Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Making Wooden Wheels & Keeping It All Together

With so many individual elements comprising a vintage wagon wheel, the design is considerably different than most modern day vehicle wheels.  Without proper maintenance, the passage of time as well as the sheer number of separate parts in a wagon wheel can wreak havoc on the soundness of the piece.
Binding a wooden wheel with a steel tire has proven to be a good way to keep the entire structure solid.  Clearly, as long as the wood doesn’t move too much, it works extremely well.  However, whether it’s through temperature or moisture variances or forced displacement, the challenge is that wood does move.  For wheel and wagon makers of old, the chore of keeping steel tires on wooden wheels was a never-ending job.

Holding the tires on the wooden rims or felloes (pronounced as ‘fell-ohs’) was approached from a number of directions.  From tire bolts and rivets to nails, wedges, pins, oil, water, rawhide, and a host of other remedies, there was no shortage of ideas to help solve the short and long-term problem.  Even arguments over whether hot-setting or cold-setting tires was best were continually shared in business correspondence and industry news.  (I’ll cover more on these technologies in a future blog)

Not long ago, while doing research on a regional wagon maker in Iowa, I ran across yet another method of securing a tire to a wheel.  In 1895, William O’Brien submitted his idea to the U.S. Patent Office.  Unlike many hopeful patentees, O’Brien’s notion apparently did make it off the drawing board and into production.  While it’s not currently known how long the innovation was used, period reports seem to indicate the idea was successful for a number of years.  

This 1895 patent illustration shows the unique way O’Brien wagon tires were secured to the wooden wheels.

As shown by the illustration above, O’Brien’s concept involved the creation of a continuous rib or bead along the tread surface of the felloes.  This raised bead was fitted into a matching concave groove in the underside of the tire effectively ‘locking’ the tire onto the felloes.  During the hot-setting process, the tire was heated sufficiently to expand over the bead.  Once it cooled, the tire shrank to fit the beaded felloe, effectively securing itself to the wheel.  As long as the hub, spokes and felloes remained reasonably tight and unitized, the tire groove would stay seated on the rib encircling the wheel. 

Ultimately, this discovery is one more feature that may prove helpful in the identification of some O’Brien brand wagons.  I say ‘some’ because there was more than one O’Brien wagon brand and, even survivors of the correct make may not have been produced during the timeframe of the patent. 

Just like the bone-jarring hardships suffered by countless wooden wheels, it seems the ordeals of identification are always there; shifting, shaking, and testing our resolve to hold onto our past and keep it all together.