The coachbuilders and wheelwrights at Ballarat’s Sovereign Hill play a vital part in keeping one of Victoria’s leading tourist attractions rolling.

Photos Nathan Dyer 

Using a mix of old skills and new tools, the gold rush museum’s team of traditionally trained tradespeople build coaches from scratch, make wooden hub-and-spoke wheels and manufacture harnesses for Sovereign Hill’s team of Clydesdale working horses, often making their own tools for specific projects.  

Stepping into the workshop is like stepping back in time. Drive belts whirr overhead, a boiler creates steam to soften timber to bend, lengths of timber dry in roof-high racks and vintage hand tools cover nearly every bench. 

Manager of coachbuilding and wheelwrights Mick Dando says quality timber is the key to producing top-class wooden wheels. “It’s very difficult to source quality timber these days, but we get a lot of ours from Tamborine Mountain up in Queensland – ironbark and spotted gum, which are very, very durable timbers,” the former cabinetmaker, bricklayer and actor says. “And we go to great lengths to store our timber, because the best way to dry timber, even today, is to air-dry it. We have a 10-year turnaround for the timber we get in here and that ensures it’s dry before we use it.”

Along with maintaining Sovereign Hill’s own assets, the coachbuilders and wheelwrights manufacture and repair other hard-to-get wagon-era items for collectors and other museums across the country, from wooden-wheeled bicycles to World War I Howitzer cannons. Harness maker Greg Cassidy says it’s a unique workplace. “No-one is really doing much of this work anymore,” the former mechanic and sculptor says. “We’re all very lucky to have these jobs, because it’s an amazing place to work.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #117

Outback Magazine: February/March 2018