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An Introduction To The English Wheel!

Updated on February 13, 2013

English Wheel Basics:

The English Wheel takes a lot of skill; but it is also a primary asset for metal workers. It's known as a wheeling machine, allows the metal worker to make compound curvatures in steel and aluminum. Because of the amount of skill involved in this very exacting work, products made from the English wheel are expensive, yet still in high demand.

It is used typically for custom fabrication of motorcycle and car parts, low volume sports car production, car restoration, car prototypes and aircraft skin components.

Advantages:

The advantage of the English wheel is that although its use requires expertise, it is a highly flexible tool, able to produce different panels, using the same machine. It is a forming machine that stretches the material used for it in a manner similar to panel beating processes.

Classic English Wheel
Classic English Wheel

The Shape and Style:

When high volume panels are needed, the work is generally regulated to a stamping process, which forms identical panels at a more rapid rate. However, stamping produces only one type of panel, per set of dies, whereas the English wheel is manually operated and needs only the skill of the user to produce a variety of different panels.

The English wheel shape resembles a large, closed letter "C", with a wheel at each end of the enclosure. The wheel at the top end is called the rolling wheel, while the bottom is called the anvil wheel. Although the size can vary for larger machines, the rolling wheel is usually three inches wide or less and nine inches or less in diameter.

The depth you see of the "C" shaped frame is the throat area. The largest wheel machines have throat sizes of 48 inches and the smaller ones run around 24 inches. The throat size determines how large a piece of metal the operator can use and work with easily. Some machines allow the operator to turn the top wheel and anvil at a ninety degree angle to increase the maximum size of the workpiece.

The degree of pressure placed on the material by the wheels is what allows the operator to shape the piece. The pressure decreases as the material becomes thinner. Because of this, the lower jaw and cradle of the machine that holds the anvil rollers is adjustable. On machines designed for steel plate, a hydraulic jack is generally used and for sheet metal, a jackscrew. As the metal thins, the user must make adjustments to the pressure between the rollers.

Anvil Dies
Anvil Dies

A Variety Of Anvil Dies:

A properly equipped English wheel has a variety of anvil dies, otherwise known as 'dies'. See the image here with the arrow pointing to all of the dies on this particular wheel.

The size of the anvil used is chosen to match the desired crown or curvature of the workpiece. As the operator passes the material between the two wheels, the metal stretches, becoming thinner, while forming a convex shape over the anvil wheel. This surface is known as the crown. A high crown surface forms a marked curve, while a low-crown surface is only slightly curved.

The radius of the piece, after working, depends on the degree in which the middle of the piece has stretched in relation to the outer edges. If the middle has been stretched too much, it can be re-worked by wheeling the edge of the piece. The principle is similar in effect to heat shrinking or Elkold type shrinking. Shrinking the edges prior to wheeling aids in the formation of the shape during the wheeling process and reduces the amount of shrinking and stretching needed for the final shape.

Proper edge treatment is also required for strength and rigidity in the finished piece. This is usually provided by flanging or wiring. The flange is so important to the finished piece that in some cases, it can be used alone without the necessity of shrinking and stretching the surface material.

Differences in Techniques:

Techniques for producing finished panels vary with the operator.

  1. Some prefer the use of a foot pedal for applying pressure smoothly while leaving the hands free to maneuver the material. The drawback of the foot pedal, however, is that it can get in the way of working with especially long materials, such as the design for the wings and fenders used on motorcycles and sports cars.
  2. At every step of the way, constant reference must be made as to the shape the operator is trying to make. This may involve the use of template paper, section templates using paper or thin metal, formers, profile gauges, station bucks, profile gauges or the original panel.
  3. Machines that rely on a quick release lever (allowing the operator to remove and insert the piece quickly without losing pressure) are time saving devices. This will allow the process to proceed smoothly without additional corrections.

Practice!

It takes a great deal of practice and patience to use a wheeling machine effectively, but the custom made craftsmanship of the finished design keeps wheeling operators in high demand. Because the size of each piece that can be worked with is limited, wheeled products are generally made in several pieces that are then welded together using tungsten inert gas welding or 0xy-acetylene.

Skilled Craftsmen:

English wheeling is the tool of skilled craftsmen, replacing the need for manual hammering and shaping. It is the desired tool for the making of prototypes for race cars, motorcycles and other specialized panels. Its versatility makes it an ideal asset for metal workers and its application is limited only by imagination.

Recommended Articles and English Wheel Products:

Here is a list of the best articles, videos, and guides on using an English Wheel:

Wheels and Anvils on Amazon:

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