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Making a Ship's Wheel

by Mike Graff


Literally, roll your own

You need a rim, a hub, and spokes. Scale the wheel to represent about 5-6 feet (60-72 inches) in diameter from the tip of one spoke-end (grip) to the end of the grip on the opposite side of the wheel.

Rim —
Find, or work down, a dowel to a diameter that represents about 4 feet (48 inches) - it will be the mold for your wheel rim. Hint: spray the dowel with some PAM to serve as a non-stick releasing agent. Create a laminated paper tube by wrapping glue smeared paper around the dowel. A laminated tube 1-2 inches in length should be plenty. Printer paper works well for this. Elmer's wood glue (the yellow stuff) is a good choice for the glue component. Wrap the glue-smeared paper around the dowel (glue-smeared side facing out - no glue on the dowel side of the paper), snugging and smoothing it down as you go. Add enough layers so that the thickness of the tube wall represents 5-6 inches - the flat vertical face of the mounted wheel. Set the laminated paper tube aside to dry completely. (Note - this also is a good way to manufacture hoops for attaching sails to masts.) Decide how many spokes your wheel will have - 6 is a minimum, 8 looks better, 10 or 12 would be great but is very hard to do at scale. Once the glued paper wrap has dried, mark off several rings on the tube. Make them at least 50 percent oversize in width - they will get sanded to finish thickness later. Mark the rims with a tiny pencil dot where the spokes will pass through. Select a drill bit that matches the diameter of the spokes (see below), and drill holes through the rims and slightly into the dowel. Finally, cut the marked rings while the tube is still on the dowel. One of those drilled rings will be your wheel rim.

Hub —
The hub should represent 6-8 inches in diameter. A round toothpick may work well as the starting stock to work from. When properly sized, wrap the hub stock in one layer of glued-on paper and let the glue dry completely. The glued paper wrap will help reduce the chance of the hub splitting while being worked on. Once the glued paper wrap has dried, mark the surface of the hub with a tiny pencil dot where the end of each spoke will will be seated into the hub. With the drill bit used to make spoke holes in the wheel rims, drill a shallow divot through the paper wrap and just barely into the wood of the hub. Do Not drill holes all the way through the hub. The divots will accept the hub ends of the spokes, secured with a tiny drop of glue. Finally, drill a hole for the axle through the center of the hub - about one-third the diameter of the wooden portion of the hub. A piece of brass rod or toothpick wood sanded to size can be used as the axle.

Spokes —
Something that scales to a diameter of about 1.5 inches is needed for spokes. Brass rod, plastic rod, stiff bristles from a broom or brush, or another stiff material will be needed for the spokes. Brass and plastic rods can be purchased at hobby shops. Cut lengths to reach from the surface of the hub, through the holes in the rim, and extend 5-6 scale inches beyond the outer surface of the rim. File the ends to A) remove cutting burrs, B) round the ends, and C) make them all the same length.

Assembly —
Sand the rim to a thickness representing about 2 inches, taking care that the spoke holes are centered on the rim edge. Paint, stain, and otherwise finish the hub, rim, and spokes before assembly - black hub and spokes with brown rim and grip ends of the spokes, for example. Retouch the divots in the hub with the drill, and clean the hub ends of the spokes to assure bare material for gluing the ends of the spokes to the hub. Drill a hole in a piece of scrap wood to accept the end of the axle, insert the axle, and then slide the hub onto the axle and down to the surface of the scrap wood. Center the rim on the scrap wood surface around the hub. Insert a spoke through a hole in the rim and a second spoke through the hole on the opposite side of the rim. Put a small dot of glue into the matching divots in the hub and seat the spokes into those divots. Adjust the position of the rim so that it is centered around the hub. Repeat the process with opposing pairs of spokes until all have been installed. Lock the spokes to the rim with a tiny drop of thin CA glue wicked into the rim hole along on each spoke.

Comment —

This is fine work... slow, tedious, and demanding both a steady hand and concentrated attention. Don't be discouraged if your first effort is not quite beautiful. That's why you made enough laminated paper tube to yield several rings for the wheel rim! ;-)