Business on a roll for skilled restorers

19:07, Mar 09 2014
The Wheelwright Shop
WHEEL BE WRIGHT: Greg and Ali Lang have run The Wheelwright Shop in Gladstone, Wairarapa since 1994.

The wheel of fortune keeps turning for a Wairarapa craftsman who has built a life, family and business around the humble rolling invention.

Gladstone wheelwright and carriage builder Greg Lang and wife Ali began making wooden wheels 20 years ago this September.

They had just returned from England where Lang learned the ancient trade on their big OE, Lang said.

"Fantastically, they've got a [government] scheme over there that funds people into rural trades, like coopering, thatchering . . .

"We saw how you could make a living from it in the UK and we thought, why not here?"

Lang, a mechanic, and Ali, who had worked in accounts, launched the new venture out of a desire to preserve the skills and values of a gentler era.


"Things were done properly; everything is made to look nice, and also be totally functional. What the craftsman did was always try to make the next job better than the last."

In 1994 the couple bought the old Gladstone store east of Carterton and converted it into The Wheelwright Shop.

Wheel-wrighting is their first love but the business is now centred on restoration and conservation of all forms of early wooden transport, Lang said.

"You have to say right, what else can we do with the gear we have got?"

Major commissions include three train carriages built around 1910 and Wellington's oldest surviving tram, No 17, from 1904. Each will involve some 4000 hours of labour, complete with original elements such as rimu woodwork and improvements such as hidden steel "roll cages".

The Langs are the only two full-time staff, supported by contractors including a fitter, a joiner, a part-time finisher and up to six local workers as needed, such as to make 30 wheels for The Hobbit recently.

As the business has evolved Lang has had to learn new skills, such as helping museum trusts launch conservation plans, apply for grants and fundraise so they can contract his highly specialised services - he is the only wheelwright in business in the North Island.

Another hurdle had been getting a process in place to mill and dry timber.

The "incredibly springy" ash tree has the only suitable timber for coach-building but an inch takes a year to dry - an important factor with, for example, a 14-inch wheel hub. "In the modern way of thinking, you've got to turn your stock over three or four times a year - but our stock model is the exact opposite," Lang said.

Business planning is similarly long-term, and income is reinvested into more and bigger tools, new covered work areas and more storage space for up to 30 different types of timber.

Field days and shows boost word-of-mouth, but the most crucial component of success was being true to the original vision: making great, old-style wheels.

"The next stage of our business is to go full circle and begin teaching wheel-wrighting courses.

"It's the hand skills that are important because once they're lost . . . "

Tours go for $12 a head for between 10 and 50 people, by appointment only, and another income stream is furniture repairs.

Cashflow can be "shocking" but the couple have made a living for 20 years, helped put quirky, wine-growing Gladstone on the map and put two daughters through school.

The couple say they have found that in business and in life "you can do anything if you make the sacrifices - especially at the start".