the wheel, especially the treadle. I have a lovely old flax wheel in my collection where the treadle bar has worn completely through the leg down to the floor, at which point the owner had the leg turned and a new hole bored to take the pin on the end of the treadle – twice!!

As to their makers and users, apart from some extraordinarily beautiful turnings and wood choices, by and large these were wheels that were made to work – hard and long. North America did not seem to produce very many of the light, elegant and very decorative “parlour wheels” that were part of middle and upper-class European society. North American wheels are sturdy, workmanlike and practical in design and construction, since they were a vital part of the working life in most early settlers’ homes. And judging by the condition in which we find some of them now – they were used until they quite literally fell apart!

Is there a particular wheel you would love to work on or a project you are excited about? 
I’m always excited about working on a type of wheel that I have never encountered before. Every once in a while an unusual wheel comes along that needs some study before it can be put back into working order. I love seeing and reproducing really intricate or beautiful turnings, I enjoy using antique tools to reproduce a part in exactly the same way that it was made originally (some parts on a wheel cannot be machine made – only by hand, and only using the original tools) and I love seeing a well-made wheel brought back to life with some love and attention. The best part, however, is seeing how much delight it brings the owner when a dusty, broken and shabby wheel suddenly re-appears, clean, working and complete – ready for them to use and enjoy for a long time to come.

What are your top 10 tips for people looking to restore or repair their antique spinning wheel?
This is not a complete list by any means, but the following points might help in choosing and caring for a wheel, and whether or not they might want to have it restored:

1.       Make sure it’s a real wheel, and not a decorator item – as a number of wheels made in the 1970s and 80s were. This is one of the most frequent problems I encounter, and it always saddens me when I have to tell someone. Make sure all the parts move and adjust the way they should. A typical fake will not allow you to move the flyer and bobbin arrangement (known as the “Mother of All”) towards and away from the drive wheel. Make sure you can actually put a piece of wool through the iron spindle and onto the flyer hooks. Make sure the hooks are made of wire, not cup-hooks (another hallmark of a fake wheel).  In general, even though it might look like a wheel (and turn like one), if you have any doubts, make sure that it spins. If you can’t spin, find someone who can. Not every dealer/seller knows when a wheel is real – and fakes can be expensive!

2.      Make sure ALL the parts are there – novices often buy incomplete wheels because they don’t know what should be there, or they were told that a missing part wasn’t needed. There are very few non-essential parts on a wheel. Look at some pictures, learn to identify common types of wheels (Saxony, upright, castle, frame) and make sure you can identify every part before you buy it. (Missing flyers for example can cost $150-$200 to replace, if you can find someone to make it for you – and no – the parts on old wheels often cannot be interchanged.)

3.       If you own a solid working antique, take care of it. Don’t leave it in a sunny window or close to an indoor heat source. Solid wood, even though it’s over a hundred years old, will still warp, shrink and crack. Oil your wheel lightly, make a dust-cover for it, and try not to move it around too much. The old wheels were designed to stay in one place – not be packed into the van for spinning evenings twice a month. Take your modern, fully-seasoned and finished factory wheel on the road with you. Leave the antique at home.

4.      Don’t expect an old wheel to work perfectly all the time. In their heyday, they were still cranky and prone to odd moments of bad behaviour (humidity, wear, lack of oil or adjustment). Don’t put it to production use – you’re a curator/custodian of an antique. Future generations will thank you for treating it gently.

5.      Don’t refinish it!! Removing an original finish destroys any antique’s value. A refinished wheel is worth far less than one with original finish – especially since some of the finish might include clues as to the wheel’s origin.

6.      Many wheels have had repairs done to them at various points in their history – and those repairs are part of their history. Removing, altering or otherwise “cleaning up” a repair can be as bad as refinishing. If it does need repair, have a professional restorer look at it. (Robertson screws may work well, but they are an eyesore on any wheel made before 1990!) Removing old wire, nails or leather may make it look more respectable, but only if the ensuing repair is either invisible or period appropriate.

7.     Don’t be surprised if an old wheel only produces one kind of single, or doesn’t like to ply. Many wheels were originally made for flax, and some conversions were made to make them spin wool as singles. Most wheels were used for singles, since that was the fibre that went into weaving cloth. Some old wheels can ply wool for knitting, but not all. You have to learn what your old wheel was made for, and can produce, and be patient. And many old wheels are very fast, aggressive spinners, due to their high ratios – which produce very hard fine singles. Your old wheel may not spin the kind of fibre you want.

8.      Use multiple bobbins on new wheels only. Multiple bobbins make spinning faster, since you don’t have to wind off the single on the bobbin before starting a new one. New multiple bobbins can be made for old wheels, if you get the dimensions absolutely identical.  However, taking apart the flyer and whorl to change bobbins often leads to damage (dropping a flyer can break the arms, dropping a bobbin or whorl will chip the rims). Try to leave the flyer intact, and wind off from the bobbin while it’s still on the wheel. Everything will last longer as a result.

9.      Don’t try to disassemble a wheel that doesn’t want to come apart easily. It may seem like a good idea to disassemble a wheel for transport, but often previous owners have fastened legs, uprights, maidens etc. permanently (sometimes using hardware or modern glues) and trying to take such a joint apart usually shatters it. Transport them as little as possible, and then with as much care as you can.

10.  Finally – be careful when buying old wheels, since many are beyond repair, or too expensive to restore. Do some research to find out as much as you can about the wheel(s) you are interested in, take along a knowledgeable companion who can help you spot problems, and don’t believe everything you hear from a seller. Buy from someone who spins, whenever possible, since only a spinner will be able to tell you how well this wheel works. And beware! – collecting wheels can become compulsive. Enthusiasts call it “falling down the rabbit hole”. One wheel never seems to be enough. Sigh…

Happy spinning!

All photos by Candice Leyland, volunteer and Friend of Joseph Schneider Haus. 


  1. Picked up a J Ouellette wheel on a whim today, I know nothing about spinning and really just want it for my mom cave. It is missing the mother of all? and all the associated parts. Any idea where I can find the replacement parts? It is marked JO so I'm assuming it is a J Ouellette. I didn't realize how much was missing until I got it home...beginner's mistake

  2. Our local Norse Lodge (a non-profit) was donated a Grant Handweaving spinnining wheel made in Los Angeles. Not sure of the age but it predates the companies move to Provo, Utah in 1959. Any thoughts of how we could learn more about this wheel and how to care for it?

  3. I'd love to purchase a CPW in perfect condition and working order. I live in BC Canada.... can anyone help me out? I'd really appreciate it! 🙂