Cartersville wheelwright perfects craft using 100-year-old machinery
by Marie Nesmith
Sep 25, 2011 | 3123 views | 0 0 comments | 32 32 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Don Cornett demonstrates how a wooden spoke is driven into a mortise by one of the rare antique machines he utilizes to produce wheels.
SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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Locally, Don Cornett is known as a neighbor, husband, father and grandfather, but in the wheelwright world he is "a one-in-a-million" craftsman, internationally recognized for his self-sufficient wooden wheel shop.

"There's only six actual true manufacturers with all the capabilities of doing everything for a wheel existing in the country today and this shop here is one of those, with all the tooling and absolute machinery necessary that was designed and developed to build wheels ... We know almost everyone across the country that's doing this," Cornett said. "Our friendship and relationships have just existed over a long, long period of time.

"Many of those people that are in manufacturing today, I knew their fathers who maybe have passed on in lots of cases and the children who have come up, especially in the Amish society, have taken over the business. ... Supporting a business like this, it has to be an everyday user, just like you're driving your car. If you think of the wheel and the Old Order Amish [and] Mennonites, that's how they are. That's everything to them. That's their means of transportation."

Since 1963, the 76-year-old Cartersville resident has been operating his business, Cornett Wheel Shop, which is behind his home near Highway 293. Learning the craft from his late father, who was a carpenter and woodworker, Cornett's line of work experienced a boom in its first decade.

"In the early '60s the last and largest and most recognized manufacturer of wheels, Hoopes Brothers & Darlington in West Chester, Pa., closed their operation," said Cornett, who belongs to various organizations, such as The Carriage Association of America and The Western Canadian Wheelwright's Association. "They were the only manufacturer in the U.S. for the complete building of wheels for the Amish and Mennonite people.

"The Amish and Mennonite, being total dependent upon them for their wheels and other appointments for carriages, then began to look quickly for manufacturing capabilities and things like that to meet their needs. That's when it all really began to come together. We then began to expand [by] purchasing machinery that was available to do production work and meet their needs."

With the Amish and Mennonites being his primary customers, Cornett's work is utilized heavily among those communities in the Northeastern part of the country as well as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, western Tennessee and south Georgia. Even though Cornett still uses machinery dating back to the early 1900s, his business has had to adapt to the times. While in the past he supplied finished wheels that were primarily wood, now -- due to a rise in shipping costs -- he is furnishing parts for craftsmen in the Amish and Mennonite communities to assemble.

"We do new wheels, and we are totally self-sufficient in it from sawmill -- to saw the material necessary to build the wheels -- to complete finishing of that wheel, except painting. ... The business part of it has changed dramatically [though] in the last few years because of [the] escalating cost of freight delivery to the customer," Cornett said. "[In the past], production on an annual basis of all the wheels, we would probably do 40 sets, which would be 160 wheels or so on a given size. For specialty wheels, like artillery, novelty ornamental things, probably another 30 sets maybe. There's four wheels to a set, so that would be another 120.

"Today, the market has changed dramatically. To get a wheel, just a single wheel to the user in the Northeast, it's so expensive that our market has changed from a finished product to a part product. That means that we're supplying parts for people to assemble elsewhere, the necessary parts that build a wheel -- spokes, hubs for the wheels, rim sections or felloes and other appointments, such as single trees, shafts and poles. These are all turned goods or machined parts necessary for a person elsewhere to build his own wheel."

Primarily working with white oak, hickory and ash, Cornett purchases about 95 percent of his lumber locally from sawmills, loggers and pulp mill operations. While every part begins with a wooden block, also known as a blank, he said the process of making a wheel involves about 45 pieces of equipment, many of which are about 100 years old.

"I guess the pleasure [of] building a complete wheel is just knowing that, 'Hey, I built this wheel.' And I know that it's good and all the parts in it are good no matter where they send it in this country," said Cornett who, due to age, has been scaling back his production. "And that's saying a lot because across the country, wood is so sensitive to humidity.

"Let's say that wheels are going to California or some desert area in the Western part of the country, very dry. Knowing that a wheel is only good if everything is tight in it, it's together completely, and stays together and knowing how wood shrinks as it dries out, then you must have the wheel suitable and dry enough. So when it gets to there, it's not going to become loose and that user has a problem and can't use the wheel."

While the majority of his business is producing wheels for horse-drawn, enclosed buggies in the Amish and Mennonite communities, Cornett also has worked on special commissioned projects. Along with creating carriage wheels for Walt Disney World in the mid-1970s, he continues to supply wooden wheels to Civil War and Revolutionary War re-enactors, following the original manufacturers' designs. Cornett also served in an advisory role when the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville utilized Hansen Wheel and Wagon Shop to restore its Concord Coach No. 84, a western-style coach built in the mid-1860s.

"He's the best," said Seth Hopkins, executive director for the Booth, where Cornett also was the featured speaker at the venue's Art for Lunch offering in September. "He's been doing it for a long, long time. He's been very involved with [national wheelwright organizations]. So he's kind of been doing this behind the scenes as far as any local attention, and some of that was on purpose. He didn't want to bring a lot of attention onto himself. But within that world around the country, he's one of the best known guys in that field."

Echoing Hopkins' comments, Booth docent Richard Holmes -- an avid participant in chuck wagon cook-offs -- regards Cornett's work and knowledge as first rate.

"I met Don [when] I had to have some wheels made," Holmes said, referring to his chuck wagon. "I asked around [to find out] who was the best wheelwright. It didn't make any difference where I was in the United States, Don Cornett's [name] still kept coming up. So I went to him and we've been friends for about seven years.

"He's been more than generous to share all his knowledge with me. I've helped him at the shop. I've learned such a great deal from him. His knowledge of wagons and buggies [is amazing]. You ask anybody, he's just the best there is. ... He's one in a million."