- by Alex West
When I was growing up (which wasn’t that long ago), my dad would always tell me while working on something to “let the tool do the work”. I seemed to never understand this, as I was always working harder rather than smarter. I never seemed to have the right tool for the job, or the money to pay for the right tool to make the job simpler. Time has proven to be a hard teacher with countless broken bolts, rounded off bolt heads, stripped threads, and poor quality tools usually doing more harm than good. Quality American made tools are becoming harder to come by and more expensive to afford, and a good tool box filled with a common assortment of tools can easily reach into the five-figure section of a checking account. And for an organization freak like me, mismatched tools are a nuisance.
New tools are not always an option, however. Sometimes the tools for the job haven’t been manufactured for a long time, for jobs which have long ago become obsolete. My most recent encounter with this situation stemmed from a conversation about mounting tires on old split rims. Many new tire shops simply refuse to mount any split rims at all. In rural and agricultural areas, many tractor tires are still on split rims, and most agricultural service departments will still mount them. In more urban areas these services are infrequent, if available at all.
My most recent dilemma involves my 1921 International Speed truck. The tires are uncommon by modern standards, as they are a 33X5 tire size (see photo 1). National specialty tire shops, Coker or Universal for example, can easily provide these in a variety of styles and have available the tubes and flaps required for installation. My old tires that were on the truck were of the “may-pop” variety, assuming they could hold air at all, and had the tensile strength of a Band-Aid. They were made in the 50s at the latest, and were missing chunks out of them. I hadn’t driven with them, but they were hard as concrete and only safe to roll the vehicle into the shop to change them.
So, into the shop the truck went and I removed the Schrader valve from the valve stem. The clinchers that mounted the rim to the wheel were removed, and the rim came off with the tire, just like it was supposed to. Then the fun started! The old collapsible rims had “nature welded (rusted)” themselves together, and also had created pitting and holes in them where there were not supposed to be any. All of this is fixable with the right tools! The very first tool required for this job is a rim spreader (see photo 2) that makes this job a snap! The tool slides down over the rim, and with a small amount of prying to pop the safety catch loose, and a turn of the crank handle, the rim collapses upon itself and then the bead of the tire can easily slide over the now more-narrow diameter of the rim. I then repaired the pitting and rust issues with a little metal work (welding, grinding and shaping) and some paint to make it look good again. The new tube can be installed into the new tire, and the flap slid into location to prevent the tube from rubbing on the rim. In humid locations, a little baby powder can aid in getting the tube and flap into place. The tire is then slid over the rim, and the rim spreader is reversed to aid in spreading the rim to the desired diameter so that the safety catch can be properly aligned (see photo3). The tire is then aired up to about 5psi with the rim spreader still installed to prevent rim collapse, and then the spreader is removed, and the tire can be mounted to the wheel again, and fully inflated to the desired psi. The installation on the wheel prevents rim collapse while under pressure, creating a safe environment for airing up to full pressure.
Now to address the elephant in the room – the dreaded two-piece split rims commonly known as “widowmakers.” These rims are notorious for coming apart in dramatic fashion. They are not serviceable and should be removed from service whenever possible. They are easily identified by having a split in the middle of the rim, running around the circumference of the wheel, instead of a lock ring on the outside of the wheel (see photo 4 for what needs to be never used again). These are more common in medium-duty and truck applications, but are not unheard-of in lighter vehicles. Another type of wheel is called a lock ring wheel. They are identified by having a split rim that mounts to the outside of a much larger rim. Lock ring wheels are perfectly safe to use if they are not warped, bent, heavily rusted, or assembled dirty. These lock ring wheels should be aired-up in a tire cage to prevent the lock ring from becoming a heavy projectile, should it come loose. These rims are still used on many over-the-road trucks and trailers crisscrossing the US. They are best assembled by a professional in a tire shop, but the collapsible split rims, like on my 21 IH, can be reassembled and serviced with the use of the right tools in a home shop. This article is not comprehensive of all rim types, but is merely an opinion of what can be attempted by an adventuresome restorer with the right tools, some oversight, and a little bit of knowledge. As always, ask questions first before attempting any major repair. Everyone has an opinion on this, as I am sure to find out, but for now, this is just my two cents worth. For those of us that have to do it ourselves, or do without, hopefully this tool, recommendation, and identification are helpful.