Friday, March 28, 2008

A Wooden Sportscar?

When I first saw this in an email from Delta/Porter Cable I thought it was a joke, but then it wasn't April 1st yet, so I looked into it a little more. I've seen wooden boats, I've even contemplated making a wooden kayak, but short of an old Ford Woodie I've never even thought about a wooden car. I found out that the story is about a local man that's building this as part of his master's thesis. Joe Harmon is a graduate student in the industrial design program at North Carolina State University. He has wanted to design cars for most of his life and saw his chance with the Splinter. Harmon's basic job on the car, apart from the design, is to get it finished, one way or another. Whatever it takes to accomplish that is what he tries to do each day, which typically includes making everyone else's life miserable and staying up late worrying about trifling details. When away from the car, he can be found on the water in his hometown of Charleston, playing basketball.

We aren't really all about mission statements around here; too often, they are phoney and superfluous. That said, here is ours. We are building a high-performance, mid-engined supercar from wood composites as a graduate project at North Carolina State University. Wood will be used whereever possible, including the chassis, body, and large percentages of the suspension components and wheels. The car has a target weight of 2500lbs and a power goal of over 600 horsepower. We aren't trying to sell anything; we aren't trying to save the world, and we aren't advocating that everyone should drive a wooden car. This project is a scholastic endeavour in which are simply trying to explore materials, learn, teach, share ideas, and stimulate creativity.

When we started the car, using wood for the suspension was usually talked about with much sarcasm. The more we talked about it, however, the more we began to think it was doable. We decided a leaf spring was nothing more than a bigger, stiffer version of a longbow, so we researched bow making and came upon a wood called osage orange. The strongest wood found in North America, it has properties that make it excellent for use in longbows. Typically considered a nuisance tree, osage orange is not especially easy to get a hold of. We had to drive to Kentucky to get ours,but it was well worth it. We had several logs rotary cut into veneer because the tree's twisty, knotty nature made it difficult to get good strength through an entire board. Our laminations of this wood have left little doubt in our mind that our experiment will prove successful.

Using wood structurally in the wheels began as an experiment. This car ain't no wagon, so we anticipated a lot of development time would be needed to make these hold up to the forces seen in a supercar. We decided to try them when we figured that even if we couldn't make the wood hold up to vicious burnouts and emergency stops from 190mph, we would still have a killer wheel to use in shows. We soon realized that our main problem would not likely be breaking the spokes of the wheel, but rather twisting out the center where the wheel mounts to the spindle. Our calculations tell us that we should be well within the limitations of the wheel, but we suspect there will be some crossed fingers the first time the clutch gets dumped at 5000 rpm.
WOW I still don't know that to think about it, but man it looks fun, I hope that in the end they give it a nice finish. Take a look at Joe's website, they've got a blog, live cam's and lots of info and pics of the process. This is going to be the fastest woodworking project on the road.

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