Interview with a Tire Carver

Q&A: Jim Horvath, senior associate engineer, Hankook Tire America Corporation, Green, Ohio

Sept. 22, 2008

Did you always want to be a tire carver?

My life’s ambition was to live and work on a farm. But I grew up real close to Akron and went to school to learn to do drafting work. And then I wound up in the tire industry. I worked for General Tire & Rubber. That’s where I learned to do tire carving. They had a lab back there [in the art department]. In that lab is where tire carving got started. Tire carving really began to change the industry until the 1970s, is that correct?
If they wanted a prototype, they had to manufacture molds and build the tires, then take those tires out and test them. 

So the way of prototyping that you’ve refined was a big advance?
Right. Say the engineer would like to take a look at a half a dozen different ideas in rubber. We can actually cut four tires and take them out and test them. If they’re noisy, if they don’t have good wet traction capability or snow traction, the engineer can take that data and modify what he’s come up with. The savings here is the simple fact that they don’t have to make a mold for every one of those ideas. We can do it right here on the spot.

How do you describe your carving tool? Compare it to something.
On the market they have what they call re-grooving tools. What I use is very similar. What I don’t like about the commercial unit is, the way the tool is set up, when you put your carving blade into it [and] push against the rubber, the whole head slides back. That makes contact, which lets electric current pass through the blade, which enables you to cut the tire. The tool that I have is a modification of that, drastically, in that I have a microswitch on mine and a rheostat. I can adjust the heat down to where I’m not going to burn rubber and it’s going to go through nice and easy.

As the compound changes, is your carving affected?
Yes. In some instances it is. Take for example an ultra-high-performance racing tire, the compound is much harder. It’s a little harder to cut. You learn to adapt and vary your heat on your carving tool.

Do you ever come up with repetitive strain injuries from shoving this thing along?
Nah, I’ve got a right arm that looks like Popeye’s.

Do you see yourself as an artist?
That’s using the term very loosely. I guess in a way it is an art form. But I don’t see myself as an artist. I kind of like the word ‘model-maker.’

You work from a stenciled pattern, so that answers the question, ‘How do you keep your lines straight?’
We hand-cut templates and then airbrush the design on the blank tire. The blank tire just looks like a racing slick. Then we can go ahead. We get back with the engineer, and he’ll tell us how deep he’d like to have the circumferential grooves, say, or the lateral grooves, and at what angles he would like to see those. And also the sipes—the small cuts in the tires. He’ll give us all that data, and we’ll go ahead and set our blades up and start cutting the tire.

Do tire carvers ever get together in Las Vegas for a convention?
No. I do know a couple of guys who carve tires. But since we all work for different tire companies, you tend not to talk about what you’re doing. It’s like a trade secret. Anything I’ve learned, I’m not going to tell you because then you can get as good as I am.  

Do you practice woodcarving as a hobby?

Yes, I do. Mostly caricatures. I’ve got some bears and some turtles and some coon hounds and nonentity things like a shoe and a hat. That kind of stuff. I do that as a tension reliever. 

You had another position at first?
Yes, I did. When I first hired into General, I hired in there as a draftsman. I worked in the drafting department for a little over eight years. Then I had a chance to go back into the art department. At that time, our art department—which would’ve been the guys that came up with the new tread designs; they did all the art work for meetings and stuff; they used to do a lot of airbrushing, which a lot of things have changed over the years; now everything’s on the CAD system and they have multiple views with the aid of the computers, but back then they did it all by hand. …well, I’ll tell you how it was…I worked in there almost another eight years because I had almost seventeen years’ service with General. I left and actually bought a farm in southeastern Ohio. I farmed for six years, had both dairy and hog operations. Then things got a little rough in the agricultural field for us. So I decided I’d better get a job off the farm if I wanted to keep the farm, which we wound up eventually doing. Then I wound up going back to General Tire for six more years before they got bought out by Continental. They moved everything to Charlotte, North Carolina. I did not want to go to Charlotte. Fortunately for me, Hankook Tire had opened a technical center. They had just built this brand-new building here in Green [Ohio], where we’re located now. It’s a little town about halfway between Akron and Canton. I put an application in with them and lo and behold I got a job with them. So I guess I’ve been here now, I guess, a little over twelve years. 

Not only a cost savings but also a time savings?
I don’t know how long it actually takes to produce a complete set of mold drawings. But then to have the mold drawings made by a CAD operator, and then get everything approved, and then send all that to a machine shop and have the mold made, then get the mold shipped to the production facility—and in our case, for Hankook, all our production is done overseas, well, what I call overseas, everything’s done either in Korea or China, and now I think we’ve opened up a plant in Hungary—for us it takes quite a while to get tires actually produced and sent back to the States for us to test. Whereas, if I have the blank tires here, we can go ahead and stencil the patterns on the tires and then go ahead and cut them. 

With the guide that’s on the tool, you can not only keep your lines straight but also you don’t have to worry about gouging through the carcass?
Correct. That’s pretty much up to the engineer to make sure that the blank tire that we have is built to his specs, so that there’s enough tread stock on there so that we won’t do that. 

What’s an example of a tire at either end of the time spectrum from two to sixteen hours in preparation?
Right now we are doing a job for one of the engineers and they’re going to be doing a traction study, and some of the tires that we have right now are basically a mono-pitch and they’ll either have no sipes or one sipe or two sipes. So those tires—which are just straight cuts, there’s nothing fancy about them—those will only take a couple hours. If you get into a pitched tire that has an all-season tread design, it may take you two to three days, once you get your templates cut, the tire laid out, and actually start cutting that. It just depends on how involved the tread design is, or what I would refer to as ‘lacy.’ Some of them like high-performance tires, they’re asymmetrical, a lot of times you have one side that does traction, the other side is for … those types of tires, you have less buttons or number of pitches around the tire than you do on a lot of your conventional all-season tires. To give you an example, we may have a tire that has sixty-five buttons in it or it may have as many as eighty-eight buttons—or pitches, would be the correct terminology, not buttons. 

Model-making is a term that goes way back in the automotive industry, a good solid label to put on it. For you to actually do this work by hand, it places you among a very distinguished, small number.

I think probably all the tire manufacturers have tire carvers for the same reason [Hankook has] me, just for doing prototype stuff. But no, I agree, it’s not a very common job whatsoever. 

Is there a type of wood you favor?

No. I’ve done a little bit of everything. I’ve got stuff sitting here in my office right now that is carved out of black walnut, which is a very hard wood. I do a lot of work with a Dremel tool. It’s like a high-speed carving tool. But there’s basswood, which is a real easy wood to carve. About anything I can pick up, I guess. You can let your imagination just go hog wild. Which is kind of what I do sometimes on our tires, too. 

What’s the result then?
Total chaos… We’ve actually tried some things that didn’t work. But it was interesting in that we could at least give it an attempt and see if it would work in the tread designs—some things like embedded pitch sequences. But it just unfortunately didn’t work for us, but it would’ve been great had it would have.

Can you listen to the radio while you work?
Yes. I listen to country. I’ve got an office area back here, I’m pretty much by myself. I do have a young guy that I’m trying to teach to do this type of work because eventually I’m going to retire some day, I hope. The people here have seen fit to say, ‘Hey, maybe we need somebody else who can do this.’ They hired him in for doing shipping and receiving. On Jay’s resume, he put down that he does chainsaw carving. So I got to chit-chatting with Jay after we hired him, and he thought he’d kind of like to try this. So we brought him back, and sure enough he fell right into it. He’s doing an excellent job. 

Does the smell of burning rubber ever make you sick?

If you’re carving and you’re burning rubber, you’re doing it wrong. There’s kind of a fine line there. If you don’t have the heat high enough, it’s hard to push the blade or the tool through the rubber. If you get it too hot, you literally burn it and you do smoke the tire. You don’t want either one of those conditions. You want it just to glide through, kind of like a knife going through butter.

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