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Wheels are characterized by:
There are saxony wheels, castle wheels, foldable wheels, Swiss wheels, etc. (see my Spinning Wheel Gallery)
Saxony wheels and all other wheels with horizontal construction can have the biggest drive wheels. This makes for impressive looks and high ratios (i. e. fast spinning).
Castle wheels and all other "vertical" wheels need a lot less space than a saxony and are more easily portable. But the smaller drive wheels generally have less inertia, which makes for harder treadling (and easier stopping - not a bad thing for a beginner!).
Foldable wheels may be useful if you want to travel with your wheel in public transport - but honestly, I'd recommend a handspindle for travelling. It's so much easier to carry! And you can even spin in the train, or while waiting for the bus...
Wheels can be classical-ornate like the Kromskis, or modern like the Louets or Schacht Matchless, or straightforward like the Henkys. Looks don't influence the wheel's spinning quality. But don't forget that you will be sitting in front of the wheel for some time. And unless you buy a foldable wheel which you put in a cupboard or under the bed when not in use, you'll probably look at the wheel even when you are not spinning on it. So, for heaven's sake, don't buy anything you don't like!
Big drive wheels generally have more inertia than small ones. That means that all other parameters (such as bearing quality, and wood weight) being equal, a big wheel will start and stop slower than a small wheel.
Now, high inertia is very good for long constant spinning - that's why "production wheel" is almost synonymous with "huge drive wheel" (27 inches and more). However, if you suddenly need to pick a piece of hay out of your wool, or if you have other trouble, it's very nice to have a wheel that you can stop quickly just by stopping treadling.
The treadles are the pedals. There are single-treadle and double-treadle wheels. It's a question of individual preference. There's people who prefer to work with both feet at the same time. Others don't like that a two-treadle wheel forces them into a certain position (after all, you need to put both feet on both treadles - and often the treadles are rather close together). There are some double-treadle wheels that can be used with one foot, but generally that's not comfortable.
As I am a right-foot amputee, I only bought single-treadle wheels, so I have no experience with double-treadles.
Orifice heigth does not matter. There's absolutely no need to have your hands in front of the orifice for spinning. They can be higher or lower, to the right or left - you can have the yarn enter the orifice at nearly right angles! Provided the orifice is a normal, round orifice, not something called a "delta-orifice" (as on some Majacraft wheels) which is open on one side.
As mentioned above, I can use only my left foot for treadling. Looking at saxony wheels I always thought they were meant to be treadled with the right foot, so the hands could be comfortably in front of the orifice. Therefore the first wheels I bought were the Kromski Mazurka (a castle wheel with the treadle right under the orifice) and the Henkys 'Das Bewährte' (another castle wheel where the treadle can be mounted to the right or left of the central column - naturally I got one with treadle left).
Then I had the chance to buy a Haldanes Lewis wheel (wonderful wheels, sadly out of production) which is a classic saxony with the treadle to the right of the orifice. And I learnt that it's perfectly possible to treadle it with the left foot and still spin comfortably - after all, the position of the hands in relation to the orifice DOES NOT MATTER.
In the same vein, I'm right-handed. But as generally both hands are active in spinning, I can either
It's a good idea to be able to vary your drafting - that helps to avoid RSI.
And as you can see, it's not necessary to shell out the extra money for a custom-made left-handed saxony wheel.
The prices for new wheels start at a few hundred dollars (or pounds) and go up to a few thousand dollars for custom-made wheels. Generally speaking, the new wheels on the market today are all useable wheels. There's no need to buy an expenive wheel for a first wheel - after all, you don't know yet whether you will really like spinning, and you don't really know what you need in a spinning wheel. On the other hand, if you have the money and you fall in love with, say, a Schacht Matchless (around USD 1000), there's no need to deprive yourself: Spinning wheels keep their value very well and can generally be sold for almost what you paid for them.
Only you can decide what you want and how much you want to spend. You will most probably learn to cope with whatever you are buying. However, if you have the chance, you really should try out as many wheels as possible before buying one.
Now, if that is not possible (I couldn't either), you will find a lot of information on the internet, for example in the Knitter's Review Forum (scroll down till you come to the spinning section - it's a very big forum!).
Page updated: 07 April 2007