Antique spinning wheels can be much more than primitive country décor. For a handspinner, they make excellent options to buying a modern wheel. However, a lack of knowledge leads to overpriced wheels that lanquish in antique stores or on Ebay and Craigslist. Learning what to look for in an antique wheel results in fairly priced wheels that quickly find new homes with handspinners who return them to a useful life.
The first thing to consider is the style of the wheel and what it was used for. Handspinners wince or laugh when they see a great wheel listed as a “flax wheel” or a skein winder listed as a spinning wheel. They will groan when the price is so unaffordable as to be outlandish. Fortunately, the internet is a convenient source of information and a quick Google search can provide guidance for a seller or new handspinner in determining what a wheel actually is, the type of fiber spun on it, and a fair price range.
At a very high level, there are two basic wheel styles – the bench wheel and the upright wheel. Bench wheels include the great or walking wheel and the smaller Saxony, the style of which most people equate to the stereotypical spinning wheel. Upright or parlor wheels have their drive wheel above, below, or behind the flyer, instead of on opposite ends of a bench. These wheels, also called travelling wheels, were designed to take up less space and be more portable than the bench or great wheels.
Bench wheels come in varying styles other than the aforementioned Saxony, including the split or straight bench style of some Norwegian wheels or the so-called “slanty” wheel with its steeply pitched bench. These wheels typically are treadle driven. The great or walking wheel has no treadle; the spinner stands to spin the flat-rimmed drive wheel. These wheels spin fiber off of a spindle tip, as opposed to the flyer assembly on a treadle-driven wheel.
Great wheels are also known as “wool wheels,” as this was the principle fiber spun on this style. Treadle wheels with a very small orifice were typically used for spinning flax. The larger treadle wheels with cast iron tensioning and treadle were designed to be wool wheels, although any fiber can be spun on them.
Finding an antique wheel is not too difficult; finding one that spins can be a challenge. To a spinner, the most annoying Craigslist posting is the one that pictures a wheel, obviously missing key parts, yet boasting a caption that says, “It works!” When questioned, most sellers will innocently say they believe the wheel works because “…it goes around.” Unfortunately, there is much more to a workable spinning wheel.
No matter the style, the wheel’s price should be dictated primarily by the presence and condition of its original parts. These may be categorized as: the flyer assembly and mother-of-all (MOA), the drive wheel, and the overall body structure.
The flyer assembly and MOA sit at the opposite end of the bench from the drive wheel. This includes 1.) the tensioning screw or tilt tension mechanism, 2.) the MOA, 3.) the maidens (the uprights that support the flyer), and 4.) an assembly consisting of the flyer, bobbin, and whorl. These parts are among the most expensive to repair or replace, so a considerable percentage of the purchase price is centered here.
The wooden knob at the end of the bench is attached to a long wooden screw-turned shaft. This shaft screws through the center of the MOA mount. The screw should turn easily and move the mount forwards or backwards. This aids in tensioning the wheel’s driveband for spinning. Before turning the tensioning knob, inspect the bench top for a small peg that might be inserted alongside the tensioning screw. This is a retaining pin to prevent the tensioning screw from slipping; it should be tapped out from the bench’s underside to prevent splitting or stripping the wooden screw. A tensioning screw that is damaged or missing can be a fatal flaw, as it is nearly impossible to turn a new one with threads to match the MOA threading.
Wheels from the latter half of the 19th and early 20th century, particularly those manufactured in Canada, introduced “tilt tensioning.” Typically made of cast iron, but often as simple as a U-bolt or carriage bolt, a tilt tensioning system allowed the spinner to adjust the driveband tension by loosening or tightening a wing nut to tilt the MOA backwards or forwards.
The MOA itself should be sturdy, with no wobbles. The threaded base for the tensioning screw fits tightly into the MOA base; the MOA crossbar should fit snugly on the base. A MOA that is loose or falling apart will not support the flyer assembly for spinning. Cost to repair the MOA using existing pieces typically costs between $50 and $100, depending on the severity of the problem. Lathing new parts would add to this cost.
The maidens consist of wooden uprights with leather bearings that support the flyer assembly. Maidens should fit snugly in the MOA crossbar. The front maiden, the one that supports the flyer orifice, should turn relatively easily towards the spinner to allow for release of the flyer. Maidens that are very loose may be shimmed with a small piece of glove leather. Damaged or missing bearings are easily replaced with tooling leather or even a section of old belt. Cracks or chips should not interfere with spinning ability. Missing maidens can be replaced by a competent wood turner, but this will drive up the end cost of the wheel.
The flyer assembly, consisting of the flyer, bobbin, and whorl, accounts for possibly the largest percentage of your purchase price. The flyer is the “business end” of the spinning wheel; it is where the fiber is spun into yarn and it is what winds the finished yarn onto the bobbin. The whorl and bobbin may be chipped, but must be present for the assembly to be considered complete. A flyer that is obviously not the original will also decrease the wheel’s value.
A missing flyer assembly will cost upwards of $200 to replace. The metal flyer shaft is costly to replace, as it requires a craftsman with a metal lathe to turn a new one. A flyer that is missing an arm, shows evidence of an old mend, or has missing or rusted hooks is worth less than a flyer in pristine condition. If the metal shaft is present, the flyer and hooks can be replaced at less cost than having the whole assembly remade; typically, it should cost under $100 to replace just a broken flyer using its own metal shaft.
An existing but mended flyer should be evaluated carefully. The pressure of the drive band and momentum of spinning put a tremendous strain on the flyer. Spinners related stories of flyers losing an arm in mid-spin, creating a dangerous projectile that can travel fast enough to dent wallboard. A clumsily repaired flyer will need to be rebuilt to make it safe for spinning.
The bobbin is a wooden tube with end caps that fits over the flyer shaft. One end of the bobbin should be rounded, or have a plain wooden disc, that faces the wooden flyer. The top of the bobbin should have either a groove around the edge of the end disk, or a secondary disk on top. This holds the driveband in place around the bobbin.
The whorl is a single- or double-grooved wooden disk that typically screws onto the flyer shaft or, with some European wheels, has a friction fit. WARNING: be very careful when attempting to unscrew a whorl. They often are threaded in the opposite direction from modern threading and will not tolerate much pressure in unscrewing. A stubborn whorl will disintegrate into wood chips when forced. A few drops of WD40, given time to sink in, usually coaxes a stubborn whorl to unscrew. The whorl holds the second loop of the drive band in place on a double drive wheel. It should be relatively free of chips and cracks, and the center screw piece should not turn independently of the wood.
A great wheel has a spindle rather than a flyer assembly. The MOA and maidens support a long metal spindle, typically with a wooden whorl on its shaft and possible a wooden or leather disc to prevent fiber from winding on past a certain point. A more advanced set-up includes a large whorl known as a “minor’s head”; this is an accelerating device that mounts on the top of the MOA and acts as a second wheel to turn the spindle faster. Replacing the entire MOA, spindle and miner’s head can cost over $100, so evaluate carefully.
At the opposite end of the spinning wheel bench, the drive wheel represents another large percentage of the wheel’s price. The drive wheel should be true and turn without warp or wobble. It should have all its spokes. The axle crank should fit snugly through the center of the wheel hub and should not turn independently of the wheel. The hub should be free of cracks, as should the wheel rim. The wheel rim may have expansion joints and these might have small spaces in between each; these spaces are not fatal flaws, as they allow for the wood to expand and contract with heat or cold. However, should the joins be cracked, sprung, splintered, or glued, these could all affect its ability to spin smoothly. The drive wheel should also line up with the flyer’s whorl and bobbin.
The bench should be carefully inspected for flaws or old repairs. It should be structurally sound; a hairline fracture could indicate a potentially splitting problem. The legs should fit snugly; inspect them to see if they are pegged or nailed into place. A wooden peg may have been inserted by the maker, but a nail or worse, a screw, might indicate a leg that kept falling out.
Uprights should likewise fit snugly and should not be split or broken where the drive wheel is inserted. Metal, or sometimes bone, bearings should be present to support the wheel axle and prevent its wearing against the wood. A small hole in the rear of the upright may indicate a missing secondary support, although not all wheels carried these.
The bench should be inspected for holes and marks. Holes in the bench could indicate a missing distaff, reeling pin, or orifice hook. Maker’s marks were often stamped in the end grain of the bench or stenciled on top.
Pricing a wheel can be tricky, especially for those uninitiated in spinning wheels. A wheel that is broken or missing major parts should typically cost under $100, depending on the severity of damage. A wheel in spinning condition with all its working parts could run anywhere between $100 and $200, depending on the style, the maker, and the condition. A wheel with minimal damage but in “barn-fresh” condition will be worth less than one that has been cleaned and restored to a pristine finish. A wheel with its original pristine finish will be worth even more.
Generally, a buyer on the East Coast can find a nice wheel that requires minimal restoration in the $100 to $200 range, including great wheels. Common wheels that turn up priced in the thousands are unrealistic. Good references such as the books by Joan Cummer, Patricia Baines, or Pennington & Taylor will provide a more realistic view of what a wheel is worth, given its condition and availability. Some wheel styles are less common in other areas of the country and this could affect pricing, but not so steeply that the wheel becomes unaffordable.
A true “working” wheel needs to have much more than just a drive wheel that turns. It needs an undamaged, unwarped drive wheel that sits smoothly in its uprights. It requires a structurally sound body and legs. Most importantly, it requires a complete flyer assembly and tensioning system, or spindle in the case of a great wheel, with a minimum of cracks and flaws. A wheel needs to be evaluated based on missing or broken parts and the availability of having these remade. Should the cost of restoration exceed the asking price of the wheel, the wheel is not fairly valued and should be repriced accordingly.
Who are you and where have you been all my life?!?!?!!!!!!! This is one of THE most informative pieces I have found on ANY type of spinning wheel. The details are excellent. The only thing better would be zoomed in pictures of each individual part with an additional zoomed out picture to show where the part would be located on a fully assembled wheel. But that would take hours so I’m not going to push it. This is more than enough. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I wish I’d found this years ago when I bought my very first wheel for way too much. Live and learn, right 🙂
Do you have a photo to show the different parts you have listed in paragraph # 8?
Thanks for taking the time to post this article…you’ve supplied us with a lot of useful and important info for evaluating and purchasing antique wheels.
This was very helpful. I am looking at a great wheel online. The seller states that “age has caused the wheel to split slightly.” the seller has been told by “someone with knowledge” that it is in good working order. I am dubious, but would love to have a great wheel. I do know several people who may be able to help restore it. Would this be something to consider?
It depends on how badly the wheel is split, and where the split is. If is the hub, and the split is big enough to loosen one or more spokes, that could be a problem. If the split is on the rim, it could be mended, although it depends on where and how big. If you have a photo of the damage, it would be easier to assess. Great Wheels turn up for sale quite often along the East Coast and generally sell for $100 to $250 depending on condition. Anything more than $250 really wants to be in excellent shape. A missing mother-of-all, maidens, and spindle can be replaced relatively easily, but will cost upwards of $100 for the full assembly. Once I complete my articles picking apart saxony-style wheels, I am planning to do a similar series on great wheels. If you need more information before that, feel free to ask!
I am cleaning out the house of an elderly Norwegian woman with Alzheimer’s . She was a spinner and weaver, and used her wheel. I have no working knowledge of spinning wheels. Although your article was very informative, I still am having a difficult time coming up with an estate sale price. Can you help me? I could send you pics.
Very interesting article! I have an old spinning wheel which my son found in pieces in a paper bag at an auction. I’ve had it restored–with all the parts working. The only marks (for identifying the maker???) are on both ends of the bench in a regular pattern. There are notches at regular intervals across each end. A semi-circle is etched around each notch. Tiny shallow holes are in each simi- circl etching. Do these marks indicate where the wheel was made or who made it?
Hi! My wife and I for years were weavers and spinners. We have a “great wheel” we bought in the 1970’sin New Lebanon, NY which is adjacent to several Shaker communities. In fact, I attended Darrow School which occupies the Mt.Lebanon community..I’ve grown up around Shaker stuff. At first, we thought our wheel, which we have spun on, was Shaker, but it is not “signed” on the block anywhere, and I think the real thing was. At any rate, all the parts, as you describe in your wonderful article above, work, are there, are not split, and all parts are present and accounted for. The distaff that holds the “Mother” is tensioned by way of a slider on the block, and a wedge tapped in a slot underneath the block. My question is, do you have any suggestions on how to sell a wheel like this? We have moved on from spinning and weaving and would like to sell at a fair price to someone who might actually like to weave with this wheel. Your article is the best I coud find online! I’m just not sure a Craigslist post will get in touch with a willing enthusiast! Thanks in advance for any advice.
My eldery mother bought a spinning wheel in Germany about 1961 from a German antique store. It has ivory tops on all points and is a very rich, dark, reddish wood. Very little metal holds it together. Can you perhaps guide me as to where I could identify the spinning wheel and get some background information on it. It even still has material on it that is very course, definitely thick.
I’m a spinner, weaver, knitter, and am seeking a sound great wheel to add to my working knowledge of the art of spinning long draw. Every great wheel I’ve seen is missing the critical operational pieces. I would welcome any leads in my search for an operational wheel.
Cindy, you can contact me at my e-mail: woolmerchantsdaughter (at) yahoo[dot]com I would be glad to take a look at any information you can provide about the wheel, including the diameter of the drivewheel. A photo would help, too!
Eileen, are you a member of Ravelry.com? If not, you want to sign up there and look for the forums on Spindle Wheels and on Antique Spinning Wheels. These are excellent places to find a working great wheel. What part of the country are you in? Great wheels seem to be fairly common along the East Coast, particularly the Northeast, but are less available out west. This could cause a price shift. On the East Coast, you can generally find a nice great wheel for $100 to $200.
Great Wheels are often missing critical bits, but these bits can often be found separately. Over the past summer, I took in an auction haul of spinning wheels that included a box of great wheel mother-of-alls and minor’s heads. You will see parts like these turn up on EBay quite often. If you see a great wheel that really speaks to you, and is a good price, don’t let the lack of missing bits deter you! You can always find them around.
the most informative peice i’ve read to date barr none! thank you ! i am from barrie ontario canada and have a great wheel i think is in great condition but no longer fits with our new home. i am looking to sell and was searching info as well as a fair price. your article has been very helpful.
regards Liz simpson
Thanks for the suggestion. Please see my most recent post on “3 Really Bad Examples of Antique Spinning Wheels.” I took three actual ads for wheels being sold and critiqued them. This should give you an idea of what sellers put out there and will hopefully help educate spinners in what to look for.
Very informative-my husband and I collected spinning wheels during the 70’s. We have a collection of 20-30 diffenent wheels. Many of them have been restored. We are interested in selling them. I know that most of them work because I used to spin and I used them. Please contact me if you’re interested. I’m located in Connecticut.
Thanks for this very informative article! I’m getting ready to sell my grandmother’s flax wheel, which I’ve cherished for a lifetime, and your introduction will help me evaluate what kind of working condition it’s in. If you or anyone else would like to see photos, please let me know! Best wishes to all from Danielle in the Hudson Valley, NY.
Hi, Danielle! Would love to see photos! My email is: woolmerchantsdaughter (at) yahoo[dot]com Always glad to look at wheels. — Kat
Re: “Metal, or sometimes bone, bearings should be present to support the wheel axle and prevent its wearing against the wood.”
I’ve restored a great wheel/walking wheel with a Minor’s head and it needs a new bearing for the hub hole. I have three pieces of the original bearing and I’m not sure what the material is – maybe bone. One restorer suggested that I make a new bearing out of leather. Another restorer said he would drill out the hole and put in a metal bearing. Do you have any suggestions for replacing a hub bearing? Thank you.
My wife passed away about a year. I got her a wool walking wheels some decades ago. It was fully functional after I got off a coat of black paint and a coat of pink paint. After this, I got down to the real oak wheel–she liked it and used it for several demos before she contracted multiple cancers…it is an antique and is truly functional….WHAT IS IT’S VALUE??
Glen, sorry to hear of your wife’s passing but she had a good find in you to do all that work on the wheel! Walking wheels vary in worth depending on condition, type, and location. Typically, they run anywhere from $100 to $350, with value increasing the further west you go. They are fairly easy to find along the East Coast but get harder and harder to find the more westward you travel. If the wheel is in good working condition, it would probably fetch $225 to $325 from a spinner.
I have an antique walking wheel for sale that, I think, has all its parts. I live in Acton if anyone in the area is looking for a working wheel.
I have an antique spinning wheel and would like to know how much it is worth?
Hi, Jennie! Which Acton? There seem to be several! Feel free to share photos to: woolmerchantsdaughter (at) yahoo[dot]com — include any information about the wheel, including any maker’s marks, plus whatever your asking price is. I may be able to help you find a home!
Hi! If you can forward some photos to: woolmerchantsdaughter (at) yahoo[dot]com, I would be glad to take a look. The most important parts are the flyer on a saxony style wheel or a spindle on a walking wheel, and the wheel hub, so closeups of these areas are good. A photo of the overall wheel helps, too! Also include any information on the wheel, including any makers marks. I would be glad to provide whatever information I can!
We have inherited a beautiful spinning wheels that seems to have all it’s parts. Could you help me to identify it, and know how to work with it? Thanks.
Absolutely! We love photos and you can send shots of your wheel to: woolmerchantsdaughter (at) yahoo [dot] com. I look forward to seeing your wheel!
Hello! I have come into possession of an early spinning wheel. It’s missing parts of the distaff and flyer and bobbin. I have some experience with 17th and early 18th century furniture and this piece really seems to have that flavor. It’s all walnut.I don’t need to make money from it, but if it was early and worthy, and someone wanted it for restoration or parts, I would consider it. Mostly I would like to identify and date it.I can send you pictures.Thank you.
Thank you for putting up this very informative site! I had taken for granted that my great- great-aunt’s wool wheel from Nova Scotia came to me with all its parts intact … but now know to appreciate that fact. It’s also good to know that to get another wheel like it would not be as expensive as I’d feared.
Because of that wheel being in the house while I was growing up, it had always made perfect sense to me that a spindle would be a scary and dangerous object to Sleeping Beauty. How many 1970s kids could say that? Also, this wool wheel happens to be great for spinning dog hair (golden retriever).
“Holes in the bench could indicate a missing distaff, reeling pin, or orifice hook.” Can you please tell me what a reeling pin is/what it’s for and also the orifice hook? I’ve been googling for hours to figure out the antique wheel I got for Christmas but I can’t seem to find definitions for either of those things. I also have no orifice nor hooks on the flyer assembly, so I’m hoping one of the objects that should go into the hole in my table takes the place of those parts. Or is that what the extra notch atop the one wheel support is for (feeding my fiber through)? Thanks!
Agnes, sorry for the delay in responding! The reeling pin is a wooden pin about 6 inches long, usually with a knob at one end, that is inserted into a hole at the end of the bench and used to guide yarn that is being reeled off a bobbin. As you are probably aware, antique wheels typically have only one bobbin so need to be reeled off each time when full. The reeling pin added some tension and control over the thread being reeled. An orifice hook is typically a wire hook with a wooden handle that is used to catch the fibers and guide them in and out of the orifice as needed. Some modern day spinners have found that a mysterious extra hole in the bench provides a perfect spot for their orifice hook!