By Tommy Lee Byrd
While Coker Tire Company is known for its full line of bias ply and radial tires for collector vehicles, it has also entered the wheel market. Coker Tire offers steel wheels for many applications, and has recently jumped head first into a new endeavor that further solidifies the claim that Coker Tire is the world’s leading supplier of tires and wheels for collector vehicles. CEO Corky Coker has a huge interest in early automobiles, especially those from the 1900s through the 1930s. In that era, it was common for cars and trucks to roll on wooden wheels. Knowing the difficulty of sourcing new wooden wheels for his own project vehicles, Corky decided to add another element to his company. Coker Tire now manufactures brand new wooden wheels for all manner of antique automobiles in its Chattanooga, Tennessee headquarters.
The task of building wooden wheels is a large one, but it allows Coker Tire to offer complete tire and wheel packages for its customers. Another important aspect in this process is the manufacturing of steel rims and hardware for vehicles with wooden wheels. The machining and metal work is also handled in house at Coker Tire’s facility. This is not a production line that cranks out hundreds of wheels per day—the wooden wheel and machine shop specialize in custom orders, so this is a labor of love and each order is handled carefully. In most cases, samples of the original wheel are required to provide a pattern for the machine shop and the wooden wheel shop. It is a labor-intensive job, but Coker Tire has the right team for the job. J.D. Scott is in charge of the machine shop, while Jonathan Myren is the wood shop guru.
Although the manufacturing process takes weeks of precision craftsmanship, we’d like to showcase the major steps involved in recreating these iconic wooden wheels. There are hundreds of steps involved in the process, but we’re condensing it down to the nuts and bolts of it for your viewing pleasure. Take a look at how Coker Tire builds brand new wooden wheels, and give them a call if your car needs tires, wheels, tubes, or all of the above.
All wooden wheel orders require that the customer send in an existing wheel from their project vehicle. This allows Coker Tire to accurately measure the spokes, the felloes, and determine the hub diameter.
While some customers send in a complete wheel, others only send small samples of the wheel, due to prior damage. Either way, the wheel and parts are disassembled for proper analysis and measurement.
Coker Tire has hundreds of spoke patterns in its wood shop. These patterns save a lot of time, because the pattern can be placed in the duplicator machine without any major work. If a pattern isn’t available, Jonathan must make a new one from an existing spoke.
Spokes start life as kiln dried hickory and they are rough cut into blocks. Jonathan cuts the blanks to a specific width and length, based on the final spoke size.
Jonathan is seen here trimming the length of the spoke. He will then center punch the spoke (guide hole for the duplicator), and give it a rough cut on the band saw, based on the pattern spoke design.
This is what the rough-cut spoke looks like when it is loaded into the duplicator machine. The machine can cut four spokes at a time, and the result is a shaped and sanded spoke in a matter of minutes.
Rapidly spinning blades make quick work of the spokes, while a rubber wheel rolls across the pattern spoke to provide a template for the machine. After the initial cuts are made, a belt sander follows behind to provide a smooth finish.
After the spokes are duplicated, it’s time to cut the appropriate angle on the hub side of the spoke. This is performed using a special jig attached to a table saw. Spoke count determines the necessary radius.
The customer is required to send new hubs for wheels (that is the only aspect that Coker Tire does not fabricate). The hub is used to assemble the array of spokes to ensure proper fitment. Then, the spokes are cut to length and doweled on the ends.
Wooden blanks are kept in a climate controlled room to preserve the dryness of the hickory wood. The half circles are blanks for felloes, which is the wooden rim that attaches to the outer steel rim.
After Jonathan drills the felloes and cuts them to the appropriate length, it’s time for some muscle, as the felloes are stretched to fit the spoke array. This requires brute force, and in this case, a modified bumper jack, a huge pry bar and a hammer.
With the felloes stretched over the spokes, the wheel can be placed on a special clamping table. The felloes are pressed onto the doweled spokes until a flush fit is achieved.
It’s important to note that many automobile manufactures had custom details made into the wooden wheels. In this case, the felloe has a detailed boss for the spoke, which requires a great deal of patience to replicate. These areas will be hand-sanded for a perfect finish.
Jonathan has a custom jig that allows him to comfortably finish sand the wheels. He uses various grits to smooth out all of the transitions, so the wheels will be ready for primer before they leave the shop. Please note that Coker Tire does not offer paint services on wooden wheel builds.
At this point, Jonathan is ready to cut the felloes to the final outer diameter. In order to do this, he must measure the inside diameter of the steel rim. The idea is to build the wooden felloe to be about 1/8-inch too large for proper fitment.
The machine that cuts the spokes offers a solid mounting point for the wheel, so that the finished wheel is perfectly round. Jonathan measures several times during this process to ensure correct sizing.
After the felloe is cut to size, the wooden wheel is clamped to a special table. This is to keep the wheel steady when it’s time to install the steel rim onto the wooden felloe.
A custom heating table super heats the steel rim, so that the steel expands. That explains why Jonathan shaves the felloe to be slightly oversized.
The super heated rim is placed over the completed wooden wheel. It is then quenched with water, which causes the steel to contract and create a super strong bond between the wood and the steel.
Corky Coker looks on as Jonathan inspects the completed wheel, which is ready to be completed with vintage-style hardware and sent to its customer.