English wheels have been around for over 100 years. They have been an indispensable tool in the best street rod shops for decades, and some recent innovations have brought the cost down low enough so that many home builders are joining the ranks of metal shaping enthusiasts. The Eastwood Company has a brand-new design for their bench top English wheel that incorporates a number of unique features. I was able to get one of the first machines available and put it through its paces—here's my report.
Perhaps the most unique feature of this machine is that it is shipped "knocked down". This means that the frame of the machine is made from elements that bolt together, which decreases the size of the packaging considerably; this makes the boxed tool much easier to ship than a fully assembled machine. This can yield considerable savings, depending on where you live and what shipping method is chosen! The box can be shipped by the standard delivery services; it does not have to be delivered by truck, which would add unnecessary expense.
Another unusual feature of the machine is that the wheels can be rotated, so they can be either parallel to the frame or perpendicular to it. The machine has a 20-inch throat, which means it can reach the center of a piece of metal 40 inches across. Occasionally you may need to wheel a panel with a dimension greater than that, and if you rotate the wheels 90 degrees, you can wheel a rectangular panel of unlimited width, but of course the depth limit remains. This feature is quite beneficial and can alleviate the size limitations that many bench-top machines have.
I had some concerns about how easy the machine would be to assemble, and the strength of the bolted joints. In reality, the assembly was a breeze, and the well-written, fully illustrated instruction booklet took all of the guesswork out of the process. I was impressed with the precise size and location for the boltholes; you can tell that this machine is built to close tolerances.
The alignment of the wheels is critical on any English wheel, and there is plenty of adjustment available, along with clear instructions on how to set the alignment with a straightedge. In less than an hour, I was ready to roll, and the nine bolts at each joint makes the frame quite rigid, indeed.
The machine comes standard with one lower (anvil) wheel, which has a 5-inch radius. There is a reasonably-priced set of four anvil wheels offered as an option, including 3-, 4-, 6-, and 8-inch radius wheels. I'd strongly recommend purchasing this option, since the 5-inch wheel that comes standard is fairly high-crown, and would not do the smoothest job of creating a low-crown panel. Eastwood is considering adding more wheels in the future, and an even lower-crown anvil wheel would be a welcomed option.
I've used dozens of English wheels over the years and each has its own personality. Some are massively heavy and difficult to move. Some are lightweight and flexible—which is a very poor characteristic for an English wheel. Eastwood has adopted the middle ground, building a machine that is reasonably easy to transport and handle, yet beefy enough to handle metals up to 18-gauge thickness. One of the most important features of any English wheel is the trueness of the wheels and the precision of the bearings. I inspected these carefully, and I was impressed with the quality of the components.
1. This is the brand-new bench top English wheel from The Eastwood Company. It is shipped disassembled to ease shipping and handling, and the assembly is quick and easy.
2. One of the most important adjustments for any English wheel is the alignment of the wheels. The instructions that come with the machine clearly walk you through this essential process.
3. For my first test of this machine, I decided to simply dome a piece of 19-gauge cold-rolled steel sheet.
4. Here I’m using a radius gauge to measure the doming of the panel. I stopped when I had reached a precise 12-inch radius curvature. I could have easily gone much deeper if desired.
5. By keeping a close, uniform tracking pattern, and by crossing my tracks frequently, I was able to develop an extremely smooth shape in just a few minutes.