Wood-grain steering wheels are typically made of molded plastic with an embossed wood-grain pattern adorning the outer perimeter. Commonly used in high-end luxury vehicles as well as sports cars, the wood-grain steering wheels were used to embellish an illusion of hand-crafted styling and craftsmanship onto the vehicle. Occasionally, vehicle models would be equipped with natural or authentic wood-grain steering wheels instead of the molded plastic versions. Natural wood-grain steering wheels were constructed in such a manner that it was common for brass rivets to be used to attach the real wood sections to the steel steering wheel component. Often, the component that separates the ultimate vehicle restorations from the average is the use of authentic wood-grain steering wheels.
With the automobile being a descendant of the buggy and wagon industry, many retired coach builders added wooden highlights to automobiles in an attempt to link the vehicle to its horse-drawn history. Dashboards, trim panels and wood-grain steering wheels were all used in this attempt to preserve the history and craftsmanship of the early coach-building trade. Eventually, the exterior of the vehicles took on the wood highlights in the form of the actual wooden body construction of a "Woody," to the simulated wood decal body panels of the family station wagon.
Many sports car builders and manufacturers used the wood-grain steering wheels due to the ability of the real wood pieces to absorb sweat from the drivers' hands. Prior to the use of driving gloves, this was necessary to eliminate the possibility of a slippery steering wheel and promote better drivability of the vehicle. Many racers would sand the wooden steering wheel to a more comfortable shape and profile that created a wheel tailor made for their hands. This "customization" of factory stock wood-grain steering wheels has also contributed to the high cost and difficulty in finding concours factory steering wheels for many vehicle models.
In response to the need for quality wood-grain steering wheels for restoration as well as individual taste, many after-market manufacturers now make and distribute models fashioned after the more desirable steering wheels. Offered in many exotic woods not offered by the original manufacturer, vehicle owners and customizers can add the elegance of real wood in a configuration and style not originally available on their vehicle. This can include inlays of different materials such as abalone or mother of pearl, contrasting wood accents and hand-carved one-off personal steering wheel designs.