Certain species of wood are renowned for their strength. However, few people would think of building a 600-HP wooden supercar, but that's exactly what Joe Harmon, a graduate student in the Industrial Design program at North Carolina State University, is doing.
Harmon has wanted to design cars for most of his life. When it came time to build his grad project, he wanted to build a project that would truly stand out and show off not only his skills as a car designer, but also his ability to improvise and solve seemingly impossible problems.
It was from this desire to build a project that would be truly memorable that the Splinter was born. He's been documenting his progress in the hope that this amazing project will help him land his dream job as a car designer with a major auto manufacturer.
While the car is in the process of being built, the level of detail is pretty impressive. The car looks a bit like a Lamborghini or Ferrari, except that the first thing you really notice (other than the sporty looks of the car) is that the body is a beautifully-grained wood.
One might think that what we're talking about is simply an exterior shell of wood, but a chassis and super-structure of some type of metal. Upon closer inspection, we noticed that the cabin wall, front suspension (including the leaf springs), firewall, side panels, steering wheel, uprights, super-structure, wheel wells and even the wheels are made from wood.
Joe has had some really fortuitous assistance along the way, beginning with an experienced woodworker in Joe Hunt, a family friend and jack-of-all-trades who has built everything from furniture to houses to sailboats. The rest of the team includes Carolyn Sulatycki, who is in charge of glue-ups and veneer cutting; Aaron Nace, who puts his 3D modeling and design experience to good use rebuilding machines, making molds and glueups; Zac deBethizy, who helps with glue-ups, mold making, machine maintenance and "banging on things"; Ben Bruzga, who uses his sculpture-making training to help refine mold-making and other aspects of the car; and finally, Brownie, the chief supervisor and decision maker on the project who barks commands whenever someone gets out of line.
After bumping around the Splinter website, I had an opportunity for a Q&A with Joe to ask about how the project was going, what was the inspiration behind the Splinter, and what is going to happen on the car once it is finally done.
AW: I read about your experience and desire to become a car designer. Tell me a bit about your history as a woodworker. What types of projects did you typically build before embarking on this project?
JH: "I had done some woodworking before starting this car, but it was mostly trim or construction-type stuff, a little furniture building for design school, but nothing too hardcore. Most of my learning has happened during the project."
AW: I read in a Delta Press Release that the Splinter project just kind of took off as an idea that grew on it's own. Obviously there must've been some serious doubt as to whether a wooden car would work. What convinced you to move forward with the project?
JH: "The deHavilland Mosquito was a huge part of the inspiration for the Splinter. The Mossy was a WWII aircraft that was the fastest plane of its time and made all from wood. We figured that if it was possible to make a 425mph wooden plane 60 years ago, we could have a go at a wooden supercar. There are books around like Wings of Wood, Wings of Metal, by Eric Schatzburg that made us feel a little more confident about it, as well."
AW: What species of wood are you using predominantly in the project? Have you built any parts out of a specific species that simply didn't fare well in testing?
JH: "We have made a lot of parts that didn’t fare well in testing, but none of the failures were related to the type of wood. We use maple and birch as our utility woods, but we use many different types for many different applications. Tessellated, end-grain balsa has been used as a core material in some of our body panels, and osage orange has been used in the leaf springs. Osage orange was used by Native Americans for longbows because of the strength. We decided a leaf spring was basically a robust version of a longbow and decided to give it a shot. Since osage orange is typically considered a nuisance wood, we were able to procure some that had been cut from the side of the road and had it rotary cut into veneer. It is a twisty, knotty wood, so cutting it into veneer allowed us to construct a spring of uniform strength."
AW: When did you begin working on the vehicle, and what is your timeline for completing the car? What kind of tests do you intend to put it through once it is completed, and what will you do with the car once it has completed it's maiden voyage, so to speak?
JH: "We pressed our first part in July, 2006, and plan to have a rolling prototype in August 2008. Several months after that, it should be fully drivable. Delta/Porter-Cable have a lot planned for showing the car once it is completed, so we will probably not put the car through its paces until the show circuit is done. We plan to see what the car can do for our own curiosity, and mostly, to silence skeptics. We didn’t originally intend to sell the car, but I am considering it as a possibility to pay the old man back the giant chunk he has spent on us."
AW: Have you encountered any unexpected delays along the way due to some unforeseen issues?
JH: "Less and less, fortunately. In the beginning, every part we made had a big learning curve. We would make 6 parts trying to get 2 good ones. Now, more and more often, we run into a different version of a piece we have already made, so we can really crank it out quickly and on the first try. Getting a bunch of brand new machinery didn't hurt too much, either."