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.
For my first test I decided to dome a piece of 19-gauge cold-rolled steel sheet. I cut a disc about 11 inches in diameter, and fitted the optional 8-inch radius anvil wheel. This is the sort of test that really gives me a good "feel" for how smoothly and quickly a machine does what it's designed to do. The metal rolled through the wheels effortlessly, and within a couple of minutes time, I had developed a smooth, consistent radius. When precision is required, I often use a radius template to measure the amount of doming I have developed. My goal was to dome the entire panel to a 12-inch radius, and it probably took about 6 minutes to get that much doming. The smoothness of the surface is controlled by several factors, including the uniformity of your pattern of tracks across the surface, and how close the curvature of the anvil wheel matches the shape you're trying to achieve. I kept my tracks around 1/4-inch apart, and that developed a very smooth finish, indeed. I also used the technique of "crossing" my tracks, or wheeling across the panel in several different directions.
The "domed disc" was a piece of cake, so I decided to try a more challenging project next; the side of a motorcycle gas tank. This is a favorite project of mine because it's a very curvaceous shape, with lots of changes in contour. While I could have done the shaping on the English wheel, I decided to rough out the shape by hand to speed the process. I cut a piece of 1/16-inch 3003 H-14 aluminum to size, annealed it, and roughed it into shape with a teardrop mallet and sandbag.
Once satisfied with the overall shape, I did some smoothing by working the metal against a flat wooden board with the mallet, and then I went straight to the wheel. I did as much smoothing as possible with the 8-inch radius anvil wheel, but had to change to the 5-inch wheel for the highly crowned edges. In just a few minutes I had created a beautiful panel, nearly smooth enough to be polished.
Next, I cut a blank of 1/16-inch-thick aluminum to make a hood scoop. This project was considerably more difficult than the first two, since it required a lot more doming, plus I planned to form a rolled edge on the front opening and a mounting flange around the base.
I annealed the panel, and used the mallet and bag to quickly develop the rough shape. When I was satisfied with the depth, I quickly took the worst bumps out of the panel by using the mallet, hammering against wood. With the panel partially smoothed, I went to the English wheel, which developed a glassy surface very quickly. With the panel smoothed out, I saw a few areas that needed more doming, and I did that very quickly by wheeling locally in those areas.
Satisfied with the depth, shape, and smoothness, I was ready to move onto the edge details. I decided to put a 3/4-inch flange on the base of the scoop. I used 3/4-inch masking tape to quickly lay out this width, without marring the finish of the metal. Next, I used an old metalman's trick to form the flange. I put a spacer under one side of the axle on the anvil wheel, which moved the wheel's contact patch from the center to the wheel's outer edge. Then, using very light pressure between the wheels, I rolled the panel carefully between the wheels, keeping the edge of the wheels aligned with the edge of the tape, and lifting the scoop body about 15 degrees with each pass. It wasn't long until the flange was at the proper angle, and a little hammering trued the flange to perfection.
The rolled edge on the front of the scoop was started in the same way, and brought up as far as possible on the wheel, then rolled around to 180 degrees with the mallet, supporting the scoop body with the sandbag. The photos show just how well this came out, and the whole scoop was finished in about an hour.
6. For the next test, I decided to make the side of a motorcycle gas tank from aluminum. The shape was roughed out with a mallet and sandbag, and then partially smoothed by working against a wooden board.
7. Here’s the start of the final smoothing. I’m using the optional 8-inch radius anvil wheel here, and I used a 5-inch radius wheel for some of the more tightly radiused areas.
8. After about 10 minutes of wheeling, the tank side is completely smoothed.
9. I decided to make a hood scoop next. I cut a piece of aluminum sheet to size, annealed it, and worked it with a mallet and sandbag to get the rough shape.
10. Here I’m smoothing the part in the English wheel, using the 8-inch radius anvil wheel.
11. I plan to put a 3/4-inch flange on the bottom edge of the scoop, and I’m using masking tape here to lay out the inner edge of the flange.
Ready for a bigger challenge, I decided to make a trough-shaped piece, longer than could be done with the wheels in the standard position, and to make it a reverse curve to make things even more interesting. A reverse curve is concave in one direction and convex in the other; it's generally considered the most difficult shape to create and control. If you've never tried to make a reverse curve, it's guaranteed to drive you crazy the first few times.
I rotated the wheels 90 degrees, and carefully re-aligned them with a straightedge. Next, I cut a piece of aluminum to size, and used a special technique to put the first curve in the panel, the one that crosses the panel in the shorter direction. For this procedure, the wheels are adjusted to have very light pressure, the metal is pushed in straight, but then as the metal is rolled back out, I move my hands down toward the floor. Starting at one edge, I worked across the entire panel in this manner. This is a fast, easy way to get the initial cupped shape in the panel in the short direction, but it leaves the panel completely flat from side to side.
To develop the curve along the length of the panel, I rotated the wheels back to the initial position, and with fairly strong pressure between the wheels, I stretched the edges of the metal. What makes this even more challenging is that you can't stretch only the edge—the entire panel needs to be worked evenly. The edge gets stretched the most, but all other portions of the panel get stretched progressively; the closer to the edge they are, the more stretching they get, and the closer to the center, the less. The process is difficult to explain with words alone, but once you start working the metal, you will gradually come to understand what's going on, and "get the hang of it".
This panel required many, many corrections, but after about an hour, I was able to get a very smooth panel with a graceful curve from front to back, retaining a precise 6-inch radius across the shorter dimension.
These tests proved to me that the new Eastwood machine is very capable indeed, and I believe it would make a good addition to the shop or garage of anyone who wants to get involved with metal shaping.
12. The English wheel can be used as an effective flanging tool by angling the lower wheel, bringing the contact patch out to the edge of the wheels. I’m using a 1/4-inch spacer here to lift the axle on one side.
13. I will give this panel a reverse-curved shape. The first step is to give the panel a little curl across the short dimension, by working across the panel, pulling the panel down toward the floor as it is withdrawn from the wheels.
14.Here’s the finished scoop. This whole project took about one hour from start to finish.
15. To create a rolled lip on the front of the scoop, a flange is formed, and then it is worked back to a "J" shape with a mallet. The sandbag is used to support the scoop for this operation.
16. The flange is formed by trapping the metal between the wheels, aligning the edge of the tape against the edge of the wheels, and slightly lifting the panel as it is repeatedly rolled between the wheels.
17. One of the clever features of this machine is the ability to mount the wheels either parallel to the frame or perpendicular. Here I’ve removed the top yoke and I’m preparing to reposition it for working a very wide panel.
18. In this shot, you can see the uniform curvature across the short dimension, but it’s still completely flat across the long dimension.
19. The procedure for curving the panel in the other direction is to stretch the edge more than the center. This is done by applying a special tracking pattern, so that the tracks are more numerous near the edges of the panel.
20. Here’s the completed reverse curve. Note that I maintained a precise 6-inch radius on the entire part, while giving it a gentle curve in the opposite direction. This is a more advanced technique, but with a good English wheel it’s a joy when you learn how.