For 10 years I had a consulting contract with the National Park Service to help restore some of the historic workshops of Thomas Edison and the Wright Brothers. In 2005 we finished Wright Brothers' bicycle shop at 22 South Williams Street in Dayton Ohio. This is part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park. Just so you are not confused, the shop Henry Ford moved to Greenfield Village in Dearborn, MI was just around the corner and used by the Wrights a few years after this shop.

There are only two known photos of the Wrights at work in their bicycle shop. This is what the reconstruction was based on.

In the foreground of this photo of Wilbur Wright at his lathe a drill press can be seen. Also note the thing under and on the right end of the lathe, more on that later.

The Wrights built this drill press in the late 1890's and this being the only known photo of it, which does not show its drive mechanism, leaves some mystery of how did it work.

The W. F. & John Barnes Co. made a drill press with a friction disk drive giving variable speed. It is known the Wright's knew of this, they had a copy of Barnes's catalog and later bought one as I recall.

Based on all the evidence we had at the time I made a drawing of what the drill press most likely looked like. When the project received funding I was asked to build this. Now I do make my living building things but they are all miniature, this they needed full size.

I have read and studied quite a bit about both pattern and machine shop practices of this period. I had helped restore Edison's large machine shop and pattern shop in West Orange, NJ. years before. But I had never really done any of this type work before so I was sort of an "arm chair" machinist when it came to large parts.

So I started off making a set of casting patterns for the parts to be cast in iron just as the Wrights would have done. I glued up and turned the parts out of mahogany so they could be separated in half as needed.

All the parts had the proper degree of draft so they could be pulled from the sand molds. They were also made using a shrink rule to allow for the cast iron to shrink as it cooled.

The casting need to have cores in them which means there is a hole or hollow space cast into them. To do this you make a core box.

The foundry will make sand cores from these core boxes which will be held in the mold with plugs on each end. The core boxes were made in sections to compensate for the different diameters.

The patterns for the "arms" are mounted on match plates and aligned perfectly. This way when the sand mold is made and opened up to remove the patterns to place the cores, everything will line up perfectly.

Here are the completed patterns, from the photos it appears the Wrights used the same castings in multiple places. This would have been the standard practice of the day. It was a shame to have to paint the nice mahogany but since the sand is wet the foundry insists on it.

The underside of the base and table/drive disc are ribbed to use less iron and help them not distort while iron is cooling after casting.

The finished casting. Unfortunately the foundry wouldn't let me in to watch or photograph the casting process. It is extremely hot and dangerous.

The foundry did a wonderful job of casting these parts.

The cores were made so that I would only have to machine out a little bit of the bores from each end.

Since I build miniatures my machines are not large enough for this job so I worked at a friend's machine shop. This is a Bridgeport clone with a digital readout.

After clamping these parts perfectly square with the machine I bored out the holes with a boring head.

Cast iron has a scale, a thick crust of much harder iron on the surface that I didn't expect.

A special fixture had to be made to hold the shorter arms on the milling machine.

Here the fixture is in use.

The base was about 3 feet long and weighed a few hundred pounds.

A number of standard pipe fittings were used in a way we believe the Wrights would have done to save money. They were really quite frugal and often mentioned expenses in letters to their sister Katharine, who has never received the credit she is due for her help with all the brothers did.

This was about a 2 1/2" pipe tap and I had no idea of how much strength was needed to turn it while it cut threads into iron. Just the day before I was tapping holes with an 0-80 tap, that is about a 1/16". To a miniature maker like me that is a normal size. This tap was huge!

The pulleys were turned on a lathe. BTW, the decimal equivalents chart is a reproduction left over from the Edison shop restoration.

The pulleys even had the correct crowned shape to keep the belts tracking.

They were also bored to fit the bronze bearings.

Slots were cut to allow the arms to clamp down of the drill press post.

Hundreds of pounds of machined castings ready for assembly and paint.

The table/drive disc castings were about 22" in diameter and needed to be turned on a really big lathe.

A friend had access to just such a machine. Cast iron is turned at a very slow speed so this took well into the night.

Looking at the original photo the handle is forged.

I had a local blacksmith make one.

It had to have all the details we could see in the photos.

It was then finished smooth with files.

The parts were test fitted and then painted.

The assembly process was very rewarding, it was fun to see all these parts come together to match that drawing I had made a year before.

Even though this drill press would never be used or even turned on, I made it as if it would and the way we felt the Wrights would have made it. It has bronze bearings and brass sleeves at all the wear points. I did power it up to test it just to make sure it worked.

The drill press has a rather unusual mechanism to raise and lower the spindle. I also used period square head screws in most places.

The rubber drive wheel runs against the friction drive disk sending power to the spindle of the machine. By sliding the drive wheel up or down on the keyed shaft it adjusts the speed.

The big parts coming together.

The spindle arm mounted in place. From the photo, the end of the spindle was a 1/2" threaded shaft as drill chucks were made that way then. It is possible due to the frugal ways of the Wrights they also used this chuck in the the tail stock of the lathe which is why it is not in the period photo.

The top of the drill press finished.

The drive and belt shifting mechanism finished.

Ready to be packed in a truck and driven to Dayton, OH. The completed drill press weighs about 800 pounds.

In the beginning of this story I mentioned to take note of the thing under the lathe. The clue to what this is was found in a book from the period on how to set up a bicycle shop.

It matched quiet closely what was described in the book. It is a fixture to bend or straighten steel tubing for bicycle frames.

The reason it is mounted to the lathe has nothing to do with the operation of a lathe. The used lathe the Wrights had was much larger than the one on display. When you think about it there are no long parts on a bicycle that you would need 6 feet or so between centers. Their lathe was simply the heaviest thing they owned and the leverage needed to bend tubing wouldn't move it. The triangular wooden frame was used to hold tubing for brazing frames.

Here is Orville Wright and his friend Ed Sines at the bench. When recreating this shop we payed special attention to the tools, bicycle parts and frame vise in this photo.

Based on the photo and the book on setting up a shop, a plan was created to fit in the current space.

The same type and age tools were acquired and placed accordingly.

One interesting tool that was very specific to making or repairing bicycles of the period was a "Bicycle" tap and die set.

This was before the lock washer was invented and these taps had a slight taper, much less of a taper than a "blacksmiths" tap. You would fit the screw so it locked tight and would not rattle loose on the bumpy roads of the day. I should also add, this set is from my collection, the set I put in the museum was more worn and used.

Notice the thread sizes in the catalog above, 20, 22, 24, 26, 28 & 30 threads to the inch. Also included were right and left hand peddle taps.

So here was the shop set up in 2005. Even the frame vise was made to match the photo.

14 years later I was passing through Dayton and stopped to see how it all still looked. I was shocked that it looked in exactly the same condition as the day we finished it. I had expected some oxidation from age. But then it is in a museum with proper humidity and temperature control.

One thing they did change was they took off the long board that one stood on to operate the bending fixture and leaned it against the wall. It was a tripping hazard from the minute it was installed and I'm sure the Rangers and museum interpreters were glad to see it go.

Here I am standing admiring this project in Nov. of 2019. This is by far the largest, heaviest (about 800 pounds) single object I have ever built. Remember, I build MINIATURES! What on earth was I thinking when I agreed to do this? It was fun but I can assure you this will be the only full scale drill press I ever make.

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William R. Robertson | Kansas City, MO

"Details Matter"