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Rural Missouri Magazine
Giddyup, Goodyear!
Artist Phill Sommers uses discarded tires
to make rubber riders for kids of all ages

by Jim McCarty

“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?”

Phill 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.

Phill 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 spin.

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.

For 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.”

Stiffer 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.”

Daughter 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.

Successful as he’s been selling the horses, Phill doesn’t 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.

Phill 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.

“About the 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.

Great care 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.

Lavenda, Phill and Marti Sommers pose with a selection of Phill's creations.

That’s posed 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.”

Before the 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.”

Phill’s 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 frontier@fidmail.com or log onto www.frontierswings.com.

Rural Missouri magazine - April 2014 issue
 
 
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