Spokes-man has a way with wheels

June 11, 2003|by DON AINES

At the height of its popularity and production, a Model T went for less than $300, about what it would cost to have one of its wooden wheels reproduced today by William Calimer.

"The Model Ts run about $250 a wheel. That's for the wooden parts, not the metal," said Calimer, a third-generation wheelwright in whose cluttered shop Henry Ford might have felt very much at home.

Ford bridged the eras from the horse and buggy to the horseless carriage and plenty of horses under the hood. This month, the Ford Motor Co. is marking the centennial of its founding and part of the celebration included the reproduction of six 1914 Model T touring cars.


While Ford pioneered techniques of mass production in the auto industry, these cars were produced the old-fashioned way and Calimer was part of the project, making six sets of wooden spokes and rims for the reproductions.

"I had made wheels for them before for a car at Greenfield Village," Calimer said, referring to the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Mich. His handiwork on the wheels of vintage autos resulted in his getting the job for the brand new Model Ts.

"We used to do horse-drawn vehicles. Of course, there's not that many used in our area any more," said Calimer, whose grandfather, William, and father, Robert, were wheelwrights.

One piece of equipment in the shop for boring holes in hubs is more than a century old, he said. There also is a forge that might look more at home in a blacksmith's shop. The forge is used to heat metal rims to be fitted about the wheels.

People began asking him if he would make wooden wheels for their classic cars, which require greater precision than those on carriages because they undergo the additional stress of providing power and steering.

Calimer's Wheel Shop has turned out custom-built wooden wheels for antiques ranging from an 1897 Oldsmobile to cars dating to the early 1930s, he said. Customers have to supply the metal components of the wheels, including hubs and metal rims.

In some cases, he doesn't have much with which to work. Specifications for obscure makes that are upwards of 100 years old can be difficult to find.

"A lot of the cars, I'll use the original wheels" to make a pattern, Calimer said. Sometimes the owners send broken pieces from which he has to figure out how to reproduce the whole wheel.

"For any car, the wood is hickory," he said. "It's strong, but it's light enough and it can remain flexible, too."

Calimer buys the wood from a local sawmill and dries it for six months or a year before it is ready.

In his shop on East North Street, Calimer has hundreds of handmade patterns for spokes. A pattern is placed on an asymmetrical duplicating lathe that can produce three at a time.

Hickory is steamed for two hours and then placed on a machine of his own construction to bend them into semicircular felloes. All the spokes and felloes then are dried a second time in a kiln.

The wood has to be dry enough that there is no shrinkage once the wheel is assembled, he said. Otherwise, the final product would be liable to fall apart.

Steel rims are fitted over the wooden rims using a hydraulic press, or by heating the metal and then allowing it to shrink onto the wood as it cools.

"There's probably five people in the country that do this ... This is my niche," Calimer said.

He has a backlog of several months, but it's not a profession that will make him wealthy, he said.

"One person can only do so much in a day," he said.

"One of the things that keeps you involved is the people you meet," Calimer said. In addition to making wheels for customers around the country, "I have wheels in Sweden, Switzerland, England, South Africa and Panama that I know of."

Calimer encounters many of his customers at the Hershey (Pa.) Region Antique Automobile Club of America Fall Meet in October. The only other advertising he does in on his Web site,

One of his customers on the West Coast was "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno, for whom Calimer said he made a set of wheels for a 1910 Stanley Steamer. The avid auto aficionado later called to ask about wheels for a 1916 truck.

"You'd think a celebrity like that would have someone call for him, like a secretary," Calimer said, after playing a phone message he received and saved some months back from Leno.

Fifteen million "Tin Lizzies" rolled off Ford production lines between 1908 and 1927 and one of them belongs to his son, Benjamin.

While making wheels has been the family business for decades, Calimer is not sure whether his 17-year-old will follow in his footsteps.

"I have a degree in microbiology, so you never know where you're going to end up," he said.

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