Natural finish on wood wheels

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David N
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Natural finish on wood wheels

Post by David N » Mon Sep 16, 2019 2:20 pm

Just received back my re-wooded wheels from Stutzman Wheel. Cannot say enough good things. Service was great and they look beautiful.

Took a pole with the wife and kids and they want to leave them natural wood and not paint them. Can anyone recommend a varnish or sealer I should use on them? Thanks in advance for the advice.

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Re: Natural finish on wood wheels

Post by DanTreace » Mon Sep 16, 2019 2:47 pm

Use the best brand $$ of marine spar varnish you can find. Thin the first coat 75% so it will soak in very well.

Then second coat of 50% thinned. Between coats rub with bronze wool, better than steel wool, to remove brush strokes, runs, or bumps. Then tack rag to wipe off dust, and coat at least two more times, with rubbing and wiping prior to the final finish coat. This has worked for me for many years with new hickory spokes.

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Re: Natural finish on wood wheels

Post by CudaMan » Mon Sep 16, 2019 2:53 pm

Here is what I used on mine - two coats of stain/sealer with light sanding after each, then three coats of exterior grade spar urethane with a light sanding after the first two coats. :)
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Re: Natural finish on wood wheels

Post by Jugster » Mon Sep 16, 2019 6:51 pm

Matching Wheels b.jpg

No Model T Ford ever left the factory with stained and varnished wooden wheels. That having been said, it's also true that at some point, a few dealers were reputed to have been supplying bare-wood wheels as spare parts, and that provides the barest excuse to stretch credulity and refer to varnished wheels as "period-correct." That's probably 80% baloney, but okay.

The black-painted Flivvers built after 1913, particularly the slab-sided tourings, when viewed from the side, absolutely scream for a little texture. That vast, uninterrupted black expanse along the body's flanks photographs horribly in anything less than screeching, blazing-yellow, summer sunlight, and in person, doesn't really look a whole lot better (Yet, collector-car enthusiasts, particularly those who own high-performance cars and hot-rods, just love black paint—go figure). Even though my black '15 Touring has a smattering of brass, it's just not enough. That's sort of like a nun wearing red lipstick. Such a habit needed to be broken (sorry, couldn't resist), so I decided to go with stained and varnished wheels, and if the purists get apoplexy over it... well, that's just too flippin' bad.

Now, this is one of the few times when I actually know what I'm talking about, so listen up:
To get the job done properly, you're going to need some equipment and supplies. Among other things, I'm talking about a table-vice and some kind of dowel you can stick in there to hold your wheel in place and allow you to slowly rotate it as you're gliding your foam brush over the wood spokes. Foam brush??? Really? Yes. Forget that stuff about needing some kind of expensive llama-hair brush that you'll spend half your time cleaning. The cheapie, one-inch, disposable foam brushes work just fine for applying varnish as long as you go slow and avoid squeezing bubbles out of the foam. Easy enough. Use a foam brush once and toss it. They're cheap as dirt.

A rear wheel is easy to mount to the vice because you really only need an eight to ten-inch length of wooden dowel to use as a holding fixture. A front wheel requires a little more creativity than a wooden stick unless you're willing to remove the ball-or-roller bearings, snap-rings, etc. from the hub, but it's probably a good idea to clean all that stuff out and de-grease the hub to inspect the races and, afterward, re-pack the hub with new grease, anyway.

The next step is to mask off the already-primed metal rim and hub and the little oval-shaped plates which hold your two wooden felloe halves together. For that, I use green auto-body tape. That stuff can be purchased online or at an auto-body supply shop. The good thing about it is, it peels off with leaving any kind of residue.

It is important that the stain you want to use is compatible with varnish. Chances are stacked astronomically in your favor where that's concerned, but it doesn't hurt to do a test on a piece of scrap wood to make sure. I use "Old Masters" wiping stain. It comes in a nice assortment of colors, so pick whichever one you like:
I chose the "Rich Mahogany," which is actually a good deal lighter and redder than what you see on the website. It comes out looking very nice. Applying it is easy enough; just wipe it on with a soft cotton rag, something like a retired white T-shirt. I went with two such coats. Now, remember; the finer sandpaper you use to prepare the wood surface, the more reluctant it will be to absorb the stain. I used 220-grit, which worked out nicely. Of course, anytime you apply sandpaper to wood, you're going to follow up with a tack-cloth to clean away the sawdust.

You're going to need a good-quality marine spar varnish. Since you only want to do this tedious job once (per wheel!), get the very best. That's Epiphanes high-gloss clear varnish, which can be purchased either online or at a boat shop. A quart of the stuff is fairly expensive, but hey, you only get that for which you pay. Do it right; do it once (As Dad used to say, "Cheap is expensive"). You'll need to thin the varnish out to about a 50;50 ratio with Penetrol, which is easy enough to find in a paint or hardware store.
Buy a box of disposable nitrile gloves. Your hands have natural oils which, after enough handling, can dirty up the wood, and holding a tack cloth in your bare hands will make your fingers unpleasantly sticky. Besides that, the aforementioned finishing chemicals with which you'll be working are kind of nasty. When it comes time to play with that chemistry, you'll need good ventilation and a cheap, Home-Depot respirator.

Okay, so you sanded the wood with 220-grit, tack-clothed it and wiped on two coats of stain. Let that dry a day or two, then VERY lightly sand the wood with 320-grit paper to give it just a little bit of tooth for the varnish to grab. Do this part very tenderly (and maybe have a cigarette afterward).

Of course, lightly wipe the wood off with a tack-cloth before applying the first coat of varnish. Mix your varnish and Penetrol in a small paper bowl covered over with aluminum foil (because some paper plates and bowls are coated with wax which you don't want dissolving into your varnish/Penetrol mixture).

Now, varnishing is a super-slow, deliberate, toilsome job which requires a goodly reserve of patience so as not to get tiny little bubbles all over the coat of finish you're applying. Brush the varnish on with slow, smooth, long strokes (and again, maybe have a cigarette afterward). Your coats will be thin because you've reduced the varnish down with Penetrol, so you're going to need about nine coats. That means the varnishing part of the job will take at least nine days because each coat needs at least a day to completely dry. Patience! Once a coat is quite dry, sand very lightly with 320-grit paper. Sand just enough to dull the finish. This will provide the necessary tooth for the next layer of varnish to adhere. That's important.

In the back of your mind, be prepared to accept a few little imperfections in the finish. That's no big deal because your wheels will be a few feet down from eye-level and unless some nut gets down on his hands and knees with a magnifying glass, a few little imperfections in your finish will not be noticeable.

Okay, so you've applied the last of the nine or so coats of varnish. Now it's time to peel the green auto-body masking tape off the hub and rim and paint them. But wait. This would be a good time to take a half-round file and go over the inside of the rim to make sure it'll be nice and smooth for the sake of your inner-tube. After you file it smooth, go over it again with a stiff wire brush. You'll remove some primer this way and may even expose some bare metal, but that's no big deal because the gloss black Rustoleum paint you're going to use contains its own primer. When you're finished abrading the inside of the rim, brush off the iron filings and then go over it again with a tack-cloth.

Now, take another one of your trusty foam brushes, dip it in a can of glossy black Rustoleum and apply a nice, smooth coat to your rim and hub—and for Pete's sake, don't get any on your beautifully finished wood. Wait for the paint to dry completely and then lay on another coat. Dang, that wheel looks nice, doesn't it?!

Now, there is some controversy regarding the use of duct-tape on the inside of a rim. That stuff has worked out just fine for me, but if you'd rather use some other kind of computer-age, digitally-inspired, robot-produced material—fine—have at it.

So okay, now the wheel is finally finished and it's time to mount the inner-tube and tire. That process is just about guaranteed to put a few gouges in your beautifully painted, black rim. No biggie. Just finish mounting the tire and then grab that can of black Rustoleum and another disposable foam brush and touch up the blemishes.

Well, that leaves just three more wheels to do.

The above is what I did to get my wheels to look like this:


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Re: Natural finish on wood wheels

Post by KeithG » Mon Sep 16, 2019 7:04 pm

Bob, the Jugster, "habit"? :) :) :)

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Re: Natural finish on wood wheels

Post by RajoRacer » Mon Sep 16, 2019 7:13 pm

Bob - natural finish wheels were indeed supplied by Ford as an option beginning in 1925 - they're listed in the 1925 Ford Price List of Parts.

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Re: Natural finish on wood wheels

Post by Dom Denio » Mon Sep 16, 2019 7:22 pm

Here is another option. Two coats of the Sikkens Light Oak 006 and two coats of the Minwax have held up well for more than 10 years.

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Re: Natural finish on wood wheels

Post by TRDxB2 » Tue Sep 17, 2019 1:16 am

Don't be taken back by the description but you might want to consider using Minwax® High Performance Wood Hardener. While the product
was formulated to strengthen and reinforce decayed or rotting wood. It is a quick drying liquid that is absorbed deep into the wood fibers. So its not just an external layer. I did some old wheels (applied, let dry, sanded, reapplied, let dry and sanded). The wood finish looks great, I also have used Helmsman Spar Urethane in the past. Helmsman is a bit thicker so it doesn't get into the wood as much. Buy a can and try it on some scrap wood, following the directions. I think that once you see it being sucked into the wood you'll be convinced. You can always apply Helmsman over it after a sanding
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Re: Natural finish on wood wheels

Post by SurfCityGene » Tue Sep 17, 2019 1:40 am

Here's my advice, You get what you pay for like with automotive paints. The Sikkens products are top quality the Minwax is lesser. At the boat yard supply store or online you can find Sterling products which has a two part clear enamel U1006 and a brushing thinner U2965 which I have used with nice results. Exceptional UV protection and durability. I do wish I had a bit darker stain but still admire the results miles and years later.

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Re: Natural finish on wood wheels

Post by Original Smith » Tue Sep 17, 2019 10:01 am

To add to what Steve says, which is correct. The natural finished wheels supplied by Ford in 1925 were ONLY the 21" wheels, not the 30X 3 1/2.

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