Splinter: Wooden Supercar - Got Wood?

Regis Lefebure

Yes, this is a wooden car. Forget the jokes. Anyone making more than mere decorative use of wood in an automobile has heard them all. And doesn't care. Wood is a magnificent structural material, "God's own composite," proclaimed the late Frank Costin, the brilliant technologist behind the glorious shapes of early Lotus cars, the Vanwall Formula 1 car, and-significantly-the plywood chassis of the Marcos in which a young Jim Clark won some of his first races.

Three years ago, Joe Harmon, a twenty-eight-year-old industrial design graduate student at North Carolina State University, thought it would be instructive to make a wood supercar for his master's thesis, including some of the running gear and-unlike the Marcos-all of the bodywork. "I wanted to show that wood isn't an antiquated, low-technology material," Harmon says.

He cogitated, querying instructors, friends, and family. All agreed it was a worthy project. Artist Ben Bruzga and fellow ID students, in particular Luke Jenkins, volunteered to do a lot of the work, and Harmon's physician father agreed to subsidize reasonable costs. That included buying a house in Durham, building a workshop/garage behind it, and investing in some major tools, such as a huge laminating press. Fortunately, woodworking tool manufacturers Porter-Cable and Delta are supporting sponsors and provided much of the equipment. Harmon met Canadian fashion design student Caroline Sulatycki when both were in Lund, Sweden, for an overseas semester and persuaded her to join him in life and in the Splinter adventure. She apparently is a demon with a sanding block, contributing enormously to the complex construction project and rallying the troops while still managing her own education at UNC Greensboro.

To achieve Harmon's goal of a fully fluid body surface, the team had to invent a wood veneer cloth to use in place of more usual glass-fiber or carbon-fiber weaves. That meant designing and developing specific looms, acquiring rolls of veneer five inches wide, slitting it into bands sixty feet long and an eighth- or a quarter-inch wide, weaving it into cloth to place in female molds, and then vacuum bagging it with epoxy resin. Those looms-wood, of course-are works of art, using wooden clothespins machined to feed veneer strips through their jaws. With too much tension, they slipped; if there wasn't enough tension, rubber bands attached to the clothespins compensated. It was wonderfully elegant, wonderfully simple. Once it was imagined.

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