Our wheels are turning as we conserve the 18th century Sawmill

Visitors check out the water-powered sawmill at Florence Court

Thanks to the support of our members and supporters, we have been able to conserve our original 1848 water-powered sawmill at Florence Court.

Another piece of Victorian technology has been conserved at Florence Court, for what is known as being one of the finest examples of a sustainable Irish estate!

The flow of water coming from the Mill Pond that powers the waterwheel was stopped almost one year ago, as damage was identified on the bearings  and cogs that help turn the giant waterwheel.

We spoke with a waterwheel expert who carried out the repair work in order to keep our wheel turning!

Bert expertly guides a log through the 1848 water-powered sawmill
A volunteer putting a log through the sawmill at Florence Court
Bert expertly guides a log through the 1848 water-powered sawmill

What was wrong with the Waterwheel?

The giant specially made cogs for the waterwheel
The giant specially made cogs for the waterwheel
The giant specially made cogs for the waterwheel

There was a build-up of pressure on the bearings. The existing drive shaft was badly worn and the bearings where damaged beyond repair, so new housings and complete units were required to replace them. The main gear cog on the water side of the drive shaft also had extensive ware and damage to the teeth, and so they also needed to be replaced.

How did you fix the situation? 

We decided to replace all broken/damaged parts as repair was not really an option.

The enormous drive shaft was made completely from scratch and turned on a huge metal lathe.  In order to make the fly wheel/ gear cog, we had to send the original away to a specialist pattern maker.  He remade a pattern and it was sent to a cast iron foundry and cast.  After that it was sent to the engineers to be boarded out so it fitted the drive shaft and a key way was installed as on the original. This happens because there is a piece of metal that slides into the shaft and the cog so that it doesn’t spin freely whilst on the end of the shaft. 

What are the long term implications of the restoration? 

The drive shaft and wheel should certainly run more smoothly as the units are sealed and they should last much longer.

The new gear cog should last longer too, however the teeth on the outer wheel are also substantially worn, meaning unfortunately they will wear faster and unevenly than it would if they were replaced at the same time.

What challenges do you face with this type of restoration?

The working waterwheel that powers the sawmill dates back to 1848
A close up of the waterwheel at Florence Court
The working waterwheel that powers the sawmill dates back to 1848

The wheel and its parts are fairly substantial and strong, and as we weren’t working intrusively, we did not need to be as protective.

The main challenge was in the project planning stage and finding people who could make the appropriate parts and getting it all to come together as you can imagine, parts for this type of technology cannot be easily purchased, and often have to be tailor made from scratch.

The specialist pattern makers and the foundries are regularly inundated with emergency projects, meaning we can be often bumped back in the queue.

The main challenge on site was definitely accessibility and working alongside the existing configuration. 

The challenges however do not compare to the gratification of seeing the wheel turning again unaided, and watching the saw cut the first piece of wood in almost two years!  The next phase in the project will be to replace the segments on the large drive wheel.

Come along and see the giant waterwheel that powers the sawmill back in working order on your next visit to Florence Court and  keep an eye out for when we will be holding Sawmill Demonstrations in the near future!