CAROLYN'S COMPOSITIONS

August 5, 2014

An Amish Wainwright (Wheel-making) Shop


CAROLYN’S COMPOSITIONS

 AN AMISH WAINWRIGHT SHOP

 (wainwright: maker of wagons and wheels)

The following article is based on notes I kept, notes gathered to write a news article in January 1995. Therefore, the information is almost 20 years old. For an update read

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Nestled in the rolling hills of central Western Pennsylvania is a unique shop set at the end of a quarter-mile lane guarded by stalks of corn in mid-summer. It has no sign. Nor can you reach the owner by phone.

It is Jonathan’s wainwright (wagonmaker, wheelmaker) shop, the only wheel-making shop in Western Pennsylvania.

FF2“We have more in Eastern Pennsylvania and Ohio” said Jonathan, whose special skill is in demand by Amish and “English” folk alike.

He began his life farming, considered “putting up a shop to do something.” When a Westchester Pennsylvania, wheelmaking shop closed, making it difficult for the Amish to get wheels for their buggies, he said to himself: “I’m going to try to make a wheel.”

Starting the business was hard work. “Many years I spent more than I made,” stated Jonathan,whose business identity is J-J. “The farm supported the money.”

The wainwright shop follows Amish tradition—Jonathan uses tools without the assistance of electricity. The shop machinery is hitched up to a diesel motor by one shaft. Individual machines operate when a belt is attached.

950104-06

For his wheels “Everything is hickory, or occasionally ash (wood),” Jonathan shares, noting “It is a very hard wood, a special hickory—good and young.”

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He air-dries 22″ wood pieces for 3-4 years, then puts them in a special drying room where the temperature is kept at 100-150 degrees. When the wood is 6-8% water, it’s ready to be made into wheels.
Jonathan hasn’t needed to order wood for several years now. He recalls his last order cost $250-300 per 1000 cord feet, but said the price is “going up now.”

His machinery cuts and shapes the wood pieces, making spokes for wheels 20-54″ diameter.

950104-06Using hubs he purchases from a company in Leota, Pennsylvania, he and his assistants assemble the wheels. Separate spokes are tightened into the hub with bolts.

950104-12Behind his shop is a metal bender machine which heats metal red hot, enabling him to shape it to the wheel, adding the rim as a finishing touch to his product.

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Jonathan’s business varies. Last summer he had more Amish than English business. Other years English orders outdo those of the Amish.

Currently, English folk submit the largest part of Jonathan’s orders. People locally and from Pittsburgh provide a brisk trade in ornamental wheels, which he sells for $50 each. 20-50″ cannon wheels are in demand—last summer they were his biggest English business. “A man came from the state of North Carolina with a real original cannon,” Jonathan shared. “He had it on a truck. He shot it off for me.”

Jonathan also takes special orders. Several years ago, an Atlanta businessman sought a bid for 28 sets of 30″ wheels and axles for mall wagons. When other material bids failed, the wheels weren’t ordered. The shop is now working on an order for six 57″ wagon wheels. His orders are shipped by freight.

True to his wainwright title, Jonathan also makes and restores wagons. He creates one to two pieces a year, and admits “his church does not approve of the fancy stuff.”

950104-23

His restored a big antique freight wagon which can be used with 6-8 horses for show. He also has two horse wagons. There is a Cinderella-style stagecoach, which he sells to the English, and which he said has been used for weddings.

950105-28“I’m getting old now,” said Jonathan, who wants to spend the rest of his years on his farm.

When asked about the continuation of the shop after he retires, he said “It’s hard to tell if any of my sons will take on the trade.”

The father of three boys lives on his farm with his wife, Deena M. Byler. He has 3 sons, two daughters and he has 16 living grandchildren. One son has his own shop. “He’s very good at this kind of work,” Jonathan noted.
His young preschool grandchild enjoys helping him in the shop, where Byler animatedly talks about his handiwork.

“I like busyness and noise,” he said. “And it’s sure noisy here.”

Y(Woman studying wagon is my late mother, Nancy Isabelle Briskay Cornell Lipsius)

Follow up this article by reading Revisiting an Amish Wheelmaker

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2 Comments »

  1. Interesting look at this type of industry…hope we don’t lose this quality of talent. 🙂

    Comment by merry101 — August 5, 2014 @ 11:36 pm | Reply

  2. […] VISIT WITH AN 89-year-old AMISH WAINRIGHT (Wheel-maker):  The lay-out of this blog kind of drove me nuts (you have to click the thumbnails of the photos to enlarge them) but it is well worth wading through.  I’ve not run into many Amish men who live to the ripe old age of almost 90, let alone one that still has their own shop.  This blogger visits with one and you can see a century-old buggy he is restoring. Well worth a read. Click here to check it out! […]

    Pingback by Weekly Blogroll: More McNulty; Shipshewana, Mennonite Baked Peach Pancake, and Conewango Valley - Amish 365 Amish Recipes Oasis Newsfeatures — August 12, 2014 @ 10:09 am | Reply


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