Day 4

As another day dawned over Colonial Williamsburg I find myself waking early in anticipation of the day ahead, anyone who knows me well will know I’m not much of a morning person but I’m finding myself so excited to get to the Wheelwrights shop and to take the walk through town.  This walk to ‘work’ is like no other could be, at this time in the morning the streets are bustling with men and women in period dress going about their business, every one with great purpose and dedication yet still taking the time to welcome and greet one another whilst going about their day. At this time of day there are very few members of the public on site despite the town being open 24/7, I have at times been walking along with nothing out of period in sight, a strangely exciting moment that feels as though I am truly in the 18th century. I can’t emphasise enough how spiritual (for want of a better word) this experience has become, I expected my stay here to be interesting of course and intended to be a reference point as to the earliest developments of the Wheelwrights skills in this country but it has become much more than that. The wheelwrights here are truly dedicated to getting it right and I know I am probably risking becoming repetitive but I am so impressed at the purist attitude I have encountered.Emily and Jenny

Today I have been very well entertained, in the morning the Wheelwrights had prepared some wheels for me to hoop with them (also known as tyring, ringing, bonding etc depending on your area). These wheels were very lightweight spindly, tall wheels with a narrow tyre, this kind of  job I dislike back home thanks to the pliability of the narrow hoop section that can easily be buckled. It was satisfying to help with this task as the Colonial Williamsburg Wheelwrights are up against the same issues as myself and have very similar methods of overcoming any adversities. The rest of the day was spent axing out cleft timber into squared up sections to form parts for a handcart that the Wheelwrights are currently building. Cleft timber is riven/split out of a round log with a froe, wedges and/or axes, the timber is then triangular or trapezoidal in section as a result, this being a method used for reducing timber down for many other crafts and trades as well as Wheelwrighting. These cleft sections, in this case of American White oak (or a possible hybrid as pointed out by Paul the Journeyman) would then be seasoned/dried for an average of a year per inch in thickness. In modern circumstances we have moisture meters to determine the moisture content of the wood, I personally work at an average of 10% to reduce the risk of shrinkage. Other than the use of modern testing equipment our stance on the drying process is pretty much the same, a comforting indicator that though continents apart important factors remain the same.DSCF2424

John, Paul and Andrew had already shown me their “stash” of cleft oak billets in a drying shed, aged about 3 years, dry, crisp and ready to use. Many of these billets are destined for use as spokes, ideal the for task at hand with beautiful straight grain, my Grandad would be so jealous if he could see the sight before me. We selected a few pieces with similar dimensions to the finished articles we would be producing, in this case 2″x 1″ rails. My part of the job was to square up the trapezoidal pieces with a side axe, a job that would be quite leisurely if the wood was green but in this case the oak was dry, hard and comparable to chopping into a lump of old iron! Once these rails were axed out, albeit after a long wait thanks to my lack of practice, Paul would expertly plane them neat, square and parallel with a wooden jack plane.Me and Emily in outfitWork seems to go so much slower here and it’s not a result of idle workers or bad practice, the almost constant stream of visitors is a massive distraction. I can imagine the constant distraction leading to regular simple mistakes (many of which I confess to making myself with little or no distraction back home). Despite this, these Wheelwrights deal with the questions, no matter how mundane, in an entertaining and informative manner with utmost decorum, true ambassadors of the trade.

After a steady days work my more than hospitable hosts held a get together, it was strange to see characters I had met over the last few days no longer wearing period costume but now in modern clothing. I have to add that I certainly would’t blame them if they wore their period dress all the time as I am growing ever more comfortable in the outfit they have supplied me with. Who knows, breeches could become the next fashion trend, I know I rock the look with my “chicken legs” as described by John.
One of the highlights of the evening (besides the fantastic foods, interesting beers and quirky conversation) was the gifts bestowed upon me by my hosts, a very rare and collectable stamp depicting a Wheelwright and celebrating the Wheelwrights role in American independence, quoting “The Wheelwright, The infant Republic’s commerce and cannon rode confidently to freedom on his skills” . It is nice to see such appreciation for the Wheelwrights role despite it being in reference to the expulsion of the British empire.

The next wonderful gift was a beautiful hand forged side axe with a Hickory shaft. The axe head was forged in house at the blacksmiths shop, as a copy of an original axe head found in excavations on the site, it has a socket made from softer iron with a harder steel fire welded on for the blade, a skill that I would love to master at some point in the future. The Hickory shaft was skilfully shaped and fitted by Andrew in the Wheelwrights shop. I can’t wait to get back in the workshop on Monday and put my newest ‘toy’ to the test.

As some of my followers will know my fiancee Emily is providing support for the project, mostly acting as director of photography, filming a lot of the activities, keeping me organised and telling me off for blocking good shots by standing in front of the camera… The staff at Colonial Williamsburg have been extremely kind to Emily and myself not only giving me a great insight into the day to day of an 18th century Wheelwright but by also taking Emily under their wing. Emily has recently qualified as a Vet and to break up the monotony of filming she has spent the day with staff from Coach and Livestock and been given the opportunity to drive a pair of oxen in a wagon built by the Wheelwrights on site. I believe the best part of this was the opportunity to dress up in period clothing, a sight to behold and I honestly believe Emily fits the role well, dress and all.Emily in outfit cw