Nearly everyone loves the look and feel of a wood-rimmed steering wheel.
Foreign cars, especially sports cars, were fitted with them many decades ago, and domestic manufacturers adapted the fad to their "sporty" cars in the 1960s. At first the Big Three put simulated wood wheels (plastic that looked more or less like wood) on pony cars and muscle cars. After a while the real thing appeared on Mustangs, Corvettes and some Mopars. Aftermarket companies sold thousands of wood wheels during that period. They looked great, and still do. However, how do you go about rebuilding an old, splintered and rotted one that's seen too many years of abuse? Moreover, how can you make one of those plastic simulated wood wheels into real wood? Here's how, and it's easier than you think.
Anyone can make his/her own wood wheel with a minimum of equipment. A jig saw, router, compass, sander, chisel or carving tool and hammer will do nicely. If you have a neighbor who has a workshop, ask to use his band saw and other equipment to speed up the process. The wheels we built here go into a Jaguar XK 120, Falcon Sprint (or Mustang), and Corvette. We chose to do these because the Jag's original wheel was black plastic (boring and cheap-looking), the Falcon's wheel was simulated wood (not elegant or sporty enough) and the Corvette's wheel was a design exercise that we later discarded (well, it's hanging on the wall at the Second Chance Garage in hopes of finding a "home").
Falcon rim plastic being stripped off.
All wheels have an inner "core" of metal in the rim. To get to it you only need to strip the plastic (or wood, or bakelight — an early plastic material) off the old wheel to expose the rim, and we find the easiest way is to burn it off (outside!) with a propane torch. This process doesn't have to be pretty, but you do need to be cautious, especially if your hub and spokes are plastic. Don't burn off too much, because the rest of the steering wheel has to be preserved. Here's what we did:
What's left of Jaguar wheel after removing rim.
Our Jaguar wheel originally had an aluminum rim molded onto the four spokes. After removing the bakelight the aluminum core was corroded so badly that it wasn't salvageable, so we made our own ring out of 3/8ths steel rod. To do so, we just cut a plywood circle to the desired diameter (minus the thickness of the steel rod), clamped the plywood to a bench, then bent the rod around the plywood, cutting off the excess length. We then welded the ends of the rod together, followed by welding the rod to the wheel hub spokes.
Steel rod is bent around plywood jig.
We decided to utilize the plastic hub and spokes on the Falcon wheel, then join them decoratively to the wood rim. Therefore, we selected a nice spot on each spoke where that joint will be, then marked and cut the plastic all around with a hacksaw. All outside plastic was removed from the Falcon's rim with fire, pliers, knives and a little bludgeoning.
Falcon rim has been stripped, about one inch into spokes. It's sitting on top of glued-up and clamped wood. Why no wood in the center? Because there's no sense in wasting wood where it isn't needed.
The Corvette's wheel was stainless steel, so we merely burned off the plastic rim and cleaned up the metal.
Decision time! Since we're making our own "custom" wheels, why not design the rim to fit our hands perfectly? Also, do we want a larger overall diameter (or smaller)? With all those things in mind we got out our compass and a stiff piece of paper (manila folders work well). We also selected the base wood we'd use to make the wheels, in this case cherry. Why cherry? Well, it's a very stable wood in varying temperatures, it's easy to shape and sand, has a nice grain pattern and takes a stain evenly. These are all very important attributes.
We laid the bare wheel assembly onto the large piece of craft paper, then traced the wheel's spokes and both the outer and inner circumferences of the metal rim on the paper (this creates the actual location of the channel where the steel will rest in the wood). We then carefully marked the center point of the traced wheel circle. Using it as the pivot point for our compass, we drew one circle 3/8ths inch smaller than the two traced circles and another 3/8ths larger. These two circles then formed the rough dimensions of our wood wheel. We then drew some "transitions" from the inner circle to the spokes, as shown in the finished photos (the transitions are the shaped wood fixtures that form the connection between the wood rim and the wheel's spokes. This is an area where you can be creative by designing your own curvature and thickness).
Theory (sort of): All wood wheels are a sandwich of two layers, whether or not a fancy mid-layer of different wood is used. The top of the wheel will be 2/3's of the total and the bottom 1/3rd. Have your wood boards planed to the proper thicknesses and glue them edge-to-edge to slightly exceed the finished size of the wheel, as follows...
We bought a piece of cherry 6 inches wide, 3/4 inch thick and 6 feet long, then cut it into several lengths of 20-24 inches. We also bought some additional cherry and planed it to 3/8ths thickness for later. We glued (wood glue) and clamped enough of the original pieces, edge-to-edge, to form a wide board large enough to trace the drawn wheel onto. When the glue had set up overnight we cut out the paper wheel, complete with spokes, and lightly glued it onto the wood block. We did this to make cutting out the rough wood wheel easier than following pencil lines, thus avoiding mistakes. We cut the outer wheel diameter with a jig (or band) saw (slowly and carefully) and then stopped to admire our work.
Top (outer) wood circle is cut. Looking carefully, you can see layout lines for center channel and inner ring.
Then we laid out the "transitions" to the spokes. We positioned our wood wheel circle on the bench and laid the old wheel on it. On most wheels, the transitions curve from the wood rim to the spokes in the same plane, as in the Jaguar wheel. In the case of the Falcon, those transitions curve downward to the dished spokes, so we created the proper shapes on to our wood piece. No rules here, just something that looks pleasing.
On the left, the cut-out Falcon outer wood rim, with transitions, and the Jaguar's wood blank, with routed-out channel that will house steel rim.
Speaking of the routed-out channel, it's time to perform that rather nasty chore. Here's a neat tip: we found a large piece of the discarded wood circles trimmings. Then, we measured the distance from the outer diameter of our wood circle to the center of the two inside "core" tracings and clamped the scrap piece to the router tabel to act as a jig — a curved fence, really — to correctly guide the wood circle. Putting a 1/2 inch wide mortising bit (or other suitable one) into the router, we set its cutting depth to about 1/8 inch. We then held the rough wood rim against our guide and routed out a full 360 degree slot, checking to make sure it was centered in our rim. We then kept increasing the depth, in small increments, until we created a 1/2 inch deep channel (the channel is deeper and wider than the steel rim it will encase so that bonding glue can fill the voids).
That done, we routed out channels in our transitions. Why? The spokes occupy space in the wood. You must cut out a channel in the transitions for the spokes and this can be done with your router or a chisel. This is a free-hand operation, so take your time. Just mark in pencil where the channels have to go, set the tool in a comfortable position and cut away. Keep your patience and watch what you're doing.
Remember the thin wood pieces? We glued them up into a large enough blank for the bottom of the steering wheel "sandwich." Once the blank was ready, we laid the top wood circle onto the blank and drew lines to create a matching circle on the thin wood. More cutting ensued, leaving us with a nice bottom layer for our wood wheel "sandwich."
The thin wood, in the Jaguar's case a complementary mahogany, is glued up.
Getting fancy: We decided to create an inlay of red mahogany for the front of the Jaguar and Corvette wheels. This is being done on the Corvette wheel.
With the inner and outer wood shells, transitions and steel rim channels created, we arrived at the next step, the tedious business of shaping, sanding and detailing the wood wheel. To do so we assembled the two "sandwich" pieces together and clamped them (masking tape, actually) securely in a couple locations. The reason for this is obvious: we have a circular wood wheel, but in cross-section it's square. We need to create the smooth, round, ovoid shape that will be the finished wheel.
To start the process, we put a round-over bit in the router, set the fence and ran the wood rim sandwich around, avoiding the two places where the pieces were taped together. When done, we taped the pieces in another two spots, then rounded off the remaining areas. This yielded us a rounded wood wheel that was almost ready for a couple hours of sanding and hand work.
Yes, almost. It was time to insert the steel rim into the wood channel and then glue up the "sandwich." We laid in a bead of construction glue (Liquid Nails, etc.) in the bottom of the channel, then pressed in the steel rim, filling the voids with more glue. We let it set up overnight to create a super-strong steering wheel that relies on the construction glue to provide structure, avoiding stress on the [relatively] weak glue joints in the wood.
The Jaguar wheel is glued and clamped.
Once cured, it was time to glue the two wood rims together. First, we scraped off any glue that sat above the level of the channel, then liberally applied wood glue to the surfaces. We laid them together and put as many clamps on the assembly as possible.
The Falcon wheel is glued and clamped.
Removing the clamps, we now observed our handiwork; three assemblies that resemble wood steering wheels. It was time for delicate hand work and patience...
What we now had were three wood-rimmed steering wheels that needed detailed hand-finishing, so from this point we got out the 100-grit sandpaper, a curved wood rasp, several files of varying shape and a cup of coffee (for moral support). Obviously, the wood on each wheel was rough-sawn and rough-routed, so the surface had to be smoothed down to furniture-level quality. Also, the transitions had to be shaped and detailed by hand (files, etc.) since the router couldn't easily get into their "typography".
The most important shaping exercise was the creation of "finger slots," those raised bumps on the back of the wheel where one's fingers can grip. In actuality, the bumps aren't raised. The finger areas are cut down slots, leaving the bumps. We placed our fingers around the wheels, marked the spaces in between, then carefully measured a reasonable spacing for the slots. We also decided upon the desired depth of the slots and drew a line to that depth around the outer and inner circumferences of the wheels.
With the slot locations and depth drawn out, we were ready to begin the tedious-but-exacting work of filing down the wood for each slot, one at a time (no, there is no other way to do this, at least nothing we could come up with).
The Falcon's wheel, shown with the file. One third of the slots are done at this point.
The sanding, shaping, slot-cutting and never-ending smoothing operations completed (about 3 hours per wheel), we finish-sanded the wood with 220-grit paper. Satisfying ourselves that the wheels were "perfect," we were ready for stain and varnish.
Since staining and varnishing are themselves tasks that are the subject of a future article, we will just outline the steps here:
Step 1 is to tack-rag the wood thoroughly to remove all traces of dust.
Step 2, stain the wheel the desired color and tone.
Step 3, apply at least 5 coats of clear, high-gloss polyurethane varnish, "sanding" with OOOO steel wool between coats.
The Jag's wheel installed, looking gorgeous with its polished hub and leather-wrapped spokes.
The Falcon's steering wheel, showing nifty little polished metal fittings at the junction between the wood and plastic.
The Corvette's steering wheel, not completed due to indecision on our part about inlay wood, color, and arguments over whose car in which it might be installed.