Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

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Fordwright
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Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Fordwright » Tue Oct 13, 2020 3:18 pm

It must have occurred to someone that a pressed steel rim was better than the wooden spoked wheel in those days. I don't buy the argument that wood was lighter, because the vanadium steel at the time could have made a wheel as thin and strong enough to achieve the desired weight. Was it simply that back in the day, a wheelmaker only made wheels in the "proper" way, with spokes?


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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Rich Bingham » Tue Oct 13, 2020 7:08 pm

Good question, Greg. I guess it depends on what point in automotive history you wish to address ? The answer is that someone did, and by the 1920s pressed steel or "disc" wheels were OEM on a number of makes, and available as accessories for even more.

I would suppose the longevity of the "artillery wheel" had as much to do with public acceptance and developmental inertia as anything, since opting for a radically different method of making wheels literally required "re-inventing the wheel" :lol:

In actuality, by the time the automobile was born, the wheelwright's art had achieved a high level of sophistication. Making a durable wheel poses an interesting engineering challenge, given the stresses and dynamics of wheels required to carry significant loads at any given speed. Wooden-spoked auto wheels were often referred to as "artillery wheels" indicative of being built to a higher standard than ordinary wagon or buggy wheels, given the weight of cannon, and the shock of recoil.

I suppose aesthetic considerations may have leaned heavily in favor of wheels that appeared familiar. For my part, discs on a high-wheeler, or on early brass Ts for that matter, would seem very odd to me. Disc wheels really didn't catch on until the advent of balloon tires, and you can be sure the makers of disc wheels experienced problems a-plenty working through many failed designs before sound, reliable all steel wheels became common. Most failures of disc wheels I've seen occur at the hub.
Last edited by Rich Bingham on Tue Oct 13, 2020 9:15 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Rich Eagle » Tue Oct 13, 2020 7:12 pm

Henry Ford resisted change. He finally saw the advantage of demountable wheels. While Chevrolet and Dodge offered disc wheels I suspect he didn't want to be a follower. The wire wheel option in '26 was his solution to wood spokes. Wood spokes were pretty durable for all they went through until age got the better of them.
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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Kevin Pharis » Tue Oct 13, 2020 10:43 pm

Not sure when Budd and Buffalo (among others) began disk wheel production... but ‘23-‘24 Nash cars were equipped with 25” Budd bolt on disk wheels. There must have been others too...?


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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Burger in Spokane » Wed Oct 14, 2020 1:22 am

Possibly just a personal aesthetic preference ? .... but I find the durable,
yet delicate looking wood spoke wheels to be a major part of my attraction
to early cars. I also find shallow dish disc wheels to be abhorrantly ugly.
Perhaps this sentiment was contemporarily popular ? Packard had a good
looking, deep dish disc wheel in 23, ... maybe earlier ?
More people are doing it today than ever before !

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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Kaiser » Wed Oct 14, 2020 8:43 am

Could it just be that a wood spoked wheel was easier to repair in the day, as most rural areas still had blacksmiths and/or wheelwrights who could do it, steel wheels (disc or wires) were relatively novel techniques.
The so called 'Artilery Wheel' with wood spokes and a steel hub that could be taken apart, was invented for just that purpose, to fix a broken wheel of an artillery piece in the field with relative ease and little tools, making use of standardised parts (spokes).
I believe Henry Fords main idea behind the model T was that it could be driven, serviced and repaired without an engineering degree and in mostly rural areas, in that line of thought wood spokes would be a good idea.
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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Fordwright » Wed Oct 14, 2020 3:37 pm

I don't think a pressed steel wheel ever needs repair, so the easy repairability of a wooden spoked wheel seems moot. I think that the mindset of the wheelmaker was so strong that people simply didn't trust anything but a wood-spoked wheel in those days. Our grandparents were fond of pointing out "cheap" things and avoiding them. A pressed steel wheel probably would have sold fewer cars.


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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Wayne Sheldon » Thu Oct 15, 2020 3:40 am

The main reason for the longevity of wooden spoke wheels in this country was simply people liked to keep using what they were familiar with. A secondary reason was that large enough plates of steel were costly in those days. And the giant presses required to stamp a strong dish shaped wheel were also very expensive. Major manufacturers were using both the machines and the materials manufacturing the constantly changing newer and better automobiles. Wooden spoked wheels were simply too easy to take advantage of. Here in North America.
Where it gets interesting, is that in Europe, they didn't have a good supply of wood appropriate for spokes in automobile use. The woods they had were adequate for horse drawn carriages and wagons. However, the higher speeds, weight, and stresses of the engine and other mechanics made the wood they had either too weak or two brittle to tolerate the stresses. For those reasons, automobile manufacturers in Europe tended to use wire spoke wheels very early. Even the 1886 Benz patent wagon had wire wheels! Little Peugeots and De Dion Boutons along with a hundred or more other early manufacturers of small automobiles in Europe and England used wire wheels from their earliest days. In Europe and England, pressed steel spoke wheels began showing up by 1910. Cast metal spoke wheels also began to appear. Steel disc wheels like we think of on '20s automobiles also began showing up by 1910 in Europe and England.
Where this gets really interesting, is that many larger, more expensive, and luxurious automobiles like Rolls Royce as well as the larger Benzes and Daimlers after 1900 used a lot of wooden spoke wheels. Where cost was no object, on the rough roads of those days (Europe and England had much better roads than the USA had then, but they were still pretty rough!)? The ride was considered better on wooden spoke wheels. For those that could afford it, the limited resources of proper wood was used, or proper woods were imported from around the world. Proper wood however wasn't a problem in the USA. We had thousands of acres of indigenous hickory, one of the best woods in the world for wheel spokes. It was both hard enough to take the wear, and pressures required by the infernal gasoline powered machine, and it was resilient enough to take the shock of hard bumps and potholes at speed. Most woods from around the world are either nowhere near hard enough, or are too brittle. Brittle woods (like oak) will literally shatter like glass if hit hard enough from a slight angle.

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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Kaiser » Thu Oct 15, 2020 11:33 am

You may be on to something there Wayne :ugeek: :D
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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Robert Kiefaber » Fri Oct 16, 2020 1:06 am

Interesting, my 1907 Ford model R has hollow steel spokes.

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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Mark Gregush » Fri Oct 16, 2020 11:32 am

Even when the Model A came out, much of the buying public still had to be convinced that the wire spoke wheel was safe (in this case the welded spokes). Some place I have seen a photograph of a Model A with most of the spokes cut away to show how strong they were and would support the car. What Wayne said in the first line, is very true, people wanted what they had been around for most of all wagon building history, which was the wood spoked wheel. When popular cars in the US started using the disk wheels, like Chevrolet and Dodge, they had to prove they were safe. More then likely used racing as an example.
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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by otrcman » Fri Oct 16, 2020 2:00 pm

Lors of good points made here, but one factor that hasn't been pointed out yet is the fatigue life required in a wheel design.

What exactly is fatigue ? Basically, it's the phenomenon where something fails from repeated loading even though it held up fine in a single test. Let's say that you tested a Model T fender and it's strong enough to withstand driving over rough, rutted roads all day without failure. But, could you drive the car a hundred miles without cracks forming ? Probably. Could you drive it a thousand miles without cracking? Yes, probably so. But could you drive the car a million miles with no cracked fenders ? No, probably not.

So, somewhere between a thousand miles and a million miles the fenders have flexed up and down too many times and the metal begins to fail. Usually we find that a given material can only give infinite service if the repeated loading is limited to some percentage of it's one-time breaking strength. That's usually known as the "fatigue limit" of the material.

A wheel is a classic fatigue generator. The wheel on a car can easily support two or three times it's normal load once, maybe even many times. But if you think about it, each point on the rim touches the ground about every ten feet of travel. It's like a traveling wave going round and round on the rim, with one full load cycle coming on every revolution.

OK, so here's my point: Different materials have different fatigue limits. A piece of wood can be flexed right up to its breaking point many millions of times without breaking. A piece of steel might be flexed right up to its breaking point a few hundred times before failure. If we want a steel part to last pretty much forever, we have to downgrade the load. Maybe only load it to about 70% of max for endless operation. That, or make the part thicker so it's maximum strength is greater.

This fatigue business wasn't well understood a hundred years ago. We needed to keep the unsprung weight of the car as low as possible for a good ride, but if we made the wheels too weak, they'd break in service. And wheel breakage could have disasterous consequences. So wood was still the material of choice for its high strength to weight ratio and virtually infinite fatigue life.

But wood has other limitations. It can fail due to environmental exposure. Steel has the edge when it comes to weathering, especially if you give it a good coat of paint.

As engineers learned more about metallurgy and forming methods, it became feasible to make an all-steel wheel that was suitably light weight and yet with the fatigue life to remain safe well beyond the expected life of the auto. But that knowledge didn't come all at once. Ask any 36/37 Cord enthusiast. Cord steel wheels are a chronic problem to this day. For that reason one supplier has been making brand new, slightly redesigned wheels for 36/37 Cords in recent times.


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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by otrcman » Fri Oct 16, 2020 2:06 pm

Dang !! After proof reading my post above several times I discover a typo in the very first word. Can someone please remind me how to edit a post ?


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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by jiminbartow » Fri Oct 16, 2020 11:29 pm

This interesting post is not OT. Why is it not in the general topics?


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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Norman Kling » Sat Oct 17, 2020 9:05 pm

You will notice that the first cars were called "Horseless Carriages" The first T's didn't even have front doors or windshields. They were very much like a carriage except they had an engine. Later such improvements were added to the car.
It wasn't until 1927 that wire wheels became standard. Bumpers were also added in the later models. The enclosed cars had a cloth top and only the sides of the car were steel. Some said that they didn't have the equipment to make a large turret top. Some other cars had closed steel tops earlier than Ford. Same was the situation with hydrolic brakes Drop center rims came later than on most other cars.
I think at least three things were at play. One is that Ford was very resistant to change, and especially if someone other than Ford suggested it. Another is the thrift. He didn't like to change unless it was very well proved to be either losing sales or that it was cheaper to make. Third was patents. He didn't want to pay royalties to anyone else who owned the patent.
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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by jiminbartow » Sun Oct 18, 2020 11:04 pm

Henry Ford was afraid. He had known a lot of failure in the early years of his company until the unparalleled success of the Model T. I believe he felt that any change to the successful formula of the Model T might result in rejection by the public and could result in falling back into the cycle of failure he had found himself in in the early years. That is human nature and understandable. Jim Patrick


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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Burger in Spokane » Mon Oct 19, 2020 2:52 am

Although I have never pulled this from an authoritative source, understanding
Henry as much as we can, I think part of the idea behind the whole Model T concept
was to make it so simple and as easy to own, maintain, and repair for nearly anyone,
wherever trouble might happen to occur, as a matter of making the overall appeal
that much greater to buy a Ford than anything else out there. As it relates to the
wheels, wood was the standard operating procedure of the day, and the resources
and materials to fix a wheel were anywhere a person might look in those days. Some
fancy all-steel wheel was another matter, and fixing one would be dificult and not
near so trustworthy as taking that wood wheel to the local wheelsmith. I think Henry
knew this and felt it was a sales advantage to stick with the traditional wood wheels
until circumstances changed enough to where he saw differently, .... which pretty much
coincides with the timing of his conceding that it was time to embrace letting the T idea
go.
More people are doing it today than ever before !

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Re: Why wooden spoked wheels and not steel?

Post by Richard G » Mon Oct 19, 2020 11:04 am

HOLEY COW, HERE WE ARE AGAIN, TRYING TO IMPROVE ON PERFECT! AFTER LAYING IN THE WOODS 100 YEARS TAKEN APART SPREAD OVER THE COUNTRY SIDE TO LAY THERE AND DECAY--UNTIL SOME ONE FINDS A PART THAT TRIGGERS HIS INTEREST IN PUTTING TOGETHER THOSE 100 YEAR OLD PARTS HE DUG FROM WHERE THEY LAY, SOME OF WITCH WERE TO SOME, BEYOND FIXIN ,WELL THERE'S HUNDREDS OF LIZZY'S TOOLING AROUND WITH PARTS THEY WERE NOT BORN WITH, HENRY THE FARM BOY BUILT FOR US A LIFETIME OF ENJOYMENT TRACKING DOWN THOSE PARTS TO COMPLETE A LITTLE JEWEL THAT CAN TOTE US AROUND AND GIVE US AND OTHERS JOY IN DOING SO, SHE WAS BORN WITH WOOD WHEELS, AND I SEE NOTHING WRONG WITH THEM. AS GRAMP WOULD SAY TOUGH AS NAILS!

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