At one time, wooden wheels ruled the roadways. Before the advent of the pneumatic tire in the late 1800s, travelers relied on wooden wheels for their buggies, carriages and wagons. Today, high-tech, air-filled rubber tires dominate the thoroughfares and provide a smoother, more efficient ride.
But their simple, wooden predecessors are far from extinct.
With the second millennium A.D. drawing to a close, wooden wheels continue to find productive use on popcorn wagons, beverage and food vending carts, as well as on wagons, carriages and buggies the Amish rely on for transportation.
They also provide livelihoods for the craftsmen who build them.
The largest such manufacturing shop in the world is the Holmes Wheel Shop Inc. in Holmesville, Ohio, an Amish community about an hour southwest of Akron.
In a light-gray, cinder-block building on a rural country road, 18 mostly bearded Amish men craft wheels from long boards of green hickory.
They work from 6:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., five days a week, with a half hour for lunch and 10-minute breaks in the morning and afternoon. Pay is $10 an hour.
Paul Stutzman, an Amish man, manages and co-owns the 30-year-old business with partner Ron Clark.
Because Mr. Clark is Mennonite and does not belong to the Christian Amish sect, he's called ``English'' by the Amish, who favor living plain and simple lives as farmers and craftsman. For religious reasons, the Amish avoid many of today's modern conveniences.
Mr. Clark's 50-percent ownership allows Holmes Wheel, unlike many Amish businesses, to use electricity to power the shop's saws, lathes, sanders and shapers.
Although wooden wheels are its mainstay, the firm also makes wooden stirrups, wood mounts for rubber stamps and wooden stakes used by surveyors.
Holmes Wheel produces between 11,000 and 12,000 wheels annually, said Mr. Stutzman, who lives next door to the business in a neatly kept brick ranch house.
Some of the company's made-to-order wheels feature rubber treads; others have flat or curved steel bands. Mr. Stutzman said 50 percent of the Amish still use the steel-band versions on their buggies.
At one time, Goodyear made buggy wheel rubber, said Mr. Stutzman, who buys his rubber treads from Rice-Chadwick Rubber Co. in Killbuck, Ohio.
If properly cared for, wooden wheels can last 10 to 20 years—even a lifetime, he said. Maintenance requires keeping them painted or varnished to prevent moisture damage.
Holmes Wheel wholesales locally to buggy dealers and other retailers and also distributes nationally and worldwide. The company recently shipped a big order to Japan.
The firm's wooden wheels also can be found in such diverse locales as Puerto Rico, Denmark and the British West Indies. Due to the wide variety of applications, the company produces many sizes to meet the needs of its customers.
For instance, the company makes wheels from 24 to 50 inches in diameter for Disney World's popcorn wagons and beverage carts. Show carts require a 50-inch wheel. Buggies typically require 38- or 42-inch wheels, while those for vending carts run 24 to 30 inches.
``There's a lot of business out there for vending wheels,'' said Mr. Stutzman, who estimated this segment makes up 20 percent of Holmes Wheels' sales.
It takes four man-hours to build four wooden wheels, which retail for $125 each or $500 a set.
The process begins with hickory boards that are air-dried for eight to 10 months before being cut to the appropriate lengths and widths. Some are used as rims; the rest, for blanks that will be turned into spokes.
Wood for the rims is placed in a steam oven to make it pliable, then fastened to metal molds. The molds are placed on a huge bender—made by Defiance Machine Works in 1893—and shaped into half rims.
Holmes Wheel's prior owners, who started the business in 1969, acquired the bender in the late 1960s. It had been used to bend wood at a site along the Ohio River and at one time was powered by a water wheel.
The half-rims are then dried for two to three weeks in a room heated by steam to 110 degrees Fahrenheit.
Meanwhile, wheel blanks are turned into spokes on a lathe, then attached to a hub with a rim-setting machine—another Defiance Machine Works relic built in 1903.
A separate device joins the two rim halves together and inserts the spokes.
The basic wooden wheels—or "wheel blanks"—are then taken outside where workers heat and expand metal bands on fires stoked with waste hickory wood.
The wheels either get a steel-band tread or a steel rim, which is then fitted with a rubber tread and are then ready for shipment.