Table Top Spinning wheel, French, c. 1790
Made in 1/12th & 1/6th scale by Wm. R. Robertson, 2001
This is the story of making a 1/12th and 1/6th-inch scale copies of an 18th Century ladies French tabletop spinning wheel for silk, which I made in 2001. I chronicled their creation with an aim and shoot camera, taking 35mm slides, hence the image quality is not always the best.
This account, as with the account of all miniature copies, begins with the original. Since the spinning wheel is from France, I hoped to see one with my own eyes—or anything else intriguing to make—during one of my visits to Paris, the City of Lights.
I’d been there many times before and was on a hunt for beautiful objects. Of course, seeing doesn’t always mean buying, as some of these antiques can be expensive. But the search for something wonderful, something that would make a perfect miniature, was exciting enough.
Back in 1997, I found myself roaming the streets of Paris for unique antiques and stopped into a little shop on Rue De L’Universite.
In this shop, I found a beautiful tiny spinning wheel with a rare Sèvres porcelain base, rosewood turnings and gold gilt metalwork.
It was beautiful and priced appropriately at 200,000 French francs! At the time, that added up to around $30,000.
I’d been thinking about these types of spinning wheels for some time and had even started a little picture file on them in case one day I decided to make one in miniature.
Why were these so small and who could have used them? These were for ladies of court and wannabes. They weren’t made for serious work in industry; they were made to play at spinning while chatting with friends. They were used during the time when Queen Marie Antoinette played at being a milkmaid at Versailles.
This engraving is from the Diderot Encyclopedia.
Years later while searching the Internet, I found this photo. It’s the best one I’ve ever seen of this type spinning wheel in use. It is of a mid-18th Century painting of Archduchess Marie Christine of Austria.
Here are some details about her.
Schloß Schönbrunn Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H.
Kultur- und Betriebsges.m.b.H.
On a later trip to Paris, I found more information on these wheels. It seems that Marie Antoinette most likely played with one while she was waiting to lose her head to the guillotine. Here is part of an exhibit in the Musée Carnavalet.
Who might have made this type of spinning wheel? In one of my favorite books, Bergeron's book “Manuel du Tourneur” written from 1792 to 1794, he shows this very wheel.
But how accurate are these wonderful engravings? They are quite accurate, here in the same book is a gentleman's lathe, and the real thing when it was sold at Christie’s in London in the 1980’s. The spinning wheel shown has eight spokes, of the more than a dozen of these I have seen they all have just six spokes, so that must just be an engraver's error.
Why would a fancy spinning wheel and a lathe be shown in the same book from the 18th Century? Bergeron had a shop, A La Flotte D'Angelterre, on the Rue de la Barillerie. It was number 15, across from the gates to the Palais de Justice—about right in the center of the map on the Isle de la Cité. That whole street was lined with tool shops selling tools to the trade, tools to the court workshops, and tools to ladies and gentlemen of the court. Hence Bergeron's shop catered to both men and women. He shows a few pages of ladies' sewing stands, etc. in his book. A list, dated 1817, prices everything in the book. I would love to have that lathe, but I am lucky enough to have some things mentioned in Bergeron’s book.
I found another spinning wheel the next day. On the last day of a month-long trip, I was at the famous flea market in Paris, which covers about 15 blocks. It has everything from very fancy shops to people selling items out of the backs of their cars in alleys.
It was in one of those cars I saw, and was able to buy, a nearly identical spinning wheel, sans the rare Sèvres porcelain base. Somehow it stayed undisturbed for 200 years. It still had the last work done on it from two centuries past, and had obviously been kept away from sunlight, as the velvet was as deep and bright as when new.
This was before the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when the airlines would let you take something like this on the plane and practically let you hold it on your lap. So, I purchased it and set off to bring it home.
I already knew about the spinning wheels because I had Bergeron’s book. This 1816 printing had much larger plates than the first edition. It also two volumes of text containing about 1,100 pages, all written in French. While Bergeron's book was in print for nearly 50 years, the English translation of the first volume is rare. It was first issued as a series of papers in the 1860s and later bound as book.
So, I had the real object, the book about making it from the period and a later translation of it. Since the drawing was in the French inch, pied du Roi, which is foot of the king, I even used 18th Century French scales graduated in that system to take my measurements.
The next step was to measure and document every detail and make drawings for each part.
Here’s the drawing for the spoke. In pencil, you can see the full-scale size; in red the 2-inch scale; and in black, the 1/12th scale. As I mentioned before, I was making this in two different scales at the same time.
This is a close up of turning the spokes with the drawing in the background. This way, I kept both in focus while I free-hand turned the brass with gravers. While I do scale parts out to a thousandth of an inch I let my eye be the final judge, most important is that the miniatures “look right”.
This rim was turned out of a larger piece of brass on a bigger lathe. This is the rim for the 2-inch, still not very big.
Next, I made a holding fixture and a set of 12 evenly spaced holes drilled around the perimeter.
Here is a close up. The drill is .012-inch flat or pivot drill used in the watch and jewelry trade. I remember drilling all these holes without breaking a single bit!
Here are the parts of the wheel (so far). I like to start this kind of project with the fun part, and in this case, that was the wheel. I used dentist root canal drills to taper the holes so there would be a place for solder when assembled.
The next problem I needed to solve was how to hold all the parts in place to solder them together and get the hub perfect in the middle. To do this, I made a holding fixture turned and milled from aluminum.
Then I used a resistance soldering machine to heat the parts for soldering. I had the probe (shown in the picture) wired to an electronic control unit. When I stepped on a foot switch, it sent power through the two electrodes causing anything between them to get red hot. That put the heat in the exact spot it’s needed. I used Stay-Brite solder, which melts at around 450 degrees.
After a trip to the ultrasonic cleaner, I put the wheel in a six-jaw bezel chuck. It’s a type of chuck made for jewelers to turn watch bezels where crystals are mounted. Then with a turning tool, I bore out the center so the wheel could turn perfectly true.
Next, I had to machine the little finials between the spokes. But first, I want to go back and visit how I do this on a lathe, and where I learned how to. One thing about miniatures is there are not pre-made cutting tools ground with the correct shapes to make these form parts. To create miniatures, I had to learn to be a toolmaker.
Today if you read a textbook about lathe work, it will tell you to use cutter No. XXX and put it in holder No. XXX, and then turn on the machine. But that kind of instruction doesn’t teach anyone how to make objects from scratch.
So, I went back to a time when machinist’s books told how and why a cutter cuts; what the chips coming away look like; and how to tell by studying them if the machine is cutting perfectly. From this, I learned how to grind cutters, etc. Here are some samples from some of the 19th Century books in my library.
Once the cutters were ground, I set up my Taig lathe with both front and back tool posts. This way I was able to bring two different tools to the work using with one setting.
These turnings were then held in a pin vise and had the sides sawed off with a jewelers’ saw, giving them a flattened look. They were then polished and soldered in place.
After the flywheels were finished, it was time for the other brass parts. They were made using typical miniature machining practices such as turning, threading, milling and filing. When finished, each part was polished.
Here is the water cup being turned. In this case, after roughing it out with tool bits, I used a graver to give it the hand-turned look of the original. You can see the original water cup laying on the headstock of the lathe.
Next, I turned and milled the flyer mount.
The mount for the flyer is being hand tapped. At 0-80, this was the largest thread on the project.
After the thumb screws were turned, the heads were sawed then filed to shape.
I admit, this was sort of an odd way to make a molding in brass. Instead of milling it, I used a drill press as an overarm router. I cut from both sides as it was a rather complex form. Since I did this work 19 years ago, I can’t remember the exact reason I did it this way. However, I do remember it took a lot of passes.
The long strips were then wrapped around a wood form and then gold-soldered together.
Now for the flyer—the part of the spinning wheel that does the work. From the mechanical standpoint, there are two slightly different size pulleys driven from the large flywheel, therefore they would go at different speeds. The flyer, or harp-shaped piece with the teeth, spins around the wood spool as it spins. The fibers are drawn through a hole in the end of the shaft, out the rectangular holes in the side, then through some eyelets and up the comb teeth. One reason this may seem strange is because most antique spinning wheels sold in shops have been messed with. They have parts missing. Many have items added to the spinning wheel by folks that have no idea what they were doing. I was lucky. My original was totally complete. In fact, the work done on it 200 years ago was still evident. Here you can see the original and the two scales of miniatures. Note the rectangular holes, the eyelets, etc. It’s all there.
Here’s a blow-up of the shaft. Again, this was the first time I used modern technology for my miniatures. I took photos of the parts and viewed them on a large screen where I could see errors not obvious when looking at the actual miniature part. For example, here the rectangular hole in the side of the shaft is crooked, so I straightened with a file before assembly.
The black wood pulley is the one that mounts to the tapered shaft. The taper holds it in place. The pear wood pulley is turned as part of the drum or reel in order to wind up the spun silk. The 2-inch scale is the one in pieces. The 1-inch is assembled.
The shaft of the original ran between two leather bushings morticed into the rosewood uprights. I know, we haven't gotten to them yet, but bear with me. These need to be about .010 inches thick and no leather is going to even begin to hold up being that thin. You can see these on the original.
I’m going to divert a moment to tell a story.
Many years ago, I attended an ornamental turning meeting. The gathering was for people who enjoy extremely complex turnings, the way they were done dating from the 15th to 19th centuries. A man, hearing I did small work, approached me. He handed me a disk of brown plastic about the size of a quarter. I thought nothing of it until he told me to hold it up to the light—and holy ****! There were thousands of perfectly drilled .006-inch holes in it (the thickness of normal human hair is .004 inches). And, these holes were spaced with an accuracy of .0002 of an inch! The man was the late Michael Garber. He made a very good living making these little discs for IBM for some kind of manufacturing they were doing. They sold for thousands of dollars each!
I had so many questions starting with, “How on earth do you drill holes that small?” Garber told me to stop by his shop someday, and he’d show me. Since I am no fool (at least I think I’m not) I traveled up to his shop in New York within a few weeks to learn about drilling holes. And boy, did I. But one of the millions of questions I had is what was this stuff he was drilling into? It turns out it was Vespel, a space-age plastic that holds up to something like plus or minus 400 C. It’s so strong you could put a .010-inch-thick piece between two pairs of pliers and not be able to twist and break it. It also costs more than gold, well not at 2020 prices. A piece of Vespel, the size of a little pencil, cost around $300 back then.
He gave me lots of scraps of Vespel along with a lot of little drill bits. When we talked about how to machine Vespel, he said a super sharp cutter was needed. If one is not used, the finish looks like the back side of leather with little spalling or texture. With my spinning wheel flyer bushing, I needed something that looked like leather, was strong as possible and could be to machined to shape. Vespel had it all.
I forgot to mention the steel shafts with the crank handles on them. They are turned and threaded. Even the crank handle is screwed in! The thread on the 1/12th-scale spinning wheel is .0.3 mm. In other words, really tiny. Since there is so little thread to hold this, the crank is then peened over, locking it in place. The original was done the same way. One might wonder—why go through all this trouble? The answer is simple. By threading and then peening it, the crank can't turn on the shaft. If you just peened it, in time it would loosen and not turn the wheel. Notice that the crank is curved, as just about all 18th Century cranks. Back then, machine builders believed that this curve somehow gave them more power in turning.
All the finished metal parts.
I believe the next step involved adding a gold wash to the spinning wheel parts. I found an old master to do this for me. After attaching the parts to a sprue (holder) he could work his magic. He said what he did was not the original mercury gilding but sort of close. The old-style mercury or fire gilt is just not done anymore due to being very toxic.
The next step will be making the wood parts. In Bergeron's book, he describes the different woods, and in color no less. This book was printed in 1816 and each plate is hand-painted! He describes using palisander, which is rosewood, for the turned parts.
One of my favorite wood supply shops is J. George, located just outside Paris. I’d been told the business had been in the family for nearly 200 years.
George’s is a place that I often visited years ago. Not only would I search cities like Paris for wonderful objects to copy in miniature, I would also search for older shops that sold the original raw materials. Doing business was a step back to a different time, it really helped to have someone in the trade locally to take you there. After an hour or so of conversation, we finally got into the back room where choice pieces of woods, some 100s of years old with magnificent grain were located.
The palisander was sawed into square turning blanks.
I turn them round so they fit in a collet.
As I turned the parts to shape using the originals as a guide, I found it amazing the difference in the quality of the work when you have the original part you are copying in front of you. No number of drawings and photos can equal that. In this case, I also had Bergeron's book open to a plate on the proportions of turnings. It’s obvious when looking at a turned object, say a vase, that looks "right" versus one that just looks odd or not refined. It is books like Plumier's (1701) and Bergeron's (1792) that have taught the Western world what shapes and proportions objects are supposed to have. So not only do I have the original turning in front of me, I have a book that the man that made the original may have learned from.
This is the bottom of the flyer support. notice the center section is square, to do that I will lock the lathe spindle, indexing 90 degrees for each side, and use a filing rest to file flats on the work.
Here is the complete set of turnings.
As you have seen I’ve have made all the wood and metal parts, now it is time for the base and assembly. The base is cut out of Swiss pear wood.
The next problem to overcome—finding scale velvet. Fabric is almost always out of scale. I tried taking some very fine modern velvets and shaving them to give them a more-to-scale nap with my shaver, but it didn't look right. But first, a story.
One of the many things I’d done over my life was work as a contractor, helping the National Park Service to restore historic workshops—both Thomas Edison’s and the Wright Brothers. During the time I was working on the Wright Brothers workshop in Dayton, Ohio, one of the team’s tasks was to buy artifacts to furnish the Hoover Block, a group of buildings next door to the Wrights’ Williams Street bicycle shop. A group of us gathered at the huge flea market in Springfield, Ohio. At breakfast, we were going over our briefing books (that contain all the information on each item needed for the Hoover Block) and shopping lists. I asked the team to please keep their eyes open for old, fine velvet. Someone said that in Ohio, finding that should be no problem. He said all I needed was an old, torn-up crazy quilt, as they were the rage 100 years ago. They were often made with scraps of fabric from a generation or two earlier.
The first dealer I visited had a bag of assembled squares for sale. They were crazy quilt squares mounted on early 1920’s newspaper. The seamstress, name Mable as she had written her name on the backs, had never this sewn quilt together. In a sense I struck gold, well really green. I found six squares with pieces of perfect velvet, not only in the texture and fineness, but even the perfect green color!
I covered the base in this fabric and inlaid a brass nameplate at the bottom.
The assembly begins…
Here are the sub-assemblies for the 1/12th-scale version.
Now, the moment we have all waited for, the spinning wheel is finished!
The last detail was the case to carry my pair in. They’re dovetailed in a swiss pear wood case, lined in ultra-suede and a custom-made magnifier.
I hope you have enjoyed the detailed story of The Tale of Two Spinning Wheels.