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Ring-(gear)-ing in the new year

On the surface – just like the surface of Yates Mill Pond – winter seems like a calm, quiet time at Yates Mill. It’s anything but.

The waterwheel, ring gear and pinion gear

The ring gear where it connects to the pinion gear. Photo by Hunter Krauss

Yates Mill Associates closes the mill to tours during December, January and February for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s hard on the antique machinery of this old factory to run it during freezing weather. Also, these three months are a crucial time for us to make repairs to Yates Mill. You already read about our new roof. But minor repairs are underway every winter – year-round, for that matter.

Recently, we had to replace a piece of the ring gear – the ring of cast iron teeth that circle the waterwheel.

The ring gear connects to the pinion gear at the top of the waterwheel, and the pinion gear is connected to the mill’s main drive shaft. By connecting to the drive shaft with various additional gears, pulleys and belts, we power all the mill machinery.

If a tooth breaks on the ring gear, the entire operation has to shut down. That’s why the ring gear is built in segments of about 18 inches. It makes it easier to attach to the waterwheel, of course, but mainly it makes it easier to fix.

When a tooth broke on the ring gear this fall, head miller William Robbins simply removed the broken section and replaced it with another complete section of gear from the mill’s shop. That extra piece was made when the current waterwheel was built in 1993. Once it was in place, the wheel could operate normally.

Problem was, that was our last spare piece of ring gear. And just as you wouldn’t drive your car without a spare tire in the trunk, William doesn’t like to operate the waterwheel without a spare section of teeth for the ring ger.

This fall, when he headed to the annual conference of SPOOM – the Society for the Preservation of Old Mills – William made a side trip to see Emanuel King of Cattail Foundry in Gordonville, Penn.

Cattail Foundry is an Amish-run foundry that specializes in gray iron and aluminum castings. Unlike many large foundries that are reluctant to produce one-of-a-kind castings for the restoration and preservation industry, the folks at Cattail Foundry are not just willing to do this type of work, they do an excellent job at a very reasonable price.

Ring gear sections

The original section of ring gear at top, with two newly forged sections.

William provided Emanuel with a sample of the piece to be replicated as a pattern and a custom-made box to mail it back to us. In about 6-8 weeks, we had two spare pieces plus the repaired original.

Cattail Foundry has been the source for several important, one-of-a-kind cast iron parts at Yates Mill. You won’t find an email or website for them, but if you’d like to talk to them about custom iron work, drop us a line at info@yatesmill.org and we’ll give you their contact information.

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