The English Wheel
Some insight into using this sheet metal forming tool
By Joe Escobar
Sheet metal work is often considered an art. Many of us can fabricate basic metal repairs, but it takes a true artisan to create some of the complex shapes necessary for some repairs. English wheels are one of the tools he or she uses to create these works of art. The following excerpt from Ron and Sue Fournier's book Sheet Metal Handbook discusses the use of this important sheet metal forming tool.
The manufacture of auto body parts in England was once called "panel beating," a highly skilled trade. The English wheel, or English raising and wheeling machine, was developed and perfected by "the panel beaters," those who were considered the masters of this specialized trade.
The recognition of the trade occurred circa 1900 when automotive parts were made by hammering or "beating" them out of flat sheet metal. Panel beaters would shape parts over shot or sand bags, hollowed-out wooden forms and steel stakes. This involved a great deal of hard work, because each body part had to be very smooth. As the industry developed, the trade became highly skilled, organized, and respected.
The panel beaters adopted the European craftsmen system of skilled masters training apprentices over a period of usually five years to learn the trade and become journeymen. Only after years of experience, and after proving his ability to produce excellent quality complicated panels, could a journeyman then be considered a master panel beater.
As the auto industry progressed, the panel beaters developed and perfected their methods. As cars grew larger and competition for quality increased, so did the need to form large panels free of hammer marks and other flaws. This is the reasoning behind the invention of the English wheel.
Design and function
The English wheel can shape steel and aluminum smoothly and easily by pushing metal back and forth using only the strength of one or two workers. No electric, pneumatic, or hydraulic power is used.
The design is simple, with few moving parts. The base takes the form of a large "C," and is usually made of cast iron or fabricated steel. It is very sturdy and rigid.
The parts used to do the shaping are fastened at the open end of the frame. A flat-faced hardened steel wheel is bolted on at the top of the "C." This wheel is usually 6 to 9 inches in diameter and 3 inches wide. It has an axle and two strong roller bearings for smooth rolling.
The lower wheels, called anvils, also have axles and roller bearings. The big difference between the anvils and the upper wheel is that the anvils are smaller in diameter than upper wheels, and they have a curved surface. The anvils are mounted in a strong steel yoke which is moved vertically by turning a large steel knob located at the bottom of the machine. This knob is attached to a large screw. The yoke sits on top of this screw and moves up and down with it. The yoke has a quick release mechanism to remove the metal from the machine and return to the same pressure setting easily.
Using the English wheel
An English wheel works best when you follow certain rules of operation. If you work by the rules, you'll get good results. If not, you will have problems. Remember, apprentices spent at least five years learning this trade. During much of those years they were learning how to use the English wheel.
First, you should remember that it takes several different wheelings to achieve a high-crowned curve in a metal panel. Start with a low-crowned anvil, and work up to more distinctly curved anvils as the shape progresses. If you start with an anvil with too much crown, you will mar the metal.
Always start out with a slight amount of pressure against the metal, just enough so the metal won't skip or slip through the wheels. Too much pressure will produce roller marks and mar the metal. The first few passes of the metal panel through the wheel will show if the pressure setting is correct. There should be some shaping, but definitely no marring.