If you do any amount of fabrication, whether it be creating a custom tank for a motorcycle, or shaping a repair panel for a car, you would be hard pressed to find a more versatile time saving piece of equipment than an english wheel.
The question is, which one fits your needs and gives the best bang for your buck?
There are a broad range of wheels available, each with it’s strengths and weaknesses. Pricing ranges from a few hundred dollars to a few thousand. That’s a pretty big range! Why? Size, die selection, frame quality, strength and throat size and features and yes, brand name is the why! Only you can decide which features are most important to you, and what is required now and in the future. You should give consideration to these things to help you make the best selection. Fortunately, no matter what wheel you start with, there is always someone wanting a used wheel should you decide to upgrade to a larger or better one down the road.
The first consideration should be to size. How large a piece of material do you need to be able to work. If you are only working small items and patch panels, you hardly need a wheel with a 4 or 5 foot throat capable of shaping a roof panel.
If you have an unusual shape that you need to work with a tall side, you may need to ensure there is vertical space within the ‘C’ of the wheel from the height of the anvil to allow this to pass.
Small wheels can be bench, or even vice mounted. Larger wheels, with 24″ and larger throats are often on floor stands. Space is required on each side of the wheel, do you have it available?
The larger the wheel, the more important the strength or the construction design becomes. The deeper the throat of the wheel, the more prone to flexing it becomes due to the leverage load being applied. Additionally, the heavier the gauge of the metal being formed, the more rigid the frame should be. While not a deal breaker, it bears consideration. Frames lighter that 1/4″ thickness will be more prone to flex, which will not stop you from working heavier gauge materials, but, they may work more slowly.
The other factor of a light weight frame material is that the upper arm of the ‘C’, will have a tendency to ‘walk’ as you move the material back and forth. It’s rather like having a bad wheel alignment in that you have the upper and lower wheels pointing slightly different direction. This makes the material track in slightly unexpected ways. Again, not a huge thing, but an effect none the less, primarily with higher tension on the material.
You will normally find a rating assigned to a wheel defining the size/thickness of material it is designed to handle. Often, you will find several gauges cited, each associated with a different material type such as steel, aluminium, and copper. Harder metals such as steel, require more pressure to form than softer metals such as aluminium. Therefore, the same wheel will be capable of applying adequate force to form a thicker piece of soft metal, that the harder, stronger material.
Next, you’ll need to consider the dies you require. Dies come with various curves, which pinch the worked metal against the large anvil wheel and impart the curve to the material. Obviously, if you only have one die, you will be restricted to the variations of curves you can create. If you truely only require a single arc, you can save some money on dies. But, in all likelyhood, you will require, or will be better served by having a ‘set’ of dies, each providing a different curvature. Not all wheels are created equal. When purchased, some include a single die, while other include sets of 6 or more dies. Naturally, dies cost money, and not all dies are created equal. Bottom end dies are often fairly course surface finish, and may even be bushinged, rather than bearing mounted. Bearings obviously allow for smooth easy working of the material. Specialty materials are sometimes used in top quality dies, but hardening is fairly standard and constributes to the longevity of the dies and their resistance to damage and nicks, which would then be passed along to the work material. Whether dies are included in the price, or must be purchased seperately will quickly impact your purchase price.
Getting the wheel to your door may be a big consideration. There are many equipment suppliers local, online and combinations. You may have one close to you. This can be worth considering, even at a higher price. Why? Consider the expenses involved in shipping, especially a larger wheel, hundreds or even thousands of miles. As discussed, your wheel may be of considerable size and weight, usually 125 to 250 lbs. One, two, or even three hundred dollars in shipping and handling charges is not unheard of. Get a quote BEFORE you place an online order.
Your local supplier has already dealt with getting the wheel in and any import considerations that may have been involved. Plus, when dealing locally, you have the opportunity to physically evaluate the product prior to purchase, ask questions, and perhaps even speak with other locals that are using the wheel. Finally, that local supplier may make life a lot easier when sourcing additional or replacement parts, let along a warranty claim, an unusual, but not unheard of situation.