Artist Phill Sommers uses discarded tires
to make rubber riders for kids of all ages
“Giddyup, Goodyear!” “Catch ’em, Cooper.” “Good
boy, Bridgestone.” “Move along, Michelin.”
|Phill Sommers sorts through his collection
of tires looking for just the right one for his next creation. Sommers
began making riding horses from tires after a tenant left him with
six old tires.
If kids these days
give their ponies strange names, it could be Phill Sommers’ fault.
The Gerald man turned his talents to making something unique and beautiful — horse
swings — from discarded tires.
“The way this
started, I had some rental property,” says Phill, a
member of Crawford Electric Cooperative. “The tenants moved out and left
me with a half dozen old tires. I thought, what do I do with these?”
remembered the horse swings that were common when he was a child. So he set
out to make one for his 2-year-old daughter, Marti. “The first
one looked more like a Doberman pinscher,” Phill admits.
As the tires
began to look more like horses, Phill took one to an antique store in
nearby Rosebud, a town neatly bisected by Highway 50 and a frequent
destination for shoppers. The rubber horses were an instant sensation
and Phill realized he was on to something.
takes great care to ensure his rubber horses are as safe as possible
for their little riders. All of the bolts that hold them together
are attached with locking nuts and any sharp edge gets removed
with a hand-held grinder. This attention to safety means Phill
can only use old-style bias-ply tires instead of the steel-belted
tires that are in common use today. .
“They are neat,” Phill
says. “People see them and just want
one. People drive by and tell other people from other states. They come
back just to buy one.”
Phill once had a
budding business making silkscreened products in the shop behind his
rural Franklin County home. But an allergy to ink forced him to give
up this enterprise.
Last year, Phill reorganized the shop and got serious about recycling
discarded tires into horse swings. Armed with a degree in art, a powerful
hand-held jigsaw and plenty of blades, he came up with four original
designs for his swings.
The first is what
Phill calls the classic, which has two hoops from the tire sidewalls.
Then there is the jumping pony, which is suspended from a single covered
spring that lets the rider bounce around. A double-springed version,
the jumping stallion, is strong enough for adults.
Phill came up with
a design for a longhorned bull, using part of a tire carcass to form
the horns. Intrigued by the bulls, a bar owner ordered one that bucks
and jumps and can hold up to 300 pounds.
He also makes a cozy-seat
swing that looks like a little flower. These are his daughter’s
favorite, especially when her parents wind up the rope and let her
|Levenda Sommers, right,
and her daughter, Jessica, get some exercise on a pair of “jumping stallions” that
are made with two stout springs that will support adults. No two
horses are ever the same.
What sets some of
his horses apart from the swings of Phill’s
youth are the comfortable saddles he makes from ATV tires. He also
adds little touches that ensure no two horses are ever alike.
example, he makes the horse’s mane and tail from unraveled
rope painted in whatever color the customer wants. School colors
are popular, with the orange and black colors of the Owensville Dutchman
hard to keep in stock.
Other customers want
bridles personalized with their names. He also adds a coiled lariat
for the roping horse crowd.
“No two are
the same because no tire is the same,” Phill says. “They
all fold differently. They have different textures, too.”
tires make the heads stand up. Depending on where Phill
locates the ears, the horse can look curious or spirited
with its ears laid back.
In less than a year,
Phill has made 400 horse swings. His goal this winter was to get 100
made in anticipation of spring sales. “Well, they all
sold,” Phill says. “Up in Rosebud,
he sold them all winter long.”
Marti is the test pilot for all of her father’s
designs, including the first one he made. That model looked more
like a dog, Phill says.
as he’s been selling the horses, Phill
worry much about competition. That’s because
making a horse swing from a tire is hard work,
requiring at least 2-1/2 hours of labor per horse.
begins by scrubbing off the road grime so parents
don’t have to
scrub it off their kids later. Then he grabs
a piece of string marked at seemingly random
intervals with duct tape. The string is his
pattern, with the tape telling him where to
begin a cut. All of the shaping is done by
freehand, with Phill’s
artist eye guiding the saw.
only thing I measure is the board that goes
on top,” Phill
says. “Everything else just kind of happens.
That’s a problem. I’d
love to have help doing this. To me there’s
nothing to it. But other people can’t
seem to do it.”
When the shape is
cut, the real work begins. Phill has to force the
tire inside-out to form the head, seat and
other parts. Clamps hold it in place long
enough for Phill to drill the dozens of holes for
bolts, hangers, mane and tail.
is taken to ensure the swings are safe. The bolts are capped with
safety nuts that won’t work loose. Rope to hang the swings is
tested for 1,200 pounds. All sharp edges are smoothed
with a grinder.
Early on, Phill discovered
that modern steel-belted tires won’t work
for his swings. The steel belts inevitably
pushed through, forming tiny razor blades that would hurt little riders.
So Phill only uses the old bias-ply tires with nylon or polyester belts
that are rarely sold anymore.
and Marti Sommers pose with a selection of Phill's creations.
a real supply problem that keeps Phill scrounging in junkyards and
running ads in area papers looking for tires. “You can’t
be too choosy because the tires aren’t
available,” he says. “Some
are stiff and hard as a rock. An
old snow tire, that’s the best.
They are easy to work with and soft
enough to shape.”
horses leave, Phill gives them
a coat of finish he created to keep
them from deteriorating.
“One thing about these horses, they can be handed
down from generation to generation,” he says. “They are going to
be around for years and years. That’s an attraction for people. You’re
not going to hurt it.”
horses range in price from $80 to $160. He takes orders and can ship
anywhere in the United States for an additional $15. For more information,
call (573) 764-2631 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or
log onto www.frontierswings.com.