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.