• Kat Zimmermann

How I Restored an Antique Spinning Wheel: Part 1


An antique Saxony style spinning wheel, possibly made of oak. The wheel has recently been reassembled and polished. Most pieces are present. The drive band is missing and the footman has been replaced by a piece of yellow cotton yarn.

Spinning your own yarn is a pipe dream that I think many knitters and crocheters have at some point. At least, it's certainly one that I've had for quite a while. In the past, I've held off learning how to spin with a variety of reasons - it's too expensive to get started, I don't have the time, I have too many other projects, etc. But here's the thing: there is always a reason not to do something. I've decided it's time.


A few weeks ago, a close friend taught me the bare bones basics on a drop spindle. I struggled a bit with the drop spindle and also acknowledged my own incredible desire to own a spinning wheel, particularly a pretty one with lots of turned pieces that looks like it could come out of a fairy tale. I also know that the wheel can produce more fibers more quickly in the hands of a practiced spinner. So, naturally, I went hunting on the internet.


If you've never looked into purchasing a spinning wheel, they typically range anywhere from $400 - $1000 for a new one and most functional antiques, even those needing minor repairs, are often $300 or more. The price varies somewhat with type of wheel and construction (e.g. hand crafted is much higher cost than factory made), but those are the ballpark figures. For reference, a drop spindle runs about $20 or fewer.


Clearly, this was going to be a challenge. Lucky for me, I found a listing on Facebook marketplace for a little antique store that had recently opened about 30 minutes North of home: $170. Score!



A screenshot from Disney's Sleeping Beauty: the spinning wheel. The wheel is black and glowing green (the color of evil). The wheel is Saxony style but has no bobbin. The piece on which Aurora pricks her finger is the distaff, pointing upwards and holding some fibers, probably flax.

I rushed up the shop as soon as I had a free afternoon and she was still there, beautiful and labeled "Sleeping Beauty Spinning Wheel." This gave me a little chuckle as I'd spent the last 48 hours doing little besides researching types of spinning wheels and how to recognize a working wheel. The type of wheel shown in Sleeping Beauty is a Saxony wheel (the same type I purchased). The spindle is a generic name for the shaft which holds the bobbin, flyer, and whorl. The wheel shown in the movie is a modern spinning wheel, not a quill wheel (which does have a pointed spindle). The thing I find funny is that he part Aurora actually pricks her finger on is a distaff - the upright bit that holds the bunch of fiber - not the spindle. I'm confident in saying it's a distaff because you can actually see the (presumably) flax fibers hanging out on it. It makes sense it would be pointed, but it's still funny and now I (and you, dear reader) will never watch that scene the same way again.


Tangent aside, she was now mine!



 

Getting to Know my Wheel


Before we dive into the early stages of restoration, let's take a closer look at my new best friend:


A diagram of a Saxony style spinning wheel with labeled parts. The labeled parts include the treadle (a pedal worked by the foot), the legs, the bench (the box everything is connected to), the drive wheel, drive wheel spokes, drive wheel supports/arms (vertical pieces that hold the wheel up), the drive band tension adjustment screw (a wooden screw that sticks out of the left side of the bench), the mother of all (a wooden bar perpendicular to the wheel and parallel to the bench that sits across the bottom of the bench - the drive band tension screw holds it in place), the maidens (posts perpendicular to the mother of all that come out of the mother of all), and the maiden bearings (little leather bits sticking out of the center of the maidens).

A close-up overhead view of the spindle and its pieces. This is a vertical view from between the maidens. A metal piece called the spindle rotates freely in the leather maiden bearings. On the spindle are the flyer (a u-shaped piece of wood that has hooks along the sides of the u), the bobbin (think like a sewing bobbin but bigger, one side is notched where the drive band will turn it), and the whorl (a notched piece of wood that screws onto the spindle, holding the bobbin in place, the whorl is also turned by the drive band). The bobbin fits inside of the flyer's U. At the other end of the spindle is an opening called the orifice, where the fibers lead from the spinner's hands to the flyer's hooks and onto the bobbin.

One piece not shown is the metal wheel crank on the back of the wheel. You will see it in the photos below as a metal, curved piece that sticks out from one side of the wheel.


From these diagrams (mostly the second one, taken prior to the clean up), you can see a few important highlights for restoration:

  • The footman is missing - at some point, this piece broke and was replaced with a metal hanger. It did its job (turning the crank to spin the wheel when you push down on the treadle), but made a horrible sound.

  • The maiden bearings are leather - actually, one is leather with a tin can backing and a wooden shim - not great.

  • A few hooks are missing

  • The drive band needs to be replaced as it's very worn

  • Some pieces are chipped here and there, but still functional

  • Only one bobbin remains with the wheel - this is a problem as at least 3 are needed to make a 2-ply yarn easily.

A close-up of the bottom of the bench where one of the legs has been removed. The area around the leg's hole has a few splits in the wood. The rest of the bench shown has many scratches and shows its age with some darkening patterns.
  • General wear and tear shows the wheel's age - many cracks in the wood, some mystery holes where missing (non-essential) pieces would have been mounted to the bench. My current thinking is there was, at one point, a mounted distaff (much like that on Sleeping Beauty's wheel).

These are all things that need to be addressed before the wheel can be used to spin yarn once again. Side note: see the notches on the flyer arms? Those indicate that yarn has been spun on the wheel before, wearing the notches into the wood.



 

The Clean Up

Out of the gate, she was in pretty decent shape. Some minor repairs are needed, but first comes a good clean. Step 1 is disassembly.


All the parts of the spinning wheel, disassembled and sitting on a canvas cloth. The small bits are together in a white bowl and the wheel sits on top of a mixing bowl to hold its pin.

It's significantly easier to clean the parts individually, but disassembly also offers the opportunity to become more familiar with the wheel.


Importantly, if you are restoring your own wheel, remember to take A LOT of pictures before taking anything apart!


Tip: To remove the spindle from the flyer, I pulled off the small metal ring keeping the flyer together and then put a screwdriver through the orifice to provide leverage to get the flyer all the way off.


After she was in pieces on a plastic-lined canvas drop cloth, I set about cleaning. Note that for all of the cleanings, I used rags made of cotton scrap fabric. Whatever you use, be sure your rags won't leave any lint behind.


Round 1 was simply water and a good once over. Then, I added some Murphy's Oil Soap to my water so it was very diluted and gave all the pieces a second time over with the same set of rags. This round eliminated the dust and dirt from the wood pieces.


A closeup of the metal bracket on the flyer. It's very dirty and grimy. One part has been scrubbed to show its true, silvery color.



Round 2 was a closeup with pieces that were....let's say grimy. For this round, I used very fine sand paper, steel wool, and water. Pro tip: use gloves for this. Few parts needed a good scrub: the metal parts of the flyer, the wheel crank, and the flyer shaft AKA the spindle. The wheel did as well, as someone had spilled a few drops of paint on it at some point.






A close-up of the orifice end of the spindle. The spindle has been scrubbed and is mostly clean. Some dents and nicks are visible in the metal. A small straw brush is being used to scrub the inside of the orifice.






Tip for this step: a tiny straw brush worked wonders to get into the very small spaces like the orifice.








A close-up of the whorl after being cleaned. The metal screw shaft in the center is now visible and distinct in color from the rest of the wood.

Interestingly, the whorl actually took the most amount of scrubbing. When I picked up the whorl originally, it was black. I thought it might be a metal replacement piece, but it was far too light. After about an hour of scrubbing and two buckets of water, enough dirt came off to show the wood underneath! I recognize this may depreciate the antique value a little bit, but it cried out for a good clean and I wasn't about to leave it black when it deserved to be oak.



Finally, round 3: polishing. I used Howard Feed'N'Wax on all of the wooden pieces. Twice. After wiping off the excess, having left it to dry overnight, I used the last of my cloths to polish the pieces to a shine before reassembling the wheel using the photos I took earlier.


Ta-Da! She's bright, clean, and beautiful!


All parts of the spinning wheel, disassembled and sitting on a canvas cloth. All parts are now clean, waxed, and shiny.



 

Reassembly


A close-up of one of the wheel's spokes. This spoke looks different from the others and was likely made to replace a broken spoke at some point. The shape is not as clear and the wood grain is very different. The color is close but not quite the same as the other spokes.

Once all the pieces were clean, waxed, and polished, I put her back together. The reference photos I took at the beginning were very important here, especially for the legs. One of things I really like about this wheel is that there are very few nails - in fact, the only visible nails in the whole piece are in the maiden bearings and the diagonal wheel arm supports.


I also believe there are screws holding the spokes of the wheel and nails or similar holding the wheel pieces together. Otherwise, everything is held together by friction.


An antique Saxony style spinning wheel, possibly made of oak. The wheel has recently been reassembled and polished. Most pieces are present. The drive band is missing and the footman has been replaced by a piece of yellow cotton yarn.



This makes the wheel easy to take apart and reassemble, a crucial step for proper cleaning.


At this point, I used a piece of cotton cord to improvise a footman and another for a drive band and she's fully functional! Love and some new pieces are still needed, but she's in a state to spin again and I'm in a state to learn something new.





 

The Road To Come

She still needs some love. My plans for part 2 (some already completed - I will include details on how I did it):

  • Replace the cotton cord currently standing in for the footman with a proper wooden one

  • Replace the drive band (done - will include steps)

  • Replace the missing hooks on the flyer (done - will include steps)

  • Replace the leather maiden bearings with new (done - will include steps)

  • Find a wood turner to make additional bobbins

  • Oil all parts that move - this is on-going and needs to be done every time I sit down at the wheel

I'm very excited to begin this new hobby adventure - until next time, friends!

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