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How do I re-veneer my car's wood trim?

Aside from a smattering of modern luxobarges, wood is the reserve of classic cars. But over the years, sunlight and water leaks can eat away at veneered dashboards, door cappings, ashtrays and picnic tables with alarming consequences. But despite rough appearances, all is not lost. Even a re-lacquer can do wonders for your dash, and if your old wood’s damaged beyond repair, re-veneering is do-able in the most modest of workshops. How do I know if my car needs re-lacquer or re-veneer? There’s only one way to check: strip off the old lacquer and check the original wood for lifting and cracks.

I’ve never sanded wood before. Any tips? Burr finish, a swirly pattern found in most luxury cars, needs to be sanded in a circular motion. Straight grain, a lineal pattern fitted to lots of British sports cars and American metal, needs to be sanded following the grain.

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

You'll be needing:

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

1. Strip the wood of knobs and dials and ascertain what type of lacquer you have. Test an area with paint-stripper. If this lifts the lacquer, it’s cellulose. If not, it’s polyester. To strip polyester (prevalent post 1960) gently warm it with a heat gun and scrape it off carefully with a blunt chisel. Don’t overheat the lacquer or it may burn your veneer – even if it looks rough it could still be salvageable.

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

2. Start sanding to ascertain the condition of your veneer. Use 120-grit sandpaper at first. If it’s cracked, lifted or otherwise unsalvageable, sand off the veneer in its entirety with 80-grit paper. If it’s in one piece, continue with the 120-grit. Remember, most veneers are only 0.6mm thick, so be careful not to rub through yours on edges or flat surfaces. If your veneer is sound, move on to step 8.

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

3. If you’re using burr veneer, it’ll need flattening before use (straight grain can be used off the shelf). Wet it and clamp it between two lengths of chipboard to absorb the moisture. Leave overnight. Once flat, make sure there’s no moisture left in it – wood glue won’t stick to anything but the driest surface. If in doubt, leave for another night to dry.

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

4. Veneer sheets tend to be square and aren’t long enough to cover large areas like dashboards. If so, cut your veneer sheet in half and tape together end to end. Lay your wood on top and draw around it with a pencil, leaving a 5mm border then cut around it using sharp scissors. If your veneer has a small hole in, wet it and lightly tap it closed with a hammer.

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

5. Papering over the cracks
If your veneer cracks it can still be used. Repair with masking tape on the side that won’t be glued. If veneering a dash, don’t cut holes in the veneer for instruments – this is best left until after glueing – but do cut around the glovebox door, using the door itself as a template.

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

6. The glue you need varies depending on the application. If you’re adding veneer to metal or plastic, you’ll need a high performance glue like Araldite. But for wood-on-wood, use white PVA glue. Apply your adhesive to both surfaces and use a plastic spatula to spread, ensuring a total, even coverage without build-ups – these can cause bumps.

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

7. Tape the veneer to your wood and place a sheet of polythene on each side of your newly veneered trim. Add three lengths of 1cm-thick polystyrene per side then use six G-clamps to seal the sandwich between two pieces of chipboard. The polythene stops the wood sticking and the polystyrene evens out the pressure of the clamps. Leave for 24 hours.

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

8. Now you’re ready to prep for lacquer. If it’s a dash, poke through clock holes and file towards the veneer until it’s flush – if you file backwards it can cause rips. Ensure that your surface is as smooth as possible with a few rubs of 240-grit sandpaper then clean the veneer with cellulosebased thinners. Use black and brown paint to disguise any rub-throughs.

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

9. Using a two-pack lacquer – Chapman & Cliff recommend Rustin’s – apply with a brush. Add thin layers ensuring total coverage of the surface. Because veneer is porous, it needs about four coats of lacquer before it’s fully absorbed. A further 12 are required to build up enough lacquer to bring it up to a brilliant shine. Each layer dries in around 30 minutes.

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

10. Begin sanding your lacquer gently with a 240-grit sandpaper across the length of your trim piece. Move to 320-grit across the width, then 500 across the length, 800 across the width, 1200 across the length and 1500 across the width. Doing it in these stages at a careful pace means scratches should be minimal on completion.

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

11. Polish the veneer to a high shine using a cutting compound such as T-Cut. Alternatively, use a dedicated polishing mop wheel fitted to a drill or bench grinder and G3 cutting compound bar. You’ll find that any paint rub-through repairs, however crude, are virtually undetectable.

How to re-veneer your car's wood trim

12. The gleaming end is nigh
The final step is to apply wood stain around the surrounding edges of the panel, wiping any excess from the lacquer as soon as possible. Leave to dry overnight then carefully re-fit your fresh wood.

practical  classics

Read this article in the november 2007 issue of Practical Classics (p96-97).

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