The Indian book charkha is a wonderful spinning tool with an interesting history. When you open the box for the first time, however, there are many mystifying bits and no assembly instructions. I hope this article will help you put yours together and get it properly tuned up for easy spinning.
Note: This is not a tutorial on how to spin yarn on a charkha. If you need help with that, I've written another how-to article on charkha spinning techniques. Check the list at top left, "How-to articles".
What's inside the box?
Opening up the charkha is quite a surprise! You'll find lots of odd little gizmos whose purpose isn't immediately apparent. Here's a photo of mine and what each piece is for:
- Wooden block for handle
- Tensioning eye for skeinwinder (flips up vertically)
- "Mousetrap" spindle bearing assembly
- Arms for the skeinwinder
- Center block for skeinwinder
- Metal handle used for turning the drivewheels
- Small drivewheel which turns the spindle directly
- Large drivewheel where handle is mounted
- Wooden handle to hold the charkha steady while you work
- Driveband* (Oops, forgot to include it in the photo!)
*Driveband materials: I've only experimented a little with different driveband materials but so far the best has been medium weight cotton string with a tiny knot, rubbed with some beeswax to make it slightly grippy. No matter what you end up using, try to keep the knots as small as possible.
Parts of the "mousetrap" spindle bearing assembly
(Please note that I made up most of these names...)
- Wing nut sliding tensioner
- Spindle channel
- Support arm
**Bearing materials: My charkha came with grubby and frayed string bearings. I replaced them to help the charkha spin more smoothly. You can use waxed string, waxed thin round shoelaces, or oiled leather cord. I personally use traditional dried corn husks. (I dried a couple of leaves off the summer corn. They'll last me for years.) When I need a new one I split off part of a leave, soak it in water until it's flexible, and then braid a small cord that will fit into the holes for the bearing. When dry, corn husks are very durable and create almost no friction on the spindle shaft. No matter what you use, make is saturated with oil before you start to spin.
Assembling the charkha
- Remove the wooden block, the metal handle, and the wooden handle.
- Hook wooden handle over the edge of the box near the large drive wheel. When spinning, you will sit on the wooden handle and hold the charkha steady.
- Attach the metal handle onto the large wheel. (Put the notch under the screw near the center, then slide the holes over the center shaft and the other screw near the outer edge.) Pop the wooden block onto the peg. (See note below)
- Set the mousetrap upright using the support arm. Make sure the bearings are packed securely into the spindle channel. Loosen the wingnut on the mousetrap spindle assembly and slide it out a bit. Tighten the nut again.
Attaching the handle to the drivewheel. Slip the notch under the screw and slide through holes. Secure it with the little lever.
A note about improving the handle
After using the charkha for a while, I noticed that the wooden block scraped the aluminum of the handle and made a black, gritty mess as I worked. I looked around a hardware store and found some small nylon washers that fixed the problem. Pop a washer on the peg before you add the wooden block. (Make sure there's oil both underneath and on top of the washer so that things turn smoothly.
Put the spindle in the mousetrap
The only thing holding the spindle in place is the tension from the driveband that presses it against the mousetrap assembly. It's important to get these assembled correctly so the spindle can spin freely and smoothly in its bearings.
- Remove a spindle from the rack.
- Loop the driveband around the whorl so that the left side is under the whorl and the right side feeds off the top. (Ignore the photo... I goofed up and put the driveband on backwards.)
- Hold the spindle in the spindle channel and loop the other end of the driveband around the smaller wheel. If it's too loose to hold the spindle in place, use the wingnut tensioner to slide the mousetrap out a little more.
- You may need to shorten the driveband if the mousetrap gets too extended.
Okay, the charkha is now all put together. But see the next section on tensioning before you try to use it!
(Note that the driveband is CORRECTLY positioned in this photo. Left side of loop is underneath the whorl, right side feeds off the top.)
Adjusting the tension
The charkha is not yet ready to be used. Unless you're extraordinarily lucky and got it perfect on the first try, you will need to adjust the placement of the drivewheel and spindle assembly to get this to run. My method is described below.
Position the mousetrap to create tension on driveband
The first thing to do is oil everything! The spindle bearings, the wheel shafts, underneath the wooden block on the handle. Book charkhas need frequent, small amounts of lubrication to run smoothly.
The next thing to adjust is the driveband tension. You will be adjusting this again several times, but for now, begin with the mousetrap perfectly vertical (i.e. with the support arm holding it straight up). Use the wingnut slider to pull the assembly out until there's moderate tension on the spindle whorl. Crank the charkha handle a little. If the driveband is too tight, the handle will be hard to turn and feel sluggish.(You'll probably hear things rubbing but ignore that for now.) Keep adjusting the slider until everything turns smoothly.
Position the small drivewheel
The next and most important thing is to adjust position of the smaller wheel. The center of the this wheel determines where the spindle whorl will rotate freely. This, in turn, determines the final angle of the mousetrap assembly.
The location of the wheel shaft will affect the position of spindle whorl. The spindle whorl and the center of the drivewheel should make a line roughly parallel to the edge of the charkha box. Note that in this photo, the lip of the small drivewheel is positioned over the edge of the charkha. For my wheel, this is where it needs to be in order to run smoothly. It may not be the same on yours.
In addition the whorl needs to spin freely between the arms of the mousetrap. If it rubs on the wood, you'll need to adjust the position of the mousetrap and/or the position of the drivewheel.
To start, move the mousetrap until it forms that parallel line with the center of the drivewheel.
If you see this happening, take off the drivebands, pop the second wheel off its shaft and loosen the wingnut very slightly. Put the wheel and drivebands back on, and use your hand to shift the wheel slightly outward. Try cranking again. Keep doing this until you see the whorl start to move a little between the two bearings as you spin the wheel. (see photo at left. Note how the whorl does not touch wood on either side of the opening.)
If these adjustments causes slippage between the small and large wheels, pop off the small wheel again, use the slider to move the shaft out a bit further, then tighten the wingnut a little more. (See photo at right)
If the whorl rubs hard against the top arm of the mousetrap, then adjust the wheel further into the box.
Now you've got the final position of the drivewheel set. From now on, you'll play with the mousetrap assembly to make that perfect parallel line with the edge of the charkha box. You should only need to make very fine adjustments at this point. If you need to angle the assembly more than a half inch or so, then go back and adjust the drivewheel first.
The tension of the driveband is also important to making the charkha spin smoothly. Fine-tune the tension by playing with the angle of the assembly. It doesn't need to stand absolutely perpendicular to the box. Adjusting the angle will tighten or loosen the tension on the driveband. It should be just tight enough to hold the spindle in place, and no tighter. Otherwise, the wheels will not spin freely and you won't be able to achieve full speed when spinning .
Final notes on tensioning
- The metal washer on the spindle needs to clear the edge of the box, and the spindle tip should not touch the floor.
- When everything is balanced, the handle will be very easy to crank and the spindle will whirl freely, making that characteristic whirring sound associated with charkhas. The whorl will move a bit from side to side as you spin, which is normal. But it should not scrape on the wood. If it does, then tweak the angle of the mousetrap again.
If this is your first time setting up the charkha, give yourself lots of time to get everything balanced. I must have twiddled with the thing for at least 45 minutes before I was satisfied.
Once you've got things set, lightly pencil some guide lines for the wheel and the mousetrap assembly so that the next time you set up the wheel, you'll have a good starting point. With the pencil lines in place, it will only take a minute or so to set up the wheel from now on.
Now you're finally ready to spin! Don't forget to oil the spindle bearings frequently as you work.