It’s old school at Newlin Grist Mill

The Newlin Grist Mill in Concord Township dates back to 1704. And even though it hasn’t operated commercially since 1941, things still tend to wear out. One of those things is the actual mill wheel that now needs to be replaced. But how to do that?

For Executive Director Tony Shahan the how was a no brainer. Go old school. Make a wheel for an 18th-century mill using 18th-century tools and techniques.

Gabe Christy demonstrates the old school method of cutting the rims for the wheel.

That’s just what Shahan and Gabe Christy started doing last September and will likely not be finished before next February or March. Fortunately, both men have backgrounds that suit the project. Shahan comes from a family of carpenters and he’s built mill wheels before. Christy has built boats.

Shahan said the first part of the project was to build the tools and the workbench. That’s also half the cost, about $20,000. Another $20,000 is for the white oak needed to make the wheel itself.

With everything built by hand, no power tools, it’s labor intensive. But neither man minds.

“This is a really cool project,” Shahan said. “And we’ve gotten a lot of public support. People enjoy being part of this and that helps with donations.”

The wheel, when finished, will be 15 feet 6 inches in diameter, Shahan said. It will be in two sections, each section made up of eight rims, the arc-shaped pieces that makeup sections of the wheel. Between the sections will be buckets — 56 buckets, seven per rim pair — to capture, hold, then spill the water. That’s what makes the wheel go around.

The fascination for the project is not just in the doing, according to Shahan, but in learning how craftsmen did such things before modern tools made work easier. He said it could be done faster with modern tools but there’s a learning process in doing it the old way.

One of the old procedures — as Shahan has seen in multiple old drawings — is for the person cutting the rims to stand on top of the piece of wood and saw through it vertically. A second person seems to be just standing there in those old images. What they learned is that the second man is there to blow away the sawdust so the person using the saw can see where he’s cutting.

“We get very straight cuts that way,” Shahan said.

And Christy said it’s easier than it looks. Bending at the hip and keeping his weight properly shifted puts no strain on his back and the weight of the saw — one of the other tools they had to make — does most of the work on the down stroke, actually more of a controlled drop than a stroke.

And ironically, the water will allow the wheel to last longer. Water seeping into the wood will help seal any cracks while swelling of the joints will make the wheel more rigid.

Located at 219 S. Cheyney Road, Newlin Grist Mill is open seven days a week and the grounds are free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to dusk. Guided tours of the mill are offered daily: 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday, and 10 a.m. to 1 and 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.


About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.



1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars (2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.