Sample Article

We hope you enjoy reading the article below. To view earlier sample articles, click on these links to read about Guilford-Style Chair Wheels from Issue #26 and Solomon Plant, Wheel Maker of Stratford, CT from issue #31.

Sample Article - From Issue #34, October 2001

How to Buy an Antique Spinning Wheel
by Pat Bownas

What would possess an otherwise sane couple to accumulate and try to store 85 spinning wheels? If my husband David and I knew the answer to that question, we might find a cure for the disease itself. But if you're reading this, chances are good that you're a prime candidate for infection or already have the bug.

So, having admitted our collective obsession, let's get down to brass tacks. Flea markets, antiques shops, auctions, and even the occasional yard sale are full of spinning wheels. What do you look for in an antique wheel, and how do you know whether the price is reasonable?

If you're already obsessive-compulsive about collecting wheels and other textile tools, your knowledge on the subject has probably grown as your financial assets have dwindled.  You don't need this article at all and can cut straight to the cool pictures. But if your fascination has not yet progressed beyond the drooling stage, we'd like to offer you the benefit of our considerable experience and spare you a few of the expensive mistakes we've gleefully made on our way to fourscore wheels. And please note that while I'm speaking mostly of what we like to call "garden-variety flax wheels" (the most commonly available), most of these observations also apply to vertical wheels, spindle wheels, and other delightful variations.

Mathilda Wheel
"Mathilda"
All wheels in this article from the collection of Pat and David Bownas

First, consider why you want the wheel. If you think it would make a neat decoration, buy a planter and save all spinning wheel sleuths some heartache. If you want, as a dedicated sleuth, to protect and preserve a beautiful artifact as a testament to your own love of the craft, just look for what speaks to you aesthetically, and doesn't fall into a million pieces when you pick it up to load it in the car.

But if you hope to restore an antique wheel to working order, step back and look past the magic to see the tool itself. What's its overall condition? Do you see a million worm holes in the wood? Are the feet or legs crumbling from damp rot? If so, pass it by. Is the wheel missing obvious chunks of its soul? A distaff you can live without, but it's hard to spin on a flyer wheel if the flyer and bobbin aren't there. A missing footman, on the other hand, is very common. It's small, it's a neat stick, it's kind of loose--good for a million things when the wheel is no longer used for spinning. Thankfully, it's not too difficult to replace.

Odette Wheel
"Odette"

Look carefully at the wheel itself, give it a few turns, and see how it lines up with the flyer whorl (or bobbin whorl on a flyer-drag wheel). If the wheel is obviously very warped or out-of-round, consider looking elsewhere. Check to see whether the styles of turning on the maidens, wheel spokes, legs, and so on, match one another. It's very common to find wheels that have been cobbled together from a lot of miscellaneous parts (usually with a hand-lettered tag that proclaims, "All-original 18th-century spinning wheel!"). If your sole interest is spinning on the wheel, the hybridization might not matter to you if everything works together. Just make sure you're not paying an "antique" price for what should be a flea-market bargain.

Examine the flyer hooks for damage: rust, sharp grooves worn by miles of yarn, twisting, or bending. New flyer hooks need not be an expensive repair, but please don't take your wheel home and screw in cup hooks as a replacement. Check the orifice to see whether it's rusty (fixable with some fine steel wool or emery paper), corroded (be careful now), or sharply notched (a nasty problem). All these can be corrected, with a new spindle assembly, if necessary. But unless you're pretty darn handy with lathes and grinders (in which case you already skipped to the pictures), the solutions will cost you.

Isadora Wheel
"Isadora"

Do the wheel's parts seem tight and firm, or is everything wobbly and loose?  Sometimes a jiggly wheel support or maiden just means that the wooden pin that fastens it in place under the table is missing. Or the pins that keep the wheel axle itself snug in the wheel support slots may be gone. Whittle new ones and you're all set. But if the entire mother-of-all on a horizontal wheel is wiggling or (horrors!) unattached, check the wooden tension knob that controls its movement. Is the knob missing, worn so that it no longer secures the mother-of-all, or broken off? Having a new one turned and threaded to match an old tapped hole will not be cheap.

Very, very carefully, take the wheel apart as much as the owner or shop proprietor will let you. I've broken into many a cold sweat in an overpriced antiques mall while watching the manager watch David reduce the most expensive item in the store to a pile of mysterious components, while I hiss pointlessly, "What are you DOING? You know we're not going to buy it!" The flyer whorl is usually threaded counterclockwise. Sometimes it's just a force fit (be careful.) Does the bobbin slide on and off the shaft easily? Either someone has cleaned or been spinning on the wheel fairly recently, or there's a chance that the bobbin and flyer don't go together. If the wheel is really an antique, many decades' accumulation of grease and lint will prevent the bobbin from moving freely. That can be fixed; but a bent shaft, another possible explanation for an unmoving flyer, is more serious.

Naomi Wheel
"Naomi"

If the wheel's parts are all present and seem original (keep in mind that wheels were usually made of several different types of wood), see whether the owner will let you tie on a drive band then and treadle the wheel. Keep it going for several minutes. If the drive band stays in place, the tension adjustment moves freely, the flyer arms don't snag the drive band on their way by, the bobbin and flyer whorl fit on the shaft and take up all the space between the bearings on the front and back maidens (an inch of shaft to spare means that this bobbin does not belong to that flyer), you may have a winner. If you're buying an antique wheel from a spinner who has been using it, spin for a good ten or fifteen minutes before feeling confident that the drive band isn't going to regularly take flight and wrap itself around every moving part and a few stationary ones.

Olga Wheel
"Olga"

If you care, consider the wheel's finish as well. A wheel that has been stored in somebody's chicken coop for 50 years will be filthy, but look beneath the grime for worm damage. An irresistible bargain on a complete, but quite worm-eaten, wheel once led us to tie poor Tina up in a plastic garbage bag with a box of mothballs for six weeks while we waited to see whether all the miserable little critters were gone. It may not have been effective, but it made us feel better. After a couple of quarts of oil, she's been spinning fine ever since.

Some antique wheels were "ebonized" when first built and will have a smooth, not too glossy, black finish that affords the wood some protection. In our experience these are more often fancy vertical parlor wheels, but certainly not always. But unfinished wheels will thank you kindly for a good oiling when you get them home. First wash everything thoroughly with your favorite wood-cleaning product (and I'm not about to get into fisticuffs here over the best method) and let it dry. Then brush or wipe on a mix of turpentine and linseed oil until she's not thirsty anymore.

What about the poor wheels that have had varnish or shellac smeared on every visible surface? Well, it can be removed, but it's messy. We once bought a wheel through an online auction from a seller who seemed to have quite a number available. Helga is a nice wheel, but she has so many layers of shellac on her that she glows in the dark. Then we took the time to notice that all of this seller's wheels seem to have that unearthly sheen, and we've steered clear. If you like smelling like a paint factory, you shouldn't let varnish deter you from an otherwise lovely wheel. But I'd rather be spinning than scraping.

Siobhan Wheel
"Siobhan"

Okay, that's a brief overview of some of the pitfalls of obsessive sleuthing. What about the thorny question of how much your treasure should cost you? That depends (doesn't everything?). How much is the kid's college fund? He may decide to be a rock star instead of pursuing that law degree, and you'll have plenty to blow on spinning wheels. Suffice it to say that there are many excellent antique wheels in working condition out there. We've purchased them in every conceivable venue, in about ten states, and several foreign countries. And we can definitively state that the correct price for a working antique wheel is $295.

No, no, no. I just wanted to see whether you were still paying attention. And we honestly did decide on one week long antiquing trip that all the dealers in the country had gotten together and agreed on that amount, regardless of wheel condition, size, age, or provenance. They probably read it in the latest Schiffer's guide. But seriously, there are plenty of working or nearly working antique wheels on the market for about half what you would expect to pay for a mid-priced new wheel. A simple horizontal or upright wheel (we're not talking about those with provenance, unusual construction or decoration, or signatures) should not cost you more than $250 to $300 and can often be found for far less.

Dust off your high-school Latin, and caveat emptor (let the buyer beware). Most antique dealers, auctioneers, and especially online sellers (not all, and you'll recognize the exceptions) know next to nothing about spinning wheels. Ignore what they say and trust your eyes and hands. Equip yourselves with extra copies of the Cummer, Pennington and Taylor, and Baines books, and a photocopy of the Spinning-Wheel Maker List. Stick a ball of drive-band string, an orifice hook, and a handful of wool in the bag too. Load it in the car, transfer your savings into your checking account, kiss the dog goodbye, and go out there and sleuth.

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