Tools / Implements

How many ways can you make a wheel?


The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) at Reading University has a significant collection of 22 English farm wagons.  A “Shoulder to the Wheel” exhibition developed in partnership with the Crafts Study Centre, University for the Creative Arts, Farnham, seeks to explore the skills of the wheelwright.  Using a wheel collected by the Museum which dates back to c1894 as inspiration, three contemporary makers used their different skills to create a new wheel in its image.  The exhibition was guest curated by Dr Glenn Adamson, Senior Scholar at the Yale Center for British Art and runs from January – April 2020.

Le Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL) de l’Université de Reading possède une importante collection de 22 véhicules à deux ou à quatre roues.  Une exposition « Shoulder to the Wheel » développée en partenariat avec le Crafts Study Centre de l’Université des arts créatifs de Farnham cherche à explorer les compétences du charron.  À l’aide d’une roue recueillie par le Musée qui remonte à c1894, trois fabricants contemporains ont utilisé leurs différentes compétences pour créer une nouvelle roue à son image.  L’exposition a été organisée par le commissaire invité, Dr Glenn Adamson, Senior Scholar au Yale Center for British Art et se déroule de janvier à avril 2020. 

Exhibition practice – wheels – reconstruction – cart – carriage – wagon  

The Museum of English Rural Life (The MERL), at the University of Reading, has collected evidence of traditional rural crafts from its earliest days in the 1950s.  Amongst the most impressive elements of the object collection is the group of 22 English farm wagons, 4 carts and a timber carriage. Together they inspired the reference work, “The English Farm Wagon” written in 1961 by a past assistant keeper, J Geraint Jenkins.  As part of the redisplay of The MERL’s collection in 2016 they were moved into a bespoke “Wagon Walk”. In January 2020 this space will be used to host an intervention and exploration of the work of the wheelwright called, Shoulder to the Wheel.

There is no point, the old adage goes, in reinventing the wheel.  Whoever first said that must not have met a wheelwright.  The four wheel components; hub, spokes, felloes and rim, have been constantly refined over centuries.

The MERL wheel

Shoulder to the Wheel is a collaborative exhibition between the Crafts Study Centre in Farnham, Surrey and The MERL curated by Dr Glenn Adamson, Senior Scholar at the Yale Centre for British Art.

To create the exhibition we selected a late Victorian wheel collected by The MERL in the 1960s. Three contemporary makers were then invited to create a work in its image.

Greg Rowland

Greg Rowland is the latest in a long lineage of Devon wheelwrights, dating back to the fourteenth century.

Gareth Neal

Gareth Neal is a designer and maker who often refers to old furniture in his work.

Zoe Laughlin

Zoe Laughlin is Co-Director of the Institute of Making at University College London, a materials library and laboratory.

Sturt’s workshop

The exhibition was inspired by the work by George Sturt, The Wheelwright’s Shop, first published in 1923.  His shop was located in Farnham, the home of the Crafts Study Centre.

The MERL Somerset wagon

This wheel came into the object collection of The Museum of English Rural Life in 1962, along with a West Country “ship wagon”.  Both were made in 1894, by artisan C. Bailey of the village of Combe St Nicholas, Somerset, for Lords Leaze Farm, located in the nearby town of Chard.  When fully loaded the wagon could carry 1,100 sheaves of wheat.

As part of the commission, each of the contemporary makers participated in a discussion about the choices they made in the design and construction of their wheel.

Greg Rowland’s wheel

“Wheels are what I do and what I have done for 30 years…My aim was to use as many processes that might have been used in Sturt’s shop but also to use some modern methods not available then.
A contact near Farnham had some elm for the hub.  I had to make wedges and use putty to fill the splits in the wood.
My father, Mike, produced the spokes from oak.  Traditionally spokes were cleft out of the wood but we used a more modern sawing technique using air-dried stock.
The felloes – the curved pieces that make up the wheel rim, are from ash.  This gave us the traditional wheel timbers of oak, ash and elm.
The iron hub rings were shrunk on.  We used traditional whalebone to get the front angle of the spokes, which would form the wheel’s dish.”

Gareth Neal’s wheel

How could you possibly improve the wooden wheel?  It is the result of an accumulation of knowledge and experience over centuries by wheelwrights who spent their whole lives mastering the craft.

Let’s start at the beginning, then.  We can picture hundreds of men dragging huge stones across a plain…Wherever they are, they are wondering how they can make this transportation more efficient.

“My wheel and its accompanying drawings are an encyclopaedia of this evolution, from the problems of drying and splitting timber, through the first attempt to make a spindle, to a celebration of the cross directional strength of the elm hub.  Each thought is a step along the road that led to the wheel we know now.”

Zoe Laughlin’s wheel

“There is often a misconception that using digital tools allows the maker, intent on copying a form with exactitude, an easy route to high fidelity results.
My first step was to scan the original wheel with a handheld infrared Asus Xtion camera attached to a laptop.  No matter how slowly I swept the sensor over and around the subject, areas inexplicably failed to register.
The wheel needed to stand unaided in order to be captured in one continuous scan.  I constructed a relatively unobtrusive jig of floor chocks and a thin wooden shaft leading up to the central hub of the wheel.
I decided to print the wheel with a diameter of 10cm in order to play to the strengths of the tool and ensure best print possible.  I used an Ultimaker2 3D printer that extrudes polylactide (PLA) thermostat filament.
The proprietary software performs a number of adjustments in order to render a scan fit to print.  In this case, an array of support structures were added to the wheel’s typology in order to compensate for areas with undercuts and gaps.
I chose to use a pink low-density polyurethane foam as my material stock from which to mill the digital ruin of a wheel.  It is a material beloved of model makers in industries such as architecture, aerospace, film and Formula 1…It is lurid, smelly, relatively fragile, totally inappropriate for wheelmaking; and perfect for machinery with a CNC mill.”

All the wheels are now on display at the exhibition which opened just recently on January 14th 2020.

Isabel Hughes
Associate Director (& Head of Curatorial and Public Engagement)
Museum of English Rural Life

Groundbreaking Journal Tools & Tillage made Open Access

‘Sharing expertise about our agricultural past is one of the primary aims of the AIMA. Making Tools & Tillage available online represents a significant step towards realising this goal. With the support and generosity of the University Library Heidelberg, decades of fascinating scholarly work have now been made freely available to researchers worldwide. The AIMA community hopes that this represents a new phase in the sharing of knowledge and heralds the beginning of many fresh collaborations between the partner organisations involved.’ — Dr Ollie Douglas, President of the International Association of Agricultural Museums

The international journal Tools & Tillage is a great resource about historic farming techniques and traditional agricultural practices, combined with an (experimental) archaeological approach. Published over the years 1968-1995 it pulled together an impressive number of research projects from around the world, a remarkable effort in the days without internet.

As the number of people studying rural history increases, and museums continue to interpret meaning and method, several of us who work with agricultural museums, experimental archaeology, living history farms, and open-air museums decided to join forces to try and make Tools & Tillage more widely available.

As debates about environmental change gain intensity, and as agricultural practices factor significantly in these debates, the research published in Tools & Tillage seems more and more essential to our collective understanding. Yet, the journal is very hard to access. Three international organisations collaborated to increase access with the aim of engaging younger historians of rural and farm life with the essential knowledge and skills of agricultural techniques published over 27 years in Tools & Tillage.

We found an avid supporter in Dr. Grith Lerche, the only remaining editor of Tools & Tillage, and owner of the copyrights. She co-edited Tools & Tillage with Axel Steensberg and Alexander Fenton. Thanks to UNESCO-Welterbestätte Kloster Lorsch – Experimentalarchäologisches Freilichtlabor Lauresham (DE), the University Library of Heidelberg (DE) scanned the material and made it available, including a full text search of the 137 articles in 1,776 pages.

The full Journal is made available for dissemination and preservation of the electronic files under a (CC BY 4.0) license at:

This project of making Tools & Tillage available was possible thanks to the persistence and good cooperative spirit of many. The partners in this project are:

Submitted by Debra A. Reid, Curator of Agriculture & the Environment, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Mighican

What is the relevance of animal traction in the 21st century? Some experiences from the 65th World Ploughing Championship in Einsiedel (Germany)

Zusammenfassung (Abstract):

Basierend auf selbst gemachten Erfahrungen der 65. Pflügerweltmeisterschaft im baden-württembergischen Einsiedeln im Jahr 2018, stellt der Autor die Frage nach der Relevanz von tierischer Anspannung im 21. Jahrhundert. Während in Einsiedeln eine Zuordnung derselben eher in agrarhistorische Zusammenhänge oder als schmückendes Beiwerk deutlich wurde, kann aus den Erfahrungen von Institutionen wie Tillers International oder der modernen Forstwirtschaft eine weitaus höhere Relevanz nachgezeichnet werden. Letztlich plädiert der Autor für eine Stärkung der Tierischen Anspannung nicht nur in einer kulturhistorischen, sondern auch auf der praktischen Ebene.


Animal Traction – World Ploughing Championship – Oxen – Horses – Sustainability – Forestry – Agriculture  

On September 1st and 2nd 2018, the 65th World Ploughing Championship took place at the Einsiedel farm estate in Germany. The world´s best ploughers from more than 30 countries competed in stubble and grassland competitions, each with reversible and conventional ploughs and of course – with tractors.

Grassland competition at the World Ploughing Championship 2018 (picture: Claus Kropp)

Alongside the championship itself, the organizers presented a vast supporting program ranging from old-timer tractor shows, regional delicacies, performances and speeches as well as demonstrations of cutting-edge agricultural technology. Another part of the supporting program was the Baden-Württemberg Open Competition for Horse Ploughing and the Hohenheim Field with steam plough demonstrations, featuring the motto “Soil Cultivation in Changing Times”.

Ploughing team at the Baden-Württemberg Open Competition for Horse Ploughing as part of the supporting program of the World Ploughing Championship (picture: Claus Kropp)
Ploughing with draft oxen and (re)constructed medieval plough at the Hohenheim Field Days (picture: Claus Kropp)

Coming from the Lauresham Open Air Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology in southern Germany, we were able to become part of these Hohenheim Field Days with one of our draft oxen and a (re)constructed medieval plough. We also had the chance to present our work and research at the (re)constructed Early Medieval manor with an information desk alongside those of other institutions, associations and museums. Besides being busy with ploughing demonstrations and talking to many interested visitors, I had the chance to take a closer look at the way animal draft power was presented and valued within the event. I asked myself: what is the relevance of animal traction in the 21st century? Judging from the event itself, you could say it is just a relic of a time long gone, a nice thing to have and to preserve as part of our cultural and historical heritage. This can be emphasized with the fact that even the State Horse Ploughing championship was only listed in the supporting program.

I agree one hundred percent that animal draft power is a valuable part of our agricultural past and that agricultural museums need to preserve this knowledge and these practices. In this respect it was right to schedule our ploughing presentation within the “Soil Cultivation in Changing Times” of the Field Days. I nevertheless completely disagree that animal draft power does not play a valuable role in the 21st century and I would have wished that it had been presented not only as a relic of the past but also as an innovative and effective way to cope with the sustainability challenges of our present time. Let me emphasize this with some examples: Looking at the long work of Tillers International in Africa and other continents, it can be strongly stated that – considering the circumstances – ploughing with draft cattle can still be the most economic and efficient way of soil cultivation – not to speak of the most sustainable. The traditional utilization of cattle as three-use-animals (meat, milk and work) plays a key role in this respect. This can also be said for some aspects of modern forestry: In many ways horse- and to some extent also ox-logging once again became effective modern ways of working through a new understanding of sustainable forest management.

It is well known that logging with draft animals ensures far better soil protection than larger forestry machinery (e.g. Harvester) could ever accomplish. It can also be an economic and valuable alternative to heavy machinery when working in steep terrain. I myself had the great opportunity to meet one of the most experienced oxdrivers from France, Philippe Kuhlmann, and he showed me very impressively on his farm that there is no better alternative for him than ox-logging considering his forests lie in the middle of the Vosges Mountains. Both the cows (from which he also produces tasty cheese and which he still milks by hand) and the males (be it bulls of oxen) are used for logging purposes. This was another key moment for me to understand that even in our high-tech society draft animals can play their part.

Vosges cattle working at the farm of Philippe Kuhlmann (picture: Claus Kropp)

Coming back to my experiences at the World Ploughing Championship, I can onlyplead strongly to promote draft animal power in a different way in the future: strengthen the value of it as an important part of our cultural history but at the same time emphasize the use of it today – and tomorrow. In a way, the organizers of future large scale events like this could learn from the way agricultural museums operate around the globe in opening a window onto our past and providing pathways towards our future.

Claus Kropp
Manager Lauresham Open Air Laboratory for Experimental Archaeology

Summer Grain Harvest

AIMA member sites use tools representative of their time and place to harvest grains. The presenters at Firestone Farm in Greenfield Village, The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan, use a Johnston Harvesting Company Self-Rake reaper to cut Turkey Red Wheat. The farm interprets the birthplace of Harvey Firestone, and was moved to Greenfield Village from Columbiana County, Ohio in the early 1980s. This reaper represents the type of machinery that Harvey and his brothers may have seen (or may have operated) on their family farm.