HERITAGE TRADE: Kerry Riehl spreads his passion for making wheels to keep the skill alive.
HERITAGE TRADE: Kerry Riehl spreads his passion for making wheels to keep the skill alive. Beverley Lacey

Wheelwright workshops help keep family tradition alive

KERRY Riehl still remembers vividly the flames as his grandfather heated a steel-rimmed tyre ready to work it around the wooden wheel of the spring cart in which he drove milk to the factory.

Kerry, now 61, and still on the same Cambooya property the family has owned for 120 years, reckons he was probably only four at the time, but he remembers it as clearly as he is sitting talking to me.

It was that same spring cart which started Kerry on the road to wheelwrighting in 1988 when he couldn't find anyone else with the knowledge to fix the wheels.

A carpenter and joiner by trade, Kerry said he had always loved "mucking around with wood" but it took a lot of time and resources to learn this heritage trade.

"I wanted to gather as much information as possible, because even then those old fellows who knew the skills were dying out," Kerry said.

His research led him, among other places, to spend a week with Gosford's Mike Hendrikson, who has written books on the secrets of wheelwrighting, timber bending and tyres, and whose historic tools and machinery have since been sold to Victoria's living open-air museum Sovereign Hill, for more people to see them put to their original use.

"It is a hard thing to learn," Kerry admitted.

"There are a lot of things - little technical things - that you don't know until you put the wheel together and recognise something's not right; then you've got to know how to make it right.

"Even now, after 30 years, I'm still learning different things."


HERITAGE TRADE: Kerry Riehl shows the fine craftsmanship involved in creating a wheel.
HERITAGE TRADE: Kerry Riehl shows the fine craftsmanship involved in creating a wheel.

These days, as well as repairing and making wheels for customers throughout eastern Australia, Kerry also takes part in special event days at the Cobb+Co Museum and holds five-day workshops in which people make all the components and construct their own 12-spoke wheel.

The next workshop is on September 30, and Kerry said students' motivation varied from needing to fix a vehicle or wheel themselves to just wanting to be able to say "I've done it".

"It's still a great feeling of accomplishment building or fixing a wheel and knowing it's nice and tight and it's going to get used and I've done the job properly," Kerry said.

"I still enjoy that feeling of accomplishment."

Although he knows some of his students enjoy making wheels for decoration, for Kerry they have to be put to their proper use, not simply to beautify gardens or hang lights off - despite his wife's long-suffering requests.

That's something other wheelwrights respect, passing on tools to him in the knowledge they will be used, not stuck in the back room of a museum and forgotten.

His daughter, Katharina, helps him out on the job, having been around his work shed since she was about four, and at 25 now knowing the ins and outs of all the components and how to put them together.

Perhaps it's an image and a passion that will drive her, like her father, far into the future.

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