A Flax Wheel

Dave Richards

SE Minnesota
Well, here's another work in progress. This is for a new plan for an old-fashioned spinning wheel. I'm working from information I found from 1963 which turns out to be full of errors so it's slow going. Not sure I've ever done as many "turned" pieces in a single project as in this one. A few parts left at this stage. Waiting for info from an experienced spinner who has a similar wheel.
Hey Dave,

I have ~4~ of those in my living room (depending on how you count.. one is in need of much work, one isn't actually a flax wheel by a CPW, one is just weird, and the remaining one doesn't actually have a distaff). That doesn't count the other ~half dozen~ (who's counting.. I don't.. gets me in trouble because hey.. we're not counting hand planes either now are we :D) scattered around the house.

If you need pictures of anything or dimensions on any of the wheels I have let me know.
Hey Ryan. No. We don't count hand planes or, in this house, bikes, apparently. :D

I do have a question you might be able to answer. I've modeled the "mother of all" as per the old article but I'm thinking it must be wrong. In order to get the flyer, bobbin, and the two sheaves to fit and get the sheaves close to lined up with the wheel, I ended up shortening the bobbin so the winding part is less than 3 in. long and I had to cut a good 3/4 in. off the horns of the flyer. The bobbin is supposed to be 4-3/8 long plus the mushroomed head. I also had to extend the leathers that assembly fits on so the assembly is quite a way out in front of the maidens. Could you give me some rough ideas about dimensions on the mother of all? I think I need to move the maiden next to the sheaves over a bit and add even more on the orifice side so I can stretch the bobbin and flyer back out and slide things back away from the wheel a bit.

So our flax wheel is a New Zealand repro from the early/mid 70's. It doesn't have leathers, but uses a set of brass bars to emulate them (they were imho poorly designed and rattled horribly when I got it.. but that's another story). I think the proportions on it are likely fairly close to what you want though.

The ruler is a 6" with 1" between the large graduations. Its the clearest one I have for pictures :)




One of our other wheels that has actual leathers is the CPW (Canadian Production), this is a pretty traditional leather design so I took some shots of it to try to show how the proportions on that part work better. Note that the side by the orifice is a significantly different design than the leathers at the tail end which are just a loop. This was a pattern also used by a lot of the little flax wheels. Not all of them have as tight of a leather on the loop some are a smidge looser, this is just how I made these when I replaced them on this wheel. It's very close to the other few dozen wheels of this design I've seen though and from what I've seen the tighter leather spins better so I believe historically it would have been more like this rather than the loose ones. Sorry about the not-so-great pictures here, this one is in the back behind a whole stack of other stuff and I was trying to avoid pulling it out.



If you need detailed measurements or detailed pics on any of the part here that weren't decipherable from the above let me know.
Thanks Ryan. That's a big help. I think I'll make the Mother of all a little bit wide and extend the bobbin about 3/4 in. I should be able to get the assembly shifted back closer to the maidens then. Of course I'll have to redo the drive cord but that's fairly trivial.

So do I take that you use the wheels to make real yarn?
I've used a couple of the wheels a little, I'm somewhat better with drop spindles though. LOML has done quite a lot of spinning and is the primary maker/consumer of the stuff :) Mostly my role is to learn enough about how it all works to repair the broken pieces and make various bits of tooling (usually tooling I've never seen, have no idea how it works, and only have a vague functional description of..) which is often kind of a fun challenge.
For strict accuracy you might also note that there is a size difference between the whorl (outside sheave) and the sheave on the bobbin. The bobbin sheave is somewhat smaller (moreso on the CPW than the flax) which sets the ratio of "uptake", basically the outer sheave drives the flyer and the bobbin spins freely on the flyer shaft but is also driven by the band. This delta creates some uptake tension because the bobbin is trying to spin a smidge faster than the flyer, the ability for it to actually pull on is adjusted somewhat by the tension of the drive band (which is why the MOA has a front-back adjustment) which is left just loose enough that it can kind of slip a little. On the flax wheel the flyer had three ratios and the bobbin has one with respective ratios of 40:48, 40:54 and 40:62 (NZ so metric..). If they're the same size there isn't the uptake pull and the yarn never gets pulled onto the bobbin.
Thanks for that last picture. I've downloaded them and will go through the dimensions on my model to sort that stuff out after I finish designing a motor/wheel module for our First Robotics team. Then back to the antique stuff. I still have that clock to work on as well as a console table and a stave-built elliptical box like a Norwegian tine.

So you're on a need to know basis, too? Just enough info to get by.

I watched a couple of videos showing the operation of this type of wheel and am amazed that they can get anything like consistent yarn out of it. One of the spinners also demonstrated a walking wheel. I'd have a hard enough time sitting there pumping with my foot and coordinating that with my hands. Walking back and forth at the same time would be too much. Makes me think of the time I had to pump the gear down on a Cessna 172RG while practicing an engine out landing approach. :D
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For strict accuracy you might also note that there is a size difference between the whorl (outside sheave) and the sheave on the bobbin. The bobbin sheave is somewhat smaller...

I did catch that they are different diameters and modeled them according to the dimensions given but the one with the larger diameter in the groove is labeled as the Flyer Sheave. I wonder if the labels are reversed.
I did catch that they are different diameters and modeled them according to the dimensions given but the one with the larger diameter in the groove is labeled as the Flyer Sheave. I wonder if the labels are reversed.

No that's correct - the flyer sheave is the one on the outside. Basically the bobbin is trapped between the flyer sheave and the front of the flyer. Usually the flyer sheave has an insert nut with a left handed thread so it doesn't unscrew itself while spinning. The bobbin, having a smaller sheave, has a higher gear ratio and thus wants to spin faster and pull the yarn onto itself. How quickly it does that is a combination of the ratio + the tension (which allows slippage).

On some more modern wheels the flyer sheave is press fit or otherwise attached so its easier to take on/off. On the older wheels I don't believe it was ever (or at least rarely) taken off and you'd instead spool the yarn off onto secondary bobbins and then either ply it or .. whatever.. from those.

I can actually spin something pretty close to thread on a drop spindle I've made out of some kindling with my pocket knife :) The wheels are both trickier and easier in some ways, it certainly requires less focus once you get the hang of it and is arguably faster. The old walking wheels (spindle wheels) can actually spin finer and harder spun thread "easier" (for some value of easier). To get the same amount of twist into a yarn on a flyer wheel you pretty much have to put the yarn through twice (essentially re-spinning it). The wheel to whorl ratio largely defines the twist, the little flax wheel is a 16" wheel, the CPW is a 30" wheel the bobbin to flyer ratio on the CPW is 25:40 (so it has a smaller flyer sheave as well) - that wheel is HARD to spin on, only really makes super fine yarn and does so very very quickly (hence the "production wheel") - that wheel is from the 1860's.

I've never spun flax but understand it to be quite a bit more difficult than wool or alpaca.

Sometimes I'm lucky enough to have enough information to get by :) A good chunk of the time neither of us have actually seen the thing we're trying to reproduce, or she only saw it in a class (grumble failure to take good notes and pictures grumble :D ) and is trying to describe it to me.

(looks up Norwegian tine) - interesting some of those look a lot like a shaker box. The robotics team sounds like fun, several of my coworkers have been heavily involved in the local ones but I've never really had the time.
Thanks Ryan. And sorry for the delay in responding.

FWIW, I've modeled another wheel.

And the business end.

These seem like interesting projects for someone looking for a different sort of lathe project. If the lathe could handle it, you could even finish up the wheel on the lathe.
Cute little castle wheel! We had one just about like it with lots of old painted details. Unfortunately it was in really rough shape so I decided to recycle it through the local antique shop instead of trying to fix it (the uprights were mostly shot where the wheel shaft went through and that wasn't the worst problem plus we have quite a few already so.. heh..).

Interesting design on the distaff, I see you have the support piece on the mother of all, that would be on the long side for one attached to the wheel but with flax that can be good.

On the MOA, the rear side usually has a rectangular sliding block that the flyer mounts to that goes all the way through the post. The block is threaded on the top so a wood screw that comes through the top can pull it up to tension the drive band. I have seen a couple where the was only inset on the inside, but that's less common.

Actually making a wheel from scratch has been a to-do for a while, there are a couple designs I'd like to try. There are a couple pretty good books on wheel making that take a lot of the mystery out, and having a spinner in the house to clarify details helps as well.
Ryan, on the plans for this one the tension block (left of the sheaves in the close up view) has a threaded hole in it and the very top of that post is actually the tension knob. I have yet to thread it so I'm not showing it exploded. ;) It isn't clear in the plans--the distaff is only shown leaning similar to the way i have it in my image. I think it goes into the hole in the "wool bar" as it is called in the plan. That wool bar is free to spin on the bottom of the maiden.

It would be cool to see your build along thread.
Yep, that's basically the same design although not having the tension block go all the way through is slightly unusual. I think that's because a through mortise is easier there than a blind mortise.

I'm wondering if that distaff was meant to be used leaning against a chair instead of being actually attached to the wheel? There are quite a few imaginative interpretations of how spinning wheels work that sometimes don't match reality very closely. You would almost never use a distaff with wool (some prepared top perhaps..) but pretty much have to when spinning linen, the linen will stick to itself due to moisture in your hands otherwise. So the author using the term "wool bar", which isn't standard modern nomenclature anyway, makes me mildly suspicious.

For those of you wondering what the heck we're talking about on the tensioning system, here are a couple of pictures of a modern when that uses a similar design showing how the threaded rod (historically wood but metal and delrin here) lifts the side of the moving parts to tension the drive band.


I'm not sure where these plans I was working from originate. There are some other odd naming things. In my mind this wheel has only one maiden but it is called maidens. The MoA is called the Main Holder. I did write incorrectly. The distaff is called the Wool Bar and the piece it is leaning against is called the Wool Carrier. The spokes of the wheel are called Toggles and the crank is called Excenter. I expect the person who did the plans isn't a native English speaker and probably also not someone who is into spinning. Probably took an existing unit for measuring and made the plans from it.

I understand the reasoning for the through mortise but at least until I draw threads on the tension knob, I'll leave it like it is so the lack of threads doesn't show. :D
I had to ask the boss on this one :D. So the large rear upright is actually considered the mother of all on these wheels, and there is as you note only one maiden at the front. The cross piece underneath is considered part of the mother of all as well.

The genesis of some of these things is pretty interesting. I'm really not sure why a lot of the parts are called what they are either (and the boss just mumbled something about no idea either hah).
Interesting. I'm glad you have an expert to ask. The plans refer to the posts on either side of the wheel as pillars. :rolleyes:

Would she know what makes this a castle wheel?
She said that "castle wheels have the flyer above the wheel", although there is a lot of variance on that concept..

One of the better technical books on relative dimensions and usages is "alden amos, big book of handspinning" - he had a rather wry sense of humor though so you have to read it with a bit of an eye towards when he was tongue in cheek.


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