Free Range Technology, Startup

Startup: Coming Around Again

The business end of an English Wheel.

The English Wheel is a piece of technology that largely fell out of favour towards the latter half of the 20th century, largely due to the rise of alternate technologies. As manufacturing processes became more available, as a metalwork technique, it fell almost exclusively into the realm of the ultra-boutique artisan, fabricating very special one-off projects.

As the 21st century has begun, however, that has changed. The sudden rise in popularity of the chopper motorcycle, and the continued acceleration of the hot rod as a luxury item, have led to an increase in shops catering to this clientele. To that end, more and more fabricators have returned to the English Wheel for its unique abilities.

The concept is simple. Much like hammering a piece of metal over a curved frame, the English Wheel requires the user to roll a piece of sheet metal between two different-sized or different-shaped wheels, which are pressed together with varying levels of force. The differing wheel sizes, combined with the natural tension of the edges of the metal piece, cause the metal to curve as is thickness is changed slightly. A skilled craftsman can then pass the metal back and forth until he achieves the exact shape he wants, with a fairly astonishing level of precision.

The technology of these machines has changed very little since they were first invented in the late 18th or early 19th century, with the exception of improved bearings. Yet as the results have become popularized, their simplicity and precision has given them a new life. Today, skilled artisans with an English Wheel are absolutely instrumental in the construction of race cars, low-volume performance vehicles and prototypes, as well as recreation pieces for mechanical and architectural items long since lost to the sands of time. It is a simple technology, but it is one that has breathed a new life into even the highest-tech realms of today.