Working With Wood: The Skein Winder

My partner was finishing her course at the Art School's Textiles Department, and she said to me that one of the things she will miss is the skein winder. 'the what?' I asked. So she showed me. The one at the Art School was smooth running and adjustable, and otherwise looked like a precision machine for winding cobwebs onto a TV antenna. Great.

Back home I took stock of my tools. Hmmm not much precision technology here. So I cast around for a time in history when there would not have been too great a level of precision, but that still had use for mechanical devices.

After much sifting through museum catalogues and books of engravings I settled on the mid-Renaissance. Leonardo da Vinci had in fact designed a bobbin winder with the kind of drive mechanism I thought I could make. It had to be inexpensive and not require too great a level of precision. A spur and lantern gear train seemed ideal, so I set out to design a gear train with about a three-to-one ratio that looked suitable.

The timber was pine selected from my stash on the basis of its freedom from knots with axles from spruce doweling. I wanted a softwood that would be easy to work and inexpensive (in case it didn't work!)

Selecting suitable stock from some pine board I had lying around, I used a hole-saw to cut the spur wheel, and a smaller size for the two lantern sides. I figured on using dowels for the pins. The hole saw left a centered hole in the disks that was perfect for a doweling axle.

Raiding our daughter's maths set I quickly found out how inaccurate school protractors were, and set about trying to calculate the distance between the teeth. After much cursing and grinding of my own teeth I finally had a pattern drawn up that I could transfer to the gears.

My hand-drill stand was not a precision instrument, but I managed to drill with care a set of radial holes around the perimeter of the larger, spur wheel. I did the same for the two sides of the lantern, fitting the dowels and using the vice to gradually press the two halves together evenly.

The dowels in the spur wheel were hammered in - gently. Once this was done I threaded axles through both and ensured they would turn properly together. Then, lining them up along the two vertical supports I marked where to drill the axle holes.

Once assembled I found that the lantern axle was not of sufficient weight to carry the load of the cross arms, so it was back to the drill press for a careful enlargement. I also added some spacers to keep the gear teeth lined up accurately. These are doweled to the axles and left protruding to enable disassembly in the event that the teeth wear out.

The next problem was how to hold the cross arms onto the axle without slipping. And here I remembered a trick used in constructing milking stools - use a wedge. I made a cut into the end of the axle, lined up the cross arms, then gently hammered in a thin wedge... it hasn't slipped since then, and there have been many tens of kilometres of thread wound on the finished device.

The one thing I didn't count on was the endearing, slightly synchopated, beat as the gears mesh at speed.

As for the skeins - the support rods can be adjusted to wind half, one or one-and-a-half metres of thread on each turn. And at a three-to-one ratio one turn winds three metres on the medium setting. Ideal for professional-looking skeins ready for dyeing. But that is a whole other story...

Copyright Jerry Everard
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