The creation of the wheel begins with a concept. The craftsmen at South Shore will review other wheels that a customer likes, others for similar historic vessels and any photos from which they might draw inspiration.
Determining the size of a steering wheel is a combination of mechanics – what the wheel is attached to and how much force needs to be applied to the system – and personal preference. What feels good in the hands of the captain? How much physical space exists in the cockpit? How many spokes make sense? The designers morph all those factors together into an original new creation.
Working from that material, designers research the look, dimensions, history and types of wood used in inspiring wheels. The more knowledge, the better — about the history, the specifications, the materials. This leads to diagrams, measurements and 1/2 scale drawings and drafts – blueprints that map out the appearance of the wheel.
Crafting the physical object begins with the shape of the spoke. Fuller will often turn a few sample ideas on his lathe. Prototypes may be shown or sent back and forth a few times before reaching a spoke a customer really likes, where the grip feels good in that Captain’s hands. Fuller or his team may make two of each version, so that both parties can hold a sample while discussing its weight or texture.
With the plans and spokes approved, several steps happen simultaneously. The hub is machined out of bronze. In keeping with the ship-building traditions of the Fuller family, Bob’s brother, Charles Fuller, is a machinist and patternmaker with a specialty in machining wheel hubs. The Fullers have worked together their whole lives, so communication is easy and seamless. There’s a balance between the metalworking and the woodworking that creates a wheel that shines as an example of both crafts. In the design of the wheel you don’t want either overpowering the other. The machinist has to know and match the dimensions of the bore hole, whether the hole is straight or tapered and how much, as well as the length of the bore, the keyway, and the threading of the nut that will be used to attach the hub to the wheel shaft. It all has to be exact. If you don’t get the hub right, nothing else matters, because you can’t attach the wheel, no matter how good the woodworking might be.
While the hub and engraving, if any, are happening, South Shore turns the rest of the spokes on the lathe. The felloes, or segments, are the parts of the wheel that arc from spoke to spoke, holding them together. Wooden bands are used to lock these segments and the spokes together. Both the bands and the segments, in keeping with tradition, are hand-crafted out of specific types of wood.
All measurements need to be very precise, will little tolerance for error. The team is constantly re-measuring through every step of this process, then tweaking and adjusting. Because a wheel is all about its center, rulers are not nearly as effective as a compass – South Shore uses a wide selection of different sizes. A compass is ideal, because once it’s really in the center, it’s always in the center. Carpenters work over a layout board, or “jig board,” which has all the necessary angles worked out. The weight and feel of the wheel depend on it having perfect symmetry in every direction.
The next step, once the pieces are crafted, is to fit them together. This is also an extremely precise operation. It starts with fitting the spokes into the slots in the hub. The wood must fit into the metal precisely, with no room for error. If it doesn’t fit on the first try, a carpenter must meticulously shave the notch until it does. The slots are tapered, so the shaving needs to proceed carefully. It can take five or six fittings for each spoke. There’s not much tolerance between fitting and not fitting. If it wiggles at all, that spoke becomes a lost cause, and the craftsman starts over with a new one. For an eight spoke wheel, South Shore will usually make 12 spokes, knowing a few of them won’t survive to be part of the final assembly.
Like the spokes, the segments and bands are shaved, measured and adjusted over and over. A precisely aligned groove allows bands to fit in, and with some wood glue those hold the other parts in place. The wheel is drilled and screwed into place, and the bungs, or plugs, are inserted, capping the screws with a different grain of wood. All the surfaces are hand sanded.
Then comes the finishing stage. Ten coats of varnish are applied by hand, which provides more protection than sprayed-on varnish. We’ve been using the same brand for years. It dries well on teak and provides a lot of UV protection. It can come out so glossy it almost looks like plastic, so our team will put semi-gloss on for the last two or three coats, to really bring out the definition. Some customers do want it very glossy, but artistically the semigloss shows the depth and character of the wood.
The final step is mounting the wheel on the boat. “As often as possible, I like to do this myself: It is my opportunity to see the finished wheel in place and verifies that the wheel’s design compliments the boat,” says master carpenter Bob Fuller. “That’s why I really enjoy doing that last step – seeing that.”