How to use an English Wheel

Using the English wheel
An English wheel works best when you follow certain rules of operation. If you work by the rules, you'll get good results. If not, you will have problems. Remember, apprentices spent at least five years learning this trade. During much of those years they were learning how to use the English wheel.

First, you should remember that it takes several different wheelings to achieve a high-crowned curve in a metal panel. Start with a low-crowned anvil, and work up to more distinctly curved anvils as the shape progresses. If you start with an anvil with too much crown, you will mar the metal.

Always start out with a slight amount of pressure against the metal, just enough so the metal won't skip or slip through the wheels. Too much pressure will produce roller marks and mar the metal. The first few passes of the metal panel through the wheel will show if the pressure setting is correct. There should be some shaping, but definitely no marring. 

To begin, insert the metal panel into the wheel and adjust the yoke. Then, move the metal panel through the wheel in a gentle, smooth, back-and-forth motion, as you guide the panel laterally through the wheel to form the curve. How the metal is moved through the wheel is very important! Each pass of the metal through the wheel must be close enough to the previous one so they will overlap slightly. Otherwise, the metal will stretch unevenly, and the surface will be irregular. That means extra work.

The actual motion of moving the metal panel back-and-forth through the English wheel is called tracking. However, the panel must also be moved from right-to-left, or from left-to-right as well, without missing any section of metal. Each track must be parallel to the previous one. The wheels press the metal in a long line, and the idea is to move evenly so all of the metal is stretched evenly. Don't zigzag across the panel. This will cause waves instead of a smooth continuous curve. Tracking correctly takes a great deal of time and patience, so don't get discouraged if you fail the first time out.

If you want more shape on one side than the other, do more than one wheeling. Start out by wheeling short passes on the area you want to be curved more. Then go over the whole part and overlap the first wheeling.

English Wheel Tips

  1. Practice tracking on scrap pieces of metal that are of the same alloy and thickness you intend to use most often. Start with small panels with a low crown at first, then move on to harder shapes as your skill increases.
  2. It is common for beginners to put too much pressure on the panel when first starting with the wheel. This produces long bumps in the metal instead of a curve. When using the wheel remember to gradually increase the pressure settings. Keep the pressure setting the same as passes are made. Increase pressure slightly only when the curve has been completely formed at one setting, or will no longer curve at that setting.
  3. Keep in mind the English wheel is primarily a stretching machine. You must be very careful not to over stretch the metal. Work slowly. Work up to the shape you want by gradual curving. Keep checking the shape with templates to see how the curve is coming along. Or use a station buck to check the curve, if you are working with one.
  4. There is one last caution you must observe. Avoid running the edge of the metal through the wheel. This will stretch the edge. A stretched edge will look bad and the part won't fit correctly. A stretched edge requires the extra work of shrinking it back to shape. Shrinking isn't easy.

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