The Wheel is Turning: Applying Shaker Principals and Woodworking Mastery in a Practical Context

In 1975, Thos. Moser was a fledgling company with vision and energy but few customers. So when approached with a request to build a water wheel in Windham Maine, founder Tom Moser accepted the challenge. One might wonder what waterwheels have to do with building furniture. But the water wheel project is a perfect example of how an adventurous spirit, appreciation for craft and utility, and creative thinking have guided Moser since the very beginning.

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Opportunity Begets Invention

Building the water wheel offered two opportunities: first, it was a way to creatively apply exceptional woodworking knowledge and skills through an unexpected and challenging form. And second, the doctor who wanted to commission the water wheel had cash! After all, starting a business is not without risk. As Tom himself has said, “sometimes necessity is the mother of invention.”

Photo: Tom hard at work.

Careful COnsideration

The execution of the water wheel not only required an understanding of woodworking and joinery techniques, but also an understanding of the mercurial nature of wood itself. Every wood species has its own personality – a unique pattern of growth; a tendency to bend, split, or crack; how it reacts to air and sunlight. With the water wheel, as with every piece that Thos. Moser makes today, technical measures must be taken to accommodate for environmental factors.

Photo: the complex interplay of wooden gears.


Every Inch Counts

On average, wood can expand up to .009” for every one inch of width. This seemingly miniscule measurement may otherwise go unnoticed, but when working with moving parts such as the gears of a water wheel or the drawers of a Dr. White’s chest, extra measures must be taken to ensure seamless movement while allowing the wood to breath naturally.

Photo: the center axis of the main gear assembly.

Crafting a Plan

Tom and company designed an overshot oak water wheel (so named because the water rolls over the wheel from above), built around a 6-inch steel axle salvaged from a stone crusher. There was no real plan to work from. Tom remembers that he “tried everything to find a plan for a water wheel; what should the angle of the buckets be? How deep should the buckets be? There were so many variables. But there were no plans!” So with characteristic ingenuity and inventiveness, he and his team created their own blueprint. Not only did the wheel work as planned, it still works today, 43 years later!

Photo: the water wheel today, snowed in but ready for the Spring thaw.

Form Follows Function

Like everything crafted at Thos. Moser, the water wheel was built to perform a function, and to last for at least a lifetime of use. The design featured an inner gear assembly with through tenon joinery that utilized a removable wedge on the backside to hold the wheel’s replaceable teeth. Through tenons like these have been used by woodworkers for thousands of years to attach two pieces of wood that meet at a 90 degree angle.

Photo: the internal belt-driven custom gear assembly.