Stepping into the workshop of Gladstone couple Greg and Ali Lang is like stepping back in time. Last month the couple celebrated 25 years at their Wheelwright Shop in Gladstone which specialises in traditional wooden wheel and carriage building. It all started in 1989, Ali said, when they left their respective jobs in Wellington to go house trucking in the South Island. The two fell in love with gypsy caravans they saw.
“We were quite interested in the craft and how they made them,” she said.
They left for England where her mother was originally from and where Greg’s brother was working near Somerset — just down the road there was a wheelwright. Greg applied for an adult training scheme set up to protect heritage rural skills — like thatching, coopering and wheelwrighting — and began training with the wheelwright. It took three years for him to earn his guild in heritage carriage building while Ali learned more about the painting involved, gold leading and the lining of the carriages.
Returning to New Zealand, they started their own wheelwright business in Levin in 1994. Having attended an event at Cobblestones they moved their business to Gladstone in 1997, taking over the old store which had recently closed.
“The hardest thing is us making a living out of a rural trade,” Greg said. “It was very hard at the start. It’s just grown ever since.” The couple started gaining more attention after attending Field Days.
From there they also branched into the film industry, building pieces for The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies, as well as Hercules, Xena and The Last Samurai. These days they are also busy carrying out restoration work, including the iconic Wellington cable car and tramway.
“The process to restore it was to strip it back to nothing,” Ali explained. “You have to save as much as you can.”
Having worked and studied in Wellington, the restoration of the iconic Wellington Cable Car “Grip Car No. 3” which is now in the Wellington Cable Car Museum, is one of her favourite pieces from the last 25 years.
“That was quite sentimental,” she said.
“When you have done so much work on it and it’s been here for so long, you do feel empty when they go.”
For Greg, the most memorable piece was Tram No. 17 from the Wellington Tramways Museum in Paraparaumu.
“The standout was the last tram we built because of the amount of work which went into it. Quite often you have to fabricate and remake stuff. That’s where a lot of the time goes into researching.”
Projects take thousands of hours, regularly years, to complete. Many of the pieces were one-offs and there was little information about how they were originally made.
“How things were in the old days, they took photos of the outside but not of the inside or how it worked.”
Uncovering the secret histories of the craft made for a fascinating trade, he said. Ali agreed adding, “the work is very varied, and we meet some fantastic people”.
The pair had been especially busy in recent weeks, especially as Greg prepares to take on his new role as Carterton’s mayor.
“Eventually we want to run courses in wheelwrighting,” he said, though it’s on the back burner for the next three years at least.
“It’s like riding a bike. You can read about it, but until you get on it and do it, you don’t have any idea at all.”
Article & Photography used with permission from the Wairarapa Times Age