Tuesday, September 07, 2021

The Evolution of the Electric Eel Wheel



This blog post was first published on the 27th of November, 2018.  As it is currently one of my most viewed posts, I will try to update it as the Electric Eel Wheel continues to evolve.

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If you are simply looking for a visual reference to work out which Electric Eel Wheel model you have purchased, I've made this short video showing the Electric Eel Wheel progression - 



Four years ago I wrote a review of the Electric Eel Wheel 4.  I loved that little wheel, but it did have quite a few issues - some I managed to overcome, but others I just endured.


Despite its problems, I was so thankful for the invention of the Electric Eel Wheel 4, as it allowed me to try spinning on an electric spinning wheel for the first time, at a price that was low enough for me to take the risk.

I thought it would be interesting to look back at the inception of the Electric Eel Wheel to see just how far it’s come from its humble beginnings, and to show a little of what the future holds for this little machine that’s taking on the big boys.

The Electric Eel Wheel


Maurice Ribble, the inventor of the Electric Eel Wheel, has been committed to designing and inventing an affordable, yet extremely usable electric spinning wheel, for several years now.  He felt that spinners were being exploited, and that it was time to introduce a little competition to redress the balance.

I first heard about the Electric Eel Wheel when I was searching online for an affordable e-spinner - I wanted an electric spinning wheel as I was finding spinning on my Ashford Traveller more and more painful.

Unfortunately, when I first looked, every electric spinning wheel was prohibitively expensive, especially as there was no way for me to find out if I would even enjoy using an e-spinner before I bought it.

Image from Glacial Wanderer, January 2009

I did, however, stumble upon Maurice Ribble's blog, where he talked about his experience designing an electric spinning wheel at a more affordable price.

I love looking at these early images of the Electric Eel Wheel in its infancy.  It shows just how far the Electric Eel Wheel has come in a little over a decade. The romantic in me also loves the fact that it was invented for his wife, Emily, to save her from lugging a full-sized spinning wheel around to spinning and knitting groups.


I love how home-made and functional it looks in its wooden box, but still, Maurice realised that there was a demand for this slightly inelegant-looking e-spinner when many of Emily's friends started asking him to make one for them.  At the same time, Maurice also generously ‘gave away’ his design as an open-source project, helping other spinning enthusiasts to build their own Electric Eel Wheels at an affordable price.

By the next year, you could buy a kit to build your own spinning wheel in a box, and if you didn't have the technical know-how, you could buy an assembled version.

Image from Glacial Wanderer, February 2010

You can see that the Electric Eel Wheel is gradually rising out of the box and it's started to become a little more compact.

The Electric Eel Wheel 2


Later that year, Maurice made several improvements on his original design, improving the motor life and reducing the volume, increasing the bobbin capacity, and improving the assembly process, making it easier for people that bought it in kit form to make their own.  This was the birth of the Electric Eel Wheel 2.

Image from Glacial Wanderer, September 2010

It was now starting to look ever so slightly more commercial, with a custom, plastic controller box to protect the electronics.  It was however, still modestly hiding away in its box.

The Electric Eel Wheel 3


By 2013, there was enough demand for the Electric Eel Wheel, (in what was still a very niche market,) that Maurice was able to redesign it, using laser-cut parts bought in bulk, making it cheaper to build and quicker to assemble.

Image from Ponoko.com, September 2013


The Electric Eel Wheel 3 was a much more professional and commercial-looking machine and it had finally escaped out of the box!  It was starting to look a little more like the later commercially available Electric Eel Wheels.  Anecdotally, I know a lady that still owns this version of the Electric Eel Wheel and it spins just as well as any spinning wheel.  She does find it quite noisy though.  

The volume of the Eel is one of the main problems that Maurice Ribble has had to try to overcome, and is continually trying to improve.  Keeping the cost down means using a cheaper motor and light, thin veneered wood, which just aren't going to be as quiet and as stable as a heavy, solid hardwood electric spinning wheel, using a brushless motor.

In 2013, an Electric Eel Wheel 3 sold for $290 and you could buy a self-assembly kit for $240.  That's pretty incredible considering that it was difficult to buy any kind of decent e-spinner for less than $800 at the time.

The Electric Eel Wheel 4


In March 2015, Maurice took the big step of launching the Electric Eel Wheel on Kickstarter, in the hope of funding the production of the 4th iteration of his little wheel.  For the project to go ahead, he needed to raise $5,000.  In the end, with the help of 245 backers, he managed to raise over 10 times that.



Some of those original 245 backers (myself included) helped to form a community on Ravelry where they showed off their altered wheels, shared spinning tips, showed off the yarns they had spun and gave new spinners advice.  Fundamentally, they also shared issues that they had with their wheels - the main problems being the sound levels and the sharp yarn hooks.  The wonderful thing is that Maurice was, and is, a very active member of that group and Maurice listened to everybody.  Maurice also read my blog post about the Electric Eel Wheel 4 too and took on board all of my comments.

Continuing in this spirit of openness and sharing, the Electric Eel Wheel 4 is open-sourced, and if you are technically minded enough to build your own, you can find more information on how to here.

The Electric Eel Wheel 5


November 2016 saw the Kickstarter for the Electric Eel Wheel 5.  Maurice Ribble wanted to address everyone's issues to make an even smaller, quieter spinning wheel with a more usable sliding hook system.  A lot of the people that invested in the first Kickstarter jumped on board to get the improved Eel Wheel and word was slowly spreading about this new affordable electric spinning wheel.  With a target of $5,000 to get the project off the ground, the Electric Eel Wheel 5 raised over $90,000 on Kickstarter - which is pretty incredible when you consider that this is a niche product that very few people have seen in person.


There is no doubt that the Electric Eel Wheel 5 and its later updates are a significant improvement on the Electric Eel Wheel 4 and its predecessors.  The sliding hook system on the 5 caused a lot less frustration (once initial issues had been resolved) and the sound levels were much improved.

Here is a little video showing the 4 and 5 side by side just to get an idea of the difference in volume.




You can hear that the 5 has thankfully lost that annoying high-pitched whine that irritated most people.  The Electric Eel Wheel 4 noise levels measured about 68 decibels at my spinning speed, but the Electric Eel Wheel 5 measures a much more bearable 59 decibels.  (For reference, 70 decibels is twice as loud as 60 decibels.)

My family and I are all quite sensitive to noise and so I purposely wouldn't use the Electric Eel Wheel 4 when others were in the room, as I knew the noise would be too loud for anyone to watch the television at a comfortable level.  I am however happy to use my Electric Eel Wheel 5 with others in the room - albeit at a slightly lower speed than when I'm on my own.

I should probably point out that the first Electric Eel Wheel 5 came with a plastic flyer spindle and sliding hooks.  Quite a few spinners (myself included) started to see a wearing down of the plastic where the spun yarn was running over the plastic and so Maurice sent out replacement aluminium flyer spindles and sliding hooks to anyone affected.

The Electric Eel Wheel 5.1


Maurice is constantly working on new ideas and asking members of the Ravelry forum what they want in an electric spinning wheel, whilst listening to the problems and issues that arise.  It's a very unique and open business model and it's almost like later models of the Electric Eel Wheel have been designed by Maurice, but with Ravelry members as his design consultants.  Most companies are incredibly secretive about new ideas and inventions, but Maurice will happily risk sharing designs and ideas that he has for future models of the Electric Eel Wheel, knowing that feedback from Ravelry members has helped the Electric Eel Wheel become the little gem it is today. 

I never actually got around to writing a review for the Electric Eel Wheel 5, as Maurice had brought out the 5.1 very soon after everyone received their updated aluminium flyer rods and hooks.  



The 5.1 has a coat of varnish on it - so it looks much more finished than previous wheels -  I did have a problem with wood chipping off both of my wheels, so this definitely takes the design up a notch.  It also feels more finished and professional as the underneath is now enclosed by a detachable base.  Probably the biggest improvement made for the 5.1 is that the bobbins now have bearings at either end - making them quieter than the Bobbins Up bobbins that shipped with the 5.0

The Electric Eel Wheel Mini


Image from Kickstarter, November 2017

In November 2017, Maurice Ribble launched a Kickstarter for a new kind of Electric Eel Wheel - The Electric Eel Wheel Mini.  It was one of his most ambitious spinning projects yet as he challenged himself to make the smallest, most affordable electric spinning wheel ever.  Some would say that he'd already done this with the Electric Eel Wheels 3 - 5 but Maurice wanted to make a wheel that was even more affordable, to encourage many more people to try spinning for the first time.  The Electric Eel Wheel Mini sold on Kickstarter for an amazing, $50.   Unsurprisingly, over 1000 people backed it.
Maurice described it as a new category of spinning wheel to help bridge the gap between drop spindle and spinning wheel - the price being far closer to that of a drop spindle.  Inevitably, with such a low price tag came compromises - it was quite noisy and it was so light it needed to be strapped down to stop it from wobbling too much.  Changing direction to ply was also slightly awkward, but it was still an excellent introduction to spinning for a lot of people  - many of whom went on to upgrade to the larger model once they were confident that they enjoyed spinning.

The Electric Eel Wheel 5.2


Image from Dreaming Robots


In November 2017 the Electric Eel Wheel 5.2 was released.  This went up for sale on the Dreaming Robots site.  Once word went out that they were for sale, 100 wheels sold out in less than a day.  

I love the fact that it retailed at $260, which is $30 less than the Electric Eel Wheel 3 sold for, way back in 2013.  It just shows that being able to buy materials in bulk and mass-produce many elements of the wheel has enabled Maurice to pass these savings onto his customers.

One of the most notable differences was the plastic flyer wheel.  At the time I was very torn on the decision to use plastic for the flyer.  I much preferred the look of the wood, but I appreciated that plastic helped to keep the price down when you are working in large quantities - also, the thin wood of previous flyers could warp, which would add to the noise levels and the vibration of the wheel itself.

The frame had bearings built into the front and back for the flyer spindle to sit in to help quieten the wheel further.  The back panel hinged downwards to make it easier to change the bobbins.  I loved these design features and you can see that Maurice was increasing his focus on improving the quality feel of the wheel significantly, while still keeping it at a price that was affordable for a large number of spinners. 

Image from Dreaming Robots site

The spindle was also made from one piece of solid steel - the earlier flyer spindles were made from two pieces of aluminium screwed together and some people found (myself included) that the rods weren't completely straight - which added to the wobble of the wheel.  (Mine would go for a little walk when I used the aluminium spindle at high speeds.)  Making it from one piece of steel lengthened the life of the spindle and reduced the chance of having a 'wobbly wheel'.

Quite a few people on the Ravelry forum requested a faster wheel so that they could ply faster and spin shorter fibres more easily.  The 5.2 spun at a maximum of 1400 rpms, which is 40% faster than the previous model.

The sliding hooks also changed, making them significantly easier to move than the ones on the 5.1.  I must say though, I was a little uneasy about how they looked, but aesthetics are probably a little more important to me than most.

There is a regular discussion on the Electric Eel Wheel Ravelry forum on the aesthetics of the Eel and how important keeping the price down is, compared to how the wheel looks, and the functionality of the wheel.  Personally, I would rather pay a little more for an attractive, quiet wheel, but opinion is very much split on this issue.  Making the Electric Eel Wheel as affordable and as enjoyable to use as possible is at the forefront of Maurice's design concept and I cannot fault him for that.

The Electric Eel Wheel Nano

After the success of the Electric Eel Wheel Mini, Maurice took the feedback he received from his tiny wheel and made a radical decision - to design the new updated version completely out of plastic.  As it was a complete redesign, and even smaller than the Mini, this tiny spinning wheel got a name all of its own - the Nano.

At first, I think quite a few people were quite uneasy at the thought of having a completely plastic spinning wheel, but as images and footage of the wheel began to come out, people started to come around to the concept of a tiny plastic spinning wheel. The primary reason for making the Electric Eel Wheel Nano was to make an affordable, yet easy-to-use electric spinning wheel.  By using modern, injection moulding techniques, it's much easier and cheaper to make a thousand wheels out of plastic, than it is out of wood.  Also, by making the frame out of one solid piece of plastic rather than several pieces of wood, there are far fewer variables - making for a quieter wheel with fewer vibrations.

Image from Kickstarter, November 2018

The Kickstarter for the Electric Eel Wheel Nano launched on the 15th of November 2018 and it reached its target in less than an hour.  By the end of the campaign, there were 4,351 backers pledging $498,671 in total. It successfully exceeded its goal by 3,324%.

Due to many people bulk buying, the total number of Electric Eel Wheel Nanos sold was 5,381! That's some achievement and had a massive impact on the number of people learning to spin in 2019.

The Nano has a much more open design than any of the previous Electric Eel Wheels, allowing you to see how much yarn is on the bobbin very easily. It's also significantly quieter than the previous Mini and quieter than the 5.0. Changing direction is done by the flick of a switch, which is a real improvement on the previous Mini.

The basic Kickstarter package was just $60.  I'm in the UK and so with shipping and tax, this would have cost me a total of £80.  Even for an entry-level spinning wheel, that is incredible!

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Updated 06/09/2021

This post has become one of my most read articles, so it seems fitting to update it with how much progress Maurice Ribble and the Electric Eel Wheel have made since I wrote it back in 2018

The Electric Eel Wheel Nano 1.1


Image from the Dreaming Robots Website

In the Spring of 2020, Maurice brought out an updated version of the Kickstarter Nano and this is the one currently on sale today.  This version has an improved motor, the yarn guides are a little more user-friendly and the motor pulley rod was changed to prevent slipping.  It retails at just $110 and it is by far the cheapest spinning wheel around.  The Nano 1.1 has a bobbin capacity of around 55g and a maximum speed of 1000 rpm.

The Electric Eel Wheel 6



Following the success of the Electric Eel Wheel Nano, there was a real demand from Nano owners for a full-sized, production version, with a faster motor and a foot pedal to turn it on and off.  The Nano was built with affordability at the heart of the design. With a bigger budget and fewer price constraints, Maurice was able to design the Electric Eel Wheel 6 to be faster, quieter, and with greater capacity than any of his earlier wheels.  The Electric Eel Wheel 6 has a bobbin capacity of around 225g and a maximum speed of 1800rpm.

The Kickstarter for the Electric Eel Wheel 6 launched in May 2020, with a goal of $30,000.  The Kickstarter campaign eventually raised well over $445,000 and meant that over 1800 people could afford to buy themselves a production-level e-spinner.   The original Kickstarter Electric Eel Wheel 6 sold for $199 and is now for sale on the Dreaming Robots website for $279.

The Competition


You only have to look at the number of new Electric Eel Wheel forum members every day on the Ravelry forum to see how much talk there is amongst spinners about the Eel and how information about it is slowly spreading by word of mouth; whether it's amongst spinning friends, or over social media. Everybody loves a bargain and everyone loves to share information about bargains with their friends.  Telling everyone about the $1,200 spinning wheel you've just bought might be considered a little vulgar, but plenty of people were telling the world about the $60 spinning wheel they'd just backed on Kickstarter.

The big e-spinner companies still aren't taking the Electric Eel Wheel seriously and continue to make big claims about their own electric spinning wheels - the Ashford site describes their e-spinner as the smallest, lightest, and most versatile electronic spinner ever, and the Hansen website describes their e-spinner as the lightest, most compact, technically advanced e-spinner that is commercially available today.  (Incidentally, the Ashford e-spinner weighs 2 kilos, the Hansen weighs 2.2 kilos and the Electric Eel Wheel 6 weighs 1.4 kilos.)

While one or two of these superlatives may be true, it seems that the Electric Eel Wheel is still not yet seen as competition by these bigger companies.  I believe that with the current performance of the Nano 1.1 and the Electric Eel Wheel 6, the big companies have got some serious competition on their hands, that they can't afford to ignore anymore.

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Future Electric Eel Wheels


Maurice Ribble is fundamentally an inventor who found a gap in the market.  He's constantly working on new ideas and designs.  He compares the design process of the Electric Eel Wheel to mobile phone companies, constantly working on future iterations of the device - improving it and upgrading it so as to maintain interest in the product and to keep the product fresh and innovative. 

Now that Maurice has cornered the market in affordable e-spinners, he's considering developing a much more high-tech version in the future, to accompany his entry-level-priced e-spinners.  One request that is often made on the Ravelry forum is for the Electric Eel Wheel to have some kind of auto flyer, similar to the Woolee Winder, so that spinners don't have to constantly keep stopping to move the sliding hooks.  Maurice is working on his own level winding system for a Pro version of the Electric Eel Wheel and it could well be a possibility in the future.  Another feature mentioned in his latest newsletter was a built-in graphical screen to help display a menu system.  Unfortunately, with all of the other fibre related products that Maurice has planned over the next couple of years, we'll have a while to wait and see what other pro features will be on this new wheel...

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Related Posts

https://www.craftmehappy.com/2020/02/electric-eel-wheel-nano-orifice-reducer.html
Electric Eel Wheel Nano Orifice Reducer
 with a built-in Twist Keeper
and Other Modifications

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3 comments:

CMW said...

Very nice article and history of the EEW evolution. I saved your article link and also sent it to some of my spinner friends. I have a 5.2 EEW and two original Mini's. I also am back 51 for the EEW Mini 2. I agree with your comments about Maurice being so open about his designs. I am sure the big E Spinner companies are aware of his work and his price competition. We need to keep supporting his work and continue to provide him with good feedback.

Regards,
Colleen Weiss
Michigan

Kathryn - Craftmehappy said...

Thank you Colleen! You're ahead of me then. I'm backer number 90 and I only have the EEWs 4 and 5. I'm slightly envious of your 5.2, but the 5 is still a lovely machine. Even with three wheels, I won't have spent close to the price of an Ashford or - gulp - a Hansen.

Anthonia said...

Many, many thanks for pointing me in the direction of this obviously popular espinner. As a two-month old aspiring spinner having only used a drop spindle, the idea of an espinner appealed to me but I couldn’t justify the outlay for a hobby, but I’m going to give the nano a try for now while I think of the 5.2