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Book Preview: How to Restore Automotive Trim and Hardware

Book Preview: How to Restore Automotive Trim and Hardware

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit: John Gunnell is a regular contributor to this site. As his editor (and the person who keeps giving him assignments), I obviously find him to be knowledgeable, so I was fairly sure when I cracked open my copy of How to Restore Automotive Trim and Hardware that I would not be disappointed. He did not let me down. This is John’s 90th book, and he clearly draws from that extensive and diverse experience here, giving background and history of automotive parts along with descriptions on how to repair them. This is helpful in giving some perspective to the process – if you understand what materials the factory used and why, you will better understand how to go about undertaking their repair or replacement.

The book covers a range of trim and hardware, including metal moldings and trim, wood, chrome-plated plastic, and other metal and plastic trims. John gives specific examples of applications for each of these trim and hardware types and includes tips on repairing them to factory standards or using more advanced modern technology to rebuild them more effectively (especially useful when factory versions were faulty or are no longer available). There are quite a few general-information projects included which cover common issues, rather than focusing on model-specific problems. These do provide enough information to get you through most projects on most cars, with information on companies, manufacturers, or shops who can help you through the rest if you run into more specific quirks that aren’t covered. This makes the book applicable to a wider range of cars and also means that he can go into more detail on each step in the process, drawing out the universal aspects, like which sandpapers are best for each step, or which companies make the most reliable products or tools for a specific job. There are a tremendous number of tips and tricks offered to make the process easier, from the common sense to the more involved. The photography may not be as exciting as a coffee table book, but there is a lot of it, and it does clearly show the restoration process on a wide range of applications. Of course, you’re buying this book for the information, not the eye candy.

Approaching a project car can be overwhelming, but the range of material covered in this book will get you through most projects, from gauge faces to plastic knobs, wooden dashboards, and, of course, metal pieces. Our excerpt this month takes a look at some of the more unusual pieces you might run into. Since these pieces are more rare than, say, chrome trim, they don’t warrant quite as much detail, but you’ll have to pick up a copy of the book for the full story. If you have a restoration project in the works (or are considering taking one on), it’s definitely a worthwhile purchase.

Chapter 8

Specially Finished Metal Trim and Genuine Wood Trim

While buffed or plated metal serves nicely as auto trim, other sections of a car may have metal parts that were specially finished for eye appeal. We could never forget the beautiful woodgrained window trim on the ’49 De Soto that our father purchased when we were kids. The De Soto was a mid priced car, but the woodgrained metal made us feel as if we were riding in a Duesenberg.

Wood trim works particularly well on car interiors and the exterior of certain models (like the Chrysler Town & Country or Ford Country Squire). Most early cars had genuine wood trim, and it can still be found inside certain models. Simulated woodgrain trim is another possibility that appeared by the mid-1930s, if not earlier. Simulated woodgrain trim is usually manufactured through a veneering process, although water transfer printing is another option today.

In addition to wood grains, cars have been produced with simulated cane work, plaid, floral, and paisley finishes and even psychedelic patterns on the roof (in the “psycho ’70s”). The restorer who wants to put cars back to original condition has to come up with ways to restore such unusual trims.

Painted bright metal trim and cloisonne' may also require restoration. Luckily, over the 75-80 years that hobbyists have been restoring old cars, various industrial processes have been developed for such jobs.

Repairing Genuine Wood Trim

Two types of real wood are used commonly in automobiles: ash and maple. These are long-lasting hardwoods with a natural resistance to wood-boring insects. Hardwoods are dense, which makes them fire resistant. Another plus is they can hold fasteners more securely. This keeps screws from working loose. Ash and maple are used primarily for structural components, which restorers may have to refinish. Among the Big Three, GM and Chrysler favored ash and Ford favored maple. Birch and dark ribbon-grained mahogany are other woods used for nonstructural trim pieces.

The restorer must determine the type of wood a damaged part is made of and decide whether the piece can be repaired and refinished. In many cases, it may be better to make a new piece. To make these decisions, some disassembly of the car or trim may be required.

The first step is to treat the wood with a stripper that will lift the old finish and allow you to restore the dirty, blackened grain. Follow can directions. The stripper will probably leave some stubborn spots that need to be sanded.

Hand-sand with 80-grit paper on a jitterbug sander. After initial sanding, blow fine wood dust off the part with compressed air. If you are sanding ash, the harder layers that make the grain will stand up. You will have to use a natural-colored filler with minimum shrinkage to smooth the surface. Put the filler on across the grain and let it set up until its glossiness is gone. Then wipe it off, again moving against the grain. Most fillers require a full day to cure, and the longer the better. Fully cured filler will sand better. Sand the fully cured filler using fine sandpaper on a sanding block, checking smoothness with your hand.

With any wood, when you get to smooth, bare wood, blow off the sanding dust. Treat the wood with a clear lacquer sanding sealer, and then use a high-quality spar varnish to refinish it. You want the varnish to bring out a yellow tint and highlight the darker grain. Apply a two-part epoxy coating to protect the finish.

If it’s necessary to replace damaged parts, your own level of woodworking skill comes into play. If you have done woodworking, you’ll have a good idea of your abilities. First timers may want to enroll in an adult education class that teaches woodworking or buy books or CDs on the topic. In other cases, you may want to send the part to a professional shop like one of those listed in the Appendix.

Wood Veneering

Wood veneering is a process used to make woodgrained auto parts. Dennis Bickford of Vintage Woodworks in Iola, Wisconsin, is an expert in this craft. Dennis reproduces the veneered inserts for Chrysler Town & Countrys. This same 10-hour process is used to make woodgrained interior trim parts like dashboard panels, garnish moldings, center console inserts, steering wheel inserts and so on.

According to Dennis, 12 inserts—made of wood pressed onto metal panels—are needed to restore a Chrysler Town & Country. Six are flat panels and six have compound curves. Bickford has been making panels for a long time and has accurate patterns for each one. He starts by having sheet metal panels cut to fit his patterns. The panels with compound curves are shaped with an English wheel (One hard-to-reproduce panel is available in fiberglass).

Restoration processes are often different from factory production methods. Chrysler made the panels by gluing wood veneer to flat panels and shaping them in a stamping machine. Dennis says this process led to premature panel failures. Instead of repeating Chrysler’s mistake, Bickford cuts the veneer slightly larger than his metal panel, and then places the panel and veneer into a vacuum press where it stays for 24 hours. The vacuum press applies 2,000 psi to form the veneer to the contours of the metal panel. The vacuum press slowly shapes the wood veneer so that it “learns” the form it will need to take from the metal panel. No gluing is done at this stage. Dennis gets a perfectly shaped wood veneer that fits the panel like a glove, with no wrinkles. Both pieces are marked for realignment.

Before gluing, the metal panel must be prepped. Sometimes the original metal panel is reused, but often a new one is needed. Regardless, the metal has to be sanded with a 36-grit disc. On reused panels, this removes all of the old veneer. On both, it roughs up the metal’s surface to help the glue adhere better.

After the panel has the correct roughness, Dennis washes it three times with acetone to remove grease, sanding dust, and dirt. When it is cleaned and dried, a two-part marine epoxy is mixed up and applied to the metal panel using a one-time-use sponge roller that produces a more even coat than a brush. Next, the shaped wood veneer panel is sandwiched with the metal panel, while lining up the alignment marks made earlier. Since the wood veneer is larger than the metal panel, it has to be shaved to the correct size.

Dennis tapes the two panels together at top and bottom, puts them back in the vacuum press, applies pressure, and allows the epoxy to cure for 24 hours. When the sandwich comes out of the press, it will be spotted with epoxy that flowed through pores in the wood. A light brushing with a cabinet scraper removes the white spots.

A powder type aniline dye is applied to refinish the surface of the wood veneer. Bickford finds that this gives a clearer view of the wood and grain than an oil-based stain. A West System epoxy is applied to enhance bonding. When it dries, several coats of varnish or urethane are applied. The veneer is sanded between each coat so the finish gets smoother and smoother. When finished, the wood veneer panel will have a shiny luster to it.

Restoring Nonwoodgrained Finishes

What if you were restoring an early postwar Willys station wagon with cane work trim or if you were building a Resto-Mod and wanted to replicate a carbon fiber texture on the side trim insert? You can do this using a water transfer printing (WTP) process now being promoted by M+M Custom Finishes of Bristol, Illinois.

We described the WTP process earlier in this book, but it bears repeating here. It can be used to transfer an endless number of patterns on flat or compound curved surfaces without voids or seams. The process is done in four stages as follows:

Stage 1

  1. Surface of items to be decorated is sanded to accept primer.
  2. Primer is applied.
  3. Base coat is applied.
  4. Drying is carried out.

Stage 2
  1. Film is cut to match size and shape of item being decorated.
  2. Chemical activator applied to film.

Stage 3
  1. Item slowly immersed in tank.
  2. Item is removed from tank after complete submersion.

Stage 4
  1. Item is immediately washed and dried.
  2. High- or low-sheen acrylic finish is applied.

Repairing Simulated Woodgrain

In some restorations, it may not be necessary to replace wood veneer parts. For example, you may own a muscle car with a wood-trimmed center console that looks faded and cracked around the gear shift lever. Often, the cracks will appear to be in the finish, rather than in the wood veneer.

Unfortunately, cracks in the clear topcoat usually go into the veneer, because the clear also cracks where it soaked into the veneer when originally applied. To get rid of such cracks, you must sand slightly into the veneer. Usually, this will force you to sand the entire panel into the veneer to make the color uniform. If you’re very lucky, you’ll be able to paint the color back into that panel using acrylic artists’ paints or stain pens. However, this rarely works.

When sanding, keep in mind that some automotive interior veneers are very thin. Sand very lightly and use very fine-grit papers. On more modern cars, the veneer is applied to plastic and it’s easy to go through to the plastic panel.

Most likely, the sanded area will come out a different shade. It will be in the same color family, but noticeably different from the rest of the trim in the car’s interior. To make things match again, you will need to sand all of the wood trim. After all of the wood trim is sanded, you will have to refinish every piece with the same clear epoxy. This will make the interior look like new again, but the job of doing the entire interior can take as long as three months to complete.

The best clear epoxies for this job are available at automotive paint shops. Stay away from epoxies sold by home improvement stores. The better the quality of the epoxy, the better the interior will look and the longer it will last. Most high-end modern cars use nitro cellulous lacquer for the clear coat. Polyurethane varnish will look similar. A two-part catalyzed urethane clear is acceptable, and it should be applied with a spray gun for best results.

Clear that comes out of rattle cans takes a long time to dry and usually doesn’t hold up well. However, companies like Eastwood (see Appendix) have special rattle can formulas and sprayers created for hobbyists. They are more expensive than what you’ll find in discount department stores, but they are worth the extra money in the long run.

We talked above about the new water transfer printing process that M+M Custom Finishing was promoting at the Bloomington Gold swap meet. Among other things, it can be used to apply custom woodgrain finishes to plastic or metal parts. Burl and walnut finishes are specifically mentioned in the company’s brochure, but the company says “any” wood finish can be duplicated.


Cloisonne trim is usually made of copper, silver, or gold decorated with powdered glass that is fired in an oven until the glass becomes red hot and melts to a smooth finish over the metal or part of the metal.

Cloisonne trim is among the most beautiful bright metal trim you will see on restored vintage cars. It was originally created by enameling the metal parts. Enamels are complex combinations of clear glass, color-adding metal oxides, and other materials that are melted together.

Emblemagic of Grand River, Ohio, one of the leading restorers of cloisonne' trim, separates the trim into three categories: Pre-1930, 1930–1939, 1940 and up. The prettiest cloisonne' trim is like jewelry for cars.”

Restoration of cloisonne' car badges and enamel emblems includes minor metal repair or straightening, repairing attachment studs, replacing the enamel, and replating the metal.All of the original vitreous enamel that has deteriorated must be removed before the metal can be repaired. In most cases, repairs made to the metal are similar to those described for pot metal.

After damage to the metal has been taken care of, new vitreous enamel is applied and fired onto the emblem (AKA champleve or cloisonne emblem). Modern restorers may also use synthetic resins, composites, cold enamels, cold-cast bronzes, and polymer clays to get certain colors or effects.

Emblemagic was wise enough to stockpile obsolete,lead-bearing enamels like the original types, which can no longer be legally manufactured. The company uses only these enamels in its restorations. This is a big help in matching some old, hard-to-reproduce original colors.

According to the Emblemagic website (see Appendix), an emblem restoration will usually run about 12 to 16 weeks. The company groups the emblems into batches, which are done only a couple of times a year. The website states that cost is determined by the size, number of colors, type of colors, and complexity of the design, as well as any metal or stud repair that may be required.The average, simple, medium-sized emblem with one or two colors—like a Ford emblem—will run about $260. Emblems that have translucent colors, with everything else remaining equal, will run about $295.

Before spending “big bucks” to have the cloisonne' trim on your collector car restored, check to see if reproductions are available. Mail order parts houses may have the piece you need or a one-marque club may have reproduced it as a club project. Home restorers seeking to save money may use also replating and painting (below) to restore cloisonne' emblems and get fairly good results. However, there is nothing like the real thing if you’re after a 100-point restoration.

Nameplates, Emblems, and Badges

The chrome-plated metal nameplates that spell out the name or model of a car in block letters or script are prone to two types of breakage that can be repaired with relative ease. Often the studs on the back of the trim piece that pass through holes in the car body will break off. About 20 percent of the time, the trim piece itself will be fractured or will break during removal from the car.

A broken stud must be carefully drilled out. You can then fashion a replacement out of a small, fine-thread bolt. Use a two-part epoxy to hold the new stud in place.

A fractured nameplate can be fixed by using brass rod to join two pieces back together. Many nameplates are produced in a way that leaves a groove on the back of them. If your nameplate has a flat back, you can cut a groove in it with a small grinder or Dremel tool. Then, buy a small-diameter piece of brass rod and cut off about an inch of it. Fit it into the groove. If the nameplate letters have curves, you’ll need to bend the rod. When the trim pieces and the rod all fit together well, use your epoxy to bond everything together. Sand the back until flat. If the crack shows, have the piece replated.

Many emblems have an indented area that is enameled or painted in a color. Red and black are most common, but white, blue, yellow, and other colors are also used. To have a trim piece properly enameled, you may want to send it out to a specialist like Emblemagic. But you can handle painted trim yourself.

If the emblem needs to be repaired or replated, take care of that first. Then, wearing protective gear, use acetone to remove the old finish. After toweling and air drying the piece, spray the entire piece with the proper color enamel and allow it to dry for 24 hours. Then use enamel reducer to remove the paint from the raised areas. If you are careful not to get reducer in the indented area, only the color you sprayed will remain there and the trim will look like new.

Simulated woodgrain trim can be found on the dashboards and door panels of cars from the 1930s up and on such things as consoles in later cars. Restoration methods can vary according to vehicle age.

Real wood trim was common on prewar cars and can also be found on postwar models like the Chrysler Town & Country and MG Magnette. Real wood trim is making a comeback on cars today.

Classic car hubcaps and wheel covers were often trimmed with red, black, or white paint and sometimes with more than one color. Some had only colored writing and some had elaborate painted grid or fin designs.

Put small parts in a baggie. Put a labeled index card inside. The baggie has been attached to the metal molding with an electrical tie. Later, the molding will be buffed. Also, mark the “top” of the wood molding.

After stripping old varnish off the wood, sand with 80-grit paper on a jitterbug sander. If you are sanding ash (not the case here), use a natural-colored filler with minimum shrinkage to smooth the surface.

Having a clean work environment is important. After your initial sanding, blow any fine wood dust off the part with a compressed air gun or nozzle.

Treat the wood with a clear lacquer sanding sealer, and then use a high-quality spar varnish to refinish it. You want the varnish to bring out a yellow tint and highlight the darker grain.

The holes in the steel Chrysler Town & Country panel are for mounting the brake lamp and associated wiring.

This steel panel for a Chrysler Town & Country will have the wood veneer panel glued to it. Dennis Bickford, of Vintage Woodworks in Iola, Wisconsin, reproduces these panels, because they are often missing.

Bickford first puts his precut veneer on top of the steel panel in a 1-ton vacuum press. This starts to make the wood veneer conform to the steel panel, as in this postpress photo. Both are marked so they can be indexed when glued together later on.

The metal panels (original or reproduction) are sanded with 36-grit disks. This removes all traces of the factory veneer and also roughs up the smooth metal for better glue adhesion.

A liberal amount of acetone is poured on top of the steel Chrysler Town & Country panel to totally eliminate contaminants that might keep the epoxy—or glue—fromadhering.

Dennis Bickford always uses a scale to get the proper mixture of West System 105 Epoxy Resin and West System 207 Hardener. He follows the directions on the can to determine the proportions.

To evenly apply the two-part epoxy to all areas of the metal panel, Vintage Woodworks uses a small, disposable roller like this one designed for painting corners. The roller is used only once.

Applying the veneer to the epoxied metal panel is the next step. Bickford matches up the index marks he made earlier for an exact fit. He then tapes the indexed pieces together and puts them through a press.

The wood veneer panel and the metal Chrysler Town & Country panel are glued together and sandwiched in a 2000-pound press. Since the veneer was cut a little larger, it has to be trimmed to the shape of the metal panel.

After several coats of wood stain, each followed by hand-sanding, the panel arrives at its finished state, and looks like a piece of fine furniture. It is glossy enough to reflect the lights in Dennis Bickford’s Vintage Woodworks shop.

M+M Custom Finishes can transfer an endless number of patterns onto flat or compound curved surfaces without voids or seams. The process, which is done in four stages, produced this customized engine timing cover.

Simulated woodgrain finishes, as on this ’36 Pontiac dash, can be reproduced using various stains over a base coat. Dennis Bickford of Vintage Woodworks uses varied methods to make different grains.

The simulated woodgrain on this ’70 Dodge Challenger at Nickey Chicago is actually a plastic veneer. It can be reproduced by hand through an “antiquing” process or by water transfer printing.

Published Dec 7th, 2015

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