The one material that has been taxing Wasey’s engineering skills for several years now is Hygdulignum: the wood laminate used to make Spitfire propellers during World War II by manufacturers such as Rotol and Hordern Richmond, the aeronautical engineering company founded in 1937 by test pilot Edmund Hordern and the 9th Duke of Richmond.
“It’s a wonderful material,” says Wasey, “made with thin layers of birch.” And while Hygdulignum is still made, Wasey’s team lacked the original specs that could help secure approval, once his team could build the machinery to produce the blades. “We were doing reverse engineering, taking apart original Spitfire blades to test the qualities of the materials. It felt odd, cutting up a piece of history like that. But it was all for a good cause.” Hercules even made pen barrels with the leftovers of “this beautiful material, it looks like caramel!” – the sale of which helped fund its research.
“Then out of the blue we got this phone call.” In the Fifties, Hordern Richmond had been taken over by a similar business called Permali, based up the road in Gloucester. “There, for half a century, its archive had been kept in drawers which nobody ever opened. All this was about to go into a skip when someone thought to Google ‘propeller manufacturers’, spotted us, and called to ask, ‘Do you want to see these drawings?’ They gave us these beautiful, large-format, pen-and-ink drawings – for an engineer like me, works of art in themselves. Then we turned a page and there it was, a drawing marked ‘Spitfire Mk VII Merlin Engine 1942’.”
Today, Wasey, armed with those precious specs, a determined team, and the archive of their neighbours Rotol (now part of Dowty Propellers), is working through the approval process, and hopes to start manufacturing Spitfire blades soon – “under the name of Hordern Richmond, which we’ve acquired, as we felt that would be appropriate”.