1) Pick the best you can afford and then spend even more
Spinning Art Yarn on a Majacraft Aura Spinning Wheel with an Overdrive Head
Yup I said it. Splurge on your first wheel. If you're going in, go all in, not half way. Don't feel guilty about it either. If people look at you like you're crazy, just remember that people spend thousands of dollars on tech gadgets and flat screen TVs. This is no different than that. Spinning wheels cost more than people think they should, but that shouldn't deter you from saving up and buying a really good one. They cost a lot because they are all handmade by small mom and pop companies. They are designed and built by engineers and artisans that have spent hundreds of hours researching and prototyping the best designs. There are no mass produced wheels coming out of sweat shops in China and flooding the shelves at Walmart. (Thank goodness). Be prepared to spend upwards of $600-$1400. It's not just an expensive toy, it's a quality piece of equipment that you will use to make magical and beautiful fibery goodness with.
Yes, you can spin on a PVC or cheapo wheel you made yourself from supplies you got at the hardware store, but you won't want to do it for long. There are very few great quality wheels in the under $600 range. Every accomplished spinner I know has bought more than one wheel. I have traded up several times myself. I now own the wheel that I think is the best out there in the market. I've sold enough yarn and fiber along the way that I could get the one I really wanted. I didn't buy it first only because it wasn't made yet. So, if you're committed to spinning regularly on a wheel and want to increase your skills it will be worth it and your spinning will be better for it and more enjoyable. If you change your mind, you can always sell it fairly quickly and easily. I've had no problem selling my used wheels and there is a good secondary market for the quality ones (not the crap ones).
2) Do you want traditional or modern aesthetics?
Kromski Sonata Spinning Wheel
When I first started to learn how to spin I had a romantic notion that my wheel should be a traditional looking style and have a place in my home like a piece of furniture. When I took my first classes I tried a few brands of wheels and I liked spinning on the Kromski Sonata. It was easy to treadle and had the aesthetics I was going for (mahogany finish, spokes, and all that). What I didn’t account for was discovering art yarn and my changing style of spinning. I quickly got over the somewhat odd look of a disk shaped wheel as opposed to a spoked one that had the mystique of traditional looking wheels a la illustrations in Sleeping Beauty. After all, I’m not living in a reenactment village and I don’t think anybody else cares what my wheel looks like. I feel silly admitting this now, but all the spinning I had seen up until then was at fairs and heritage museums. So you can see where I got the notion that that’s what I was going to have. Most traditional looking wheels are different mechanically than the ones you use for spinning jumbo textured art yarn which leads me to...
3) Decide what kind of yarn you want to spin
Spinolution Mach III Spinning Wheel
Will you spin traditional yarn or art yarn? Do you want to primarily spin for yourself or sell your yarn? This will dictate the types of wheels that are appropriate for you. If you want to spin bulky coils like in the photo above, then you won't want to do it on a wheel with a small orifice and hooks. If you want a good production wheel that you can spin pounds of yarn on at a time without stopping, then go for a wheel that can handle those requirements. You will want a jumbo flyer and bobbins for that. If you plan only to spin small projects for yourself and mostly spin DK and lace weight yarn, then you can get a standard wheel and flyer.
Here are the main deciding factors for selecting a type of spinning wheel based on the kind of yarn you want to spin:
Main Deciding Factors and My Pick/Humble Opinion About Each*
Majacraft Aura Spinning Wheel
Orifice and Flyer Type: MY PICK = Orifice - Open, ring, or delta (no hole); Flyer - Ring or Pegs (no hooks)
This is important to determine because you are not going to want to spin highly textured super bulky yarn on a wheel with a small orifice and hooks on the flyer. It is a bad idea for several reasons. What drove me crazy (especially as a beginner and just learning) was having to stop and start every time I lost the leader and had to fish it out with a hook or had my fiber get snagged on a hook. Stop, start, stop, start, stop, start. It's a total waste of time and very frustrating. You need to build a rhythm when spinning and you can't when you are constantly doing other things. Almost none of the wheels with standard orifices (the ones that are holes leading into the flyer) are large enough to spin bulky art yarn with add-ins. Wheels with delta and ring orifices and hookless flyers have an advantage because you can fit large elements through them and there is nothing for the fiber to catch on or have to squeeze through. It's also easier to find your end if it gets wound around the bobbin. Even better, they're not just great for bulky yarn, you can spin thin yarn on them too. Just a note on the flyers - I found that the ones with wooden pegs do not hold up well and can break off pretty easily if jostled (do you have kids or pets?). The best I've used is a flyer with a metal ring or delta like those on Majacraft wheels. It is more durable and less fussy than the others I've tried.
Bobbin Size: MY PICK = Jumbo (8 oz. or more)
Most regular sized bobbins only hold three to maybe four ounces of fiber. I only use small bobbins if I'm going to ply two together. Then you need to do that on an eight ounce or larger bobbin. So don't get a small flyer. If you want to spin bulky yarn and not have to stop just as you're just really getting into it, then get a flyer that can hold eight ounce or greater bobbins. The ultimate size for super bulk yarn is two pounds. Yes, I've spun two pound skeins of yarn before and it's awesome. You may not do it every time, but if you want to sell your yarn you will want to spin larger sized skeins. I often spin a double size skein and split it in half to sell as a matching pair. And if you knit or crochet you can appreciate having more yardage for your projects.
Ratios and Speed: MY PICK = Slow to mid-range for medium to bulky yarn and faster (higher) for thinner yarn
Almost all wheels are OK for multiple types of spinning and whorls can be added if you need to change. You'll want a larger ratio and slower speeds for bulkier yarn and plying, and smaller, faster ratios for lace weight etc.
Drive Type: MY PICK = Double
Doubles drives are good because most can be used as single also. They are great for bulky art yarns and add-ins and can provide more control. Single/Scotch Tension is OK too, but not as good for bulky art yarn. I've used a single drive (Majacraft Pioneer) and it was OK for bulky yarn but has a hard time when I'm trying to Navajo ply really bulky yarn. The Majacraft Aura with a double drive has no trouble with this however.
Treadles: MY PICK = Double
I'm not sure why someone would only want to treadle with one foot unless they only had only one foot. Or they have a puny wheel.
Maintenance/Fussiness: MY PICK = No oil required
A wheel like a Kromski Sonata also has to be oiled frequently which collects a lot of fiber dust and can be a messy business and a pain to do all the time. Majacraft, Louet, and Spinolution wheels, for example, do not need to be oiled and are mostly care-free.
Portability: MY PICK = Folds for travel
If you want to go to festivals or take classes then choose a wheel that can fold up or is lightweight and portable. Trust me, it's a real drag lugging around a heavy wheel or if you have a small car.
Materials: MY PICK = Solid wood
I've had a plywood wheel and I have to say that it was not good material. First, it splintered and chipped easily and did not hold up to travel, and second, it weighed a ton. I have not used a PVC or MDF type wheel except the Pioneer which only has MDF in the actual drive wheel. The rest is wood and it's lightweight and durable. I have no complaints with solid wood.
Style: MY PICK = Castle/Upright
I would not go with a Saxony or traditional style wheel based on all the factors I've outlined here. The Saxony style wheels are nostalgic looking but not as versatile.
Design: MY PICK = Good design decisions
What do I mean by this? The shape of the parts and craftsmanship. The sort of materials chosen for their duty. Sleak lines. Smooth edges. Foot pedals that don't cramp your feet or make it hard to treadle. An adjustable orifice height. Easy to attach or remove bobbins. Interchangeable parts that are easy to swap out, replace, or upgrade. Parts that don't snag, wobble, or fall off.
You can probably guess which type of wheel I think is the best out there but please don't let it stop you from trying other ones. People build spinning wheel brand loyalties on what they like and don't like just like they do with cars and clothes, and it's a personal choice. Honestly, you should go to your local yarn store / dealer or borrow a friend's wheel and try as many as you can before buying. This is just meant to help guide you towards a decision since there are many unknowns when you are starting out. It can be intimidating because of the expense, but have faith. If you stick with the top brands and their quality models and compare them based in the checklist above you should do just fine.
* These are soley my opinions and are based on my personal experience. I have tried several types of wheels and have not been paid to make any remarks about them. Please feel free to contact me if you have questions or comments.