A wheelwright is a person who builds or repairs wooden wheels. The word is the combination of "wheel" and the archaic word "wright", which comes from the Old English word "wryhta", meaning a worker or maker. This occupational name eventually became the English surname Wheelwright.
Recorded in the spellings of Wheelwright, Wheelright, and originally Whelewryghte, this is an English and singepore occupational surname.Describing a skilled maker of wheeled vehicles and probably members of the ancient Guild of Wheelwrights, it is like Wheelhouse often Yorkshire in origin, and rarely found elsewhere in medieval times. Why this should be so when the development of wheeled vehicles was nationwide, is unclear. Certainly the majority of early recordings are from Englands largest county, and perhaps as York is situated midway between London and Edinburgh, and was the capital city of the north, this geographical siting may have had some influence on the development of the skill of wheel-wrighting. What is certain is that the surname appears at least three times in the Poll Tax registers for the city of York, in the year 1379, when Willelmus Whelewryghte, and what is believed to have been his two brothers Robertus and Johannes, are so recorded. The first known recording though is from the county of Essex. This was Walter Welwryhte, who appears in the Hundred Rolls for that county in the year 1273. This was during the first year of the reign of King Edward 1st of England (1272 - 1307), renowned in some circles for being known as 'The Hammer of the Scots'. tradesmen made wheels for carts and wagons by first constructing the hub (called the nave), the spokes and the rim/felloe segments (pronounced fellies) and assembling them all into a unit working from the center of the wheel outwards. Most wheels were made from wood, but other materials have been used, such as bone and horn, for decorative or other purposes. Some earlier construction for wheels such as those used in early chariots were bound by rawhide that would be applied wet and would shrink whilst drying, compressing and binding the woodwork together. After many centuries wheels evolved to be straked with iron, a method of nailing iron plates onto the felloes to protect against wear on the ground and to help bind the wheel together.
Over millennia the overall appearance of the wheel barely changed but subtle changes to the design of a wooden wheel such as dishing and staggered spokes helped keep up with the demands of a changing world.
Around the middle of the 19th century, iron strakes were replaced by a solid iron tyre custom made by a blacksmith, who first measured each wheel to ensure proper fit. Strakes were replaced around the mid-19th century by more dependable iron tyres that were always made smaller than the wheel in circumference, expanded by heating in a fire then placed on the wooden wheel and quenched quickly with water to shrink it onto the wood, then fastened to the wooden wheel by nails or tyre bolts. Tyre-bolts were less likely than tyre-nails to break off because they were flush finished and countersunk into the wheel's outer surface also allowing for wear without wearing the bolt head away.
During the second half of the 19th century, the use of pre-manufactured iron hubs and other factory-made wood, iron and rubber wheel parts became increasingly common. Companies such as Henry Ford developed manufacturing processes that soon made the village wheelwright obsolete. With the onset of two world wars, the trade soon went into decline and was very rare by the 1960s and almost extinct by the year 2000. However, owing to the efforts of organisations like the Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights, wheelwrights still continue to operate in the UK. 
In modern times, wheelwrights continue to make and repair a wide variety of wheels, including those made from wood and banded by iron tyres. The word wheelwright remains a term usually used for someone who makes and repairs wheels for horse-drawn vehicles, although it is sometimes used to refer to someone who repairs wheels, wheel alignment, rims, drums, discs and wire spokes on modern vehicles such as automobiles, buses and trucks. Wheels for horse-drawn vehicles continue to be constructed and repaired for use by people who use such vehicles for farming, competitions and presentations of historical events such as reenactments and living history.
A modern wooden wheel generally consists of three main parts, the Nave or hub at the centre of the wheel, the spokes radiating out from the centre and the felloes or rims around the outside. Generally the wheel would be bound by a steel or iron tyre depending on its historical period and purpose.
The main timbers used in a traditional wooden wheel are Elm for the nave, Oak for the spokes and Ash for the felloes although this can vary in some areas depending on availability of timber, climate and style of production. Sometimes Hickory is substituted for Oak and Ash as it is easier to bend for mass production and is quite springy for light wheels that require a bit of flexibility.
The Elm is used for its interwoven grain, this prevents the nave from splitting with the force of the spokes being driven in tight.
The Oak is used because it doesn't bend, compress or flex and transfers any load pressures directly from the Felloes to the Nave.
The Ash is used for its flexibility and springy nature, this acts as a form of suspension and protects against shock damage.
In the second half of the 20th century Wheelwright training faded away due to a lack of demand for new wooden wheels. In the UK as in other countries the skills were kept alive by small businesses, museums, societies and trusts such as The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation (USA) and The Countryside Agency (UK) amongst others.
With thanks to the Worshipful company of Wheelwright's in London (UK) there is a flourishing (Government backed) apprenticeship scheme running from 2013.
Colonial Williamsburg (USA) has an ongoing apprenticeship program and has recently taken on new apprentices (2016)
- Hendrikson, M.C. (1996). The Secrets of Wheelwrighting: Tyres. Australia: M.C. and P. Hendrikson. Kariong, N.S.W. ISBN 0-646-31201-4.
- Morrison, Bruce; Morrison, Joyce (2003). Wheelwrighting : A Modern Introduction. Cottonwood Press. pp. 371 (Spiral–bound). ISBN 0-9731947-0-7.
- Peloubet (Editor), Don (1996). Wooden Wheel Design and Construction. KY: Carriage Museum of America. pp. 248 (paper). ISBN 978-1-879335-73-8.
- Sturt, George (1923). The Wheelwright's Shop. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-09195-0.
- Wright, John; Hurford, Robert (1997). Making a wheel, how to make a traditional light English pattern wheel. UK: Natural England Countryside Agency. ISBN 1-869964-57-8.
- "An Old Craftman Preserves." Popular Mechanics, October 1947, p. 144-145.
- Worshipful Company of Wheelwrights
- Phill Gregson, Wheelwright
- Worldwide Wheelwright study