Firms join up with BBC star to save piece of industrial history

East Coast Castings in Carbrooke are helping to get the Ranalah Wheel back into production.

East Coast Castings in Carbrooke are helping to get the Ranalah Wheel back into production. - Credit: Chris Isbill

It is a piece of history from Britain's manufacturing heyday.

Known as the Ranalah Wheel - or Spitfire Wheel - it was used to make curved metal panels for sports cars and aircraft like the Second World War fighter.

But the metalworking tool has since been replaced by more modern devices and is falling out of use.

Now, in an effort to preserve this piece of industrial heritage, two Norfolk companies have joined forces with Dominic Chinea - a star of the BBC restoration show The Repair Shop - to stop it from vanishing altogether.

The Ranalah English Wheel project aims to do this by bringing the machinery back into production and encouraging its use by engineering firms.

It has seen Chris Isbill and his East Coast Casting team in Carbrooke, and Michael Young of MJY Patterns, based in Lyng, recreate the original equipment for Mr Chinea.

Dominic Chinea with Chris Isbill next to the wheels.

Dominic Chinea with Chris Isbill next to the wheels. - Credit: Chris Isbill

Mr Chinea began the journey to reproduce the machinery after buying Ranalah Limited, the company which originally developed and manufactured the device but which had since become dormant.

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On his YouTube channel, he explained: "I'm going to remake them and make them available to as many people as I possibly can, and hope it encourages younger people to get into it."

"There's an 80 to 90 year gap between them [the creators] and me, we're doing a very similar thing.

Molten iron for the cast being poured into a pot.

Molten iron for the cast being poured into a pot. - Credit: Chris Isbill

"They invented it in the first place and would have gone through all of these steps we are going through now - going to a foundry, casting it, designing it, making a pattern, making all the wheels and the turn parts, working it all out."

Mr Isbill, director of family-run foundry business East Coast Casting, said his firm got involved with the project last May, after contacting Mr Chinea, and have since cast two Ranalahs.

He added: "It's a project going back many years, they used to produce all the panels for Spitfire aircraft and very old-fashioned cars, there's a lot of history.

The casting that East Coast Castings made, with the original wheel behind it.

The casting that East Coast Castings made, with the original wheel behind it. - Credit: Chris Isbill

"In time it sort of went dormant, like a lot of companies which fold and don't go on.

"Dominic has been looking into it and has actually bought the rights to produce the wheels again.

"It's a very specialist tool. It's a great achievement for Dominic to be bringing it back and for us as a local company to be involved, it's great for the Norfolk area.

"We've had a lot of reaction from across the world on social media."

Around 10 people are closely involved in the project and it has taken a huge effort to get to the stage they are currently at.

East Coast Casting have helped get the Ranalah Wheel back into production.

East Coast Casting have helped get the Ranalah Wheel back into production. - Credit: Chris Isbill

Mr Isbill said: "There's a hell of a lot involved to produce this item.

"It's a big cast to produce, there's 750 kilos of iron. We have to melt all that and make the mould.

"We had to produce the pattern first, so we got an original casting from Dominic, which was scanned and then a pattern maker took to hand to measure the original one, and produced a wooden pattern for us to use in the foundry, so we can mould sand around that and then produce the cast.

"It takes around a day's work to produce it.

"But now we have the pattern we can produce them, hundreds if we wanted to."

MJY was involved in the process of creating the pattern.

East Coast Casting have helped get the Ranalah Wheel back into production.

East Coast Casting have helped get the Ranalah Wheel back into production. - Credit: Chris Isbill

Their first Ranalah, which was cast on December 22, is around seven foot tall and four foot wide.

The plan is for the team to continue producing them and to educate and inspire the younger generation to get involved in the trade.

One of the machines is going to be used in a college and training school to teach people how to fold metal.

And Mr Chinea, who has highlighted the journey on his YouTube Channel, also has ideas to share the project with a wider audience.

Mr Isbill said: "He's planning to get one of the big casting machines on The Repair Shop."

He added: "I love getting involved in this sort of project and the history of it.

"We're an old-fashioned trade. There's not many foundries left in the UK and it's nice to get this sort of thing on social media to get people interested."

For more information about the project visit Mr Chinea's Youtube on youtube.com/c/DominicChineas/videos

What is a Ranalah Wheel?

The Ranalah wheel was used extensively as part of Britain's war effort, and was used to make curved panels for Spitfires and for motor cars.

Shaped like a closed C, the large machine is designed to work the most complex shapes by shaping sheet metals such as aluminium or steel between two wheels - the rolling wheel and anvil wheel.

There are also other companies that produce the machine, but the Ranalah is a specific make of the English wheel that was started in the 1930s by two coachbuilders, who made the equipment widely available across the world.

Some are still being used by custom car companies in the UK to shape metal.

Mr Chinea said it was hard to come by a Ranalah English wheel, but that he knows of around six people people that have them.