It is a nautical term for the ‘string’ wrapping on a boats ‘helm’ (steering wheel). You will have seen it on many yachts. You may also have seen it on sporting vintage Bentley’s and a number of other vintage racing cars.
The steering wheel on the Riley was quite tired and the original lacquer finish was breaking off leaving sharp edges which were decidedly unfriendly to your hands. So one way or another the surface of the wheel had to be removed or re-finished. I decided to follow the vintage sports car look and conducted some research into its durability, style, materials and the obvious how-to-do-it. Not surprisingly the best sources were of a nautical nature because yachts have long had a string wrapped wheel for good grip in wet conditions.
Many vintage sports cars also have a string wrapped suspensions as that stiffens the springs to some degree and those generally have a nice zigzag of knots running along the top surface of the springs. But such a zigzag or spiral of knots was not to my liking for a steering wheel, I wanted something that was visually smooth. But what was of interest was the tutorial said in order to change the direction of the zigzag knots you merely wrapped the cord in the opposite direction after tying the knot. So logically… if I changed the direction of wrapping on every single knot – the knots would produce a straight line and if that straight line of knots was on the back of the steering wheel – then the front would look smooth. Some testing with simple butchers string proved my theory to be correct.
Why have knots at all? If you simply wound the string around the wheel with a knot at the start and finish and the string wore through for some reason – the whole thing would unravel. If you tie a knot every time you loop the string around the wheel, then the most that can come undone is that single loop.
Next what material to use. Butchers string is 1.5mm thick which produces a nice smooth finish but after getting the hang of actually doing the coxcombing, and after about an hour of doing it (which created about 150mm of wrapping), I snapped the string which meant I had to remove it all and start again. The whole point is that the job is done with a single length of string. After doing that for the second time, I decided butcher string simply wasn’t strong enough. Back to more research and I discovered that natural hemp is the material they used back in the day. So a 100m reel of 3mm hemp cord was sourced and I restarted the process. Hemp, I discovered, has been used in rope making for hundreds of years because of its strength and durability. It has of course been replaced these days by lighter, stronger man made materials. The sailors of old must have had hands like leather as I discovered it is quite hard on the hands when you need to pull the cord tight on about a thousand knots. I therefore wrapped the wheel in several one hour sessions because my soft fingers became sore quite quickly. About half way through I discovered wearing a pair of gloves helps.
Today, I had a helper in the form of Bobby the cat who was rather taken by the smell of the hemp and decided it would be fun to rub his face all over it. Eventually he settled down for a snooze on the passenger seat but looked up occasionally to check I was progressing in the right direction.
In the photo above you can see that hemp is a little ‘hairy’. These will I am told wear away quite quickly which is good because the wheel will need to be sealed with linseed oil which soaks into the string and then sets, locking everything into place.
Below is the finished ‘coxcombed’ wheel:
Right now, it is of course far to clean and new looking… so it will need a little bit of aging when no-one is looking.
When driving, the feel of the wheel is actually quite nice and certainly more ‘grippy’. The row of flat knots were purposely placed to be in the fold of the fingers. So there we have it, one period steering wheel completed. Now to soothe my aching fingers.