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Article: Doing a "#4" Restoration,
Last updated: 10/31/01
How to put Beetle Bodies back together again (all the king's horse and all the king's men..)
I think I was around four years old when I learned that in almost all cases, "putting back together" is much harder than "taking apart". But believe it or not, that is not always true for Beetles. When it comes to panel replacement and repair, hacking away at decades of rust, crud and neglect is far worse than fitting together shiny, clean new NOS panels. Worse especially if you have to carefully hack away and meticulously pull apart such that you can reconstruct things. But perhaps the biggest draw is seeing a car come back together (maybe after having worked on it for literally years), square, straight, clean and solid. What I'm saying is that I find the reconstruction phase of a project very gratifying but also meticulous.
This section deals with putting stuff back
together. If you are familiar with my own '57 Resto
project, you have some idea where I'm coming from. As I write
this, I have just finished the restoration of my '57. I have learned much
about welding, panel fitting, finding panels and other stuff. That is what
I hope to share here.
Where Do I Find All These Panels?!!
This is perhaps one area often taken for granted. "Mainstream", common panels for the high volume years are generally available and in a good quality. But finding a correct, rear apron for a '54 is another story. Let me try to scope "panel acquisition" into 3 levels:
How Put Humpty Back Together Again
Again, this putting back together part is really fun. Especially if all you have had to look at thus far is rusted or wrinkled metal. Actually "fitting up" (or "offering up" as the English say) panels can be very encouraging. But at this point you are just "fitting up". Let me say that again, you are just "fitting up".
Folks, as I worked on my '57, I actually took notes for stuff I learned that I wanted to make sure I got in these articles, and I cannot stress how important this is. Before you weld anything, you must re-assemble your entire car and make sure everything is perfect!!. We are all guilty of this. Rushing in, "yeah, that is straight enough" and start the MIG up. My friend the bodyshop owner came over one night to help me tack up a left quarter panel. "Where's the hood and fenders?" he asked. "Up in the loft." I answered. "We'll need them" he replied. He insisted that I climb up and lower down all of these panels before we tacked anything up, and now I can see why. In a multipanel re-assembly, a poor alignment will perpetuate itself and "grow", as you go along. For example, your front apron might be mis-aligned so slightly that I cannot be detected, but bolt up the hood and latch it and you might see a 1/2" difference in the panel alignments side to side.
So fit everything up, open and close stuff, step back and look from every angle several times. Then go in the house and leave it alone and eyeball it again the next night. Have I made a point? As much as I embraced that, I still had to re-work my front apron on the '57. Days after I tacked it up, I stepped back and squatted down. "Hey, that's crooked!" Yeah you had to look real close, and get at just the right level to line up the upper apron edge with the backside of the tire well, but it was off! I wrestled with it for several minutes. "Ahhh, nobody's going to notice that. Who's gonna notice!? That's stupid!!! Leave it alone....".
I would notice, that's who.
I tore off the apron and re-aligned it. And you know why it was crooked in the first place? I had referenced a contour on the quarters on either side to line up the apron. The left side apron was an NOS one from Wolfsburg West, the right side one was one hacksawed off of a '56. They looked the same, but after taking some measurements and eyeballing some more, it was clear that they weren't exactly the same. The curved "bulge" that accommodates the spare tire sides was broader on one panel than the other. Lesson learned.
Ok, so how do you "fit up" these panels with no welding? Well there are three approaches I use. One, is clamps. Vice grips, body clamps (see Tools) even heavy woodworkers clamps. Anywhere you can pinch two panels securely together. The second is screws. I have used two kinds. One is a self tapping screw that has a drilling edge on the end and is what my friend Tom uses in his shop. It works well, but leaves a 3/16" or slightly larger hole behind. I prefer sheetmetal framing screws. They are "framing screws" that I bought a whole box of at Home Depot for a couple bucks. They are used by contractors who use those metal studs in commercial construction. They are shown in the picture here (that's penny on the picture). These leave only about a 1/8" hole but you must pre-drill a 1/16" guide hole. Having two drills (one with a Phillips bit and the other with a 1/16" bit) makes things much easier. They leave only a small hole that is easily MIG'ed up.
The third way is using a small MIG tack. I try to avoid doing this. But sometimes it is the only way. Just remember that you may (or will) have to cut the tack to re-adjust the panels. You can use the Dremel and a thin carbide disk to cut the tacks, or if you did a "pool" (see below) spot, you may have to drill it out.
Only when you are sure that everything
is perfect, aligned and you have eyeballed it from every conceivable
angle, for several days, open and closed every hood, door, lid, etc. should
you start welding.
How to Weld (Well, sort of)
Hoooo boy, how am I going to get through this? Well first, remember that I am far from an expert. In fact, I have just gotten comfortable enough with the MIG to feel like I can do this basic panel work. Let me offer what I have learned:
MIG welding, like ARC welding, relies on electric current passing through the welding area. On the ground side, the welder must be attached to some bare metal that is electrically connected to the stuff you are welding. The closer you can clamp it, the better. A trick I use is to use a pair of vice grips clamped to the work, then clamp the MIG ground clamp to the vice grips. The vice grips will be able to get a better "bite" on a small bare area, the MIG clamp can easily get a grip on the all-conducting vice grips.
When you pull the trigger on the welder torch,
3 things happen. The shielding gas starts to flow through the nozzle, the
wire drive starts and starts pushing wire out of the tip and a relay (the
big click) energizes the wire. In some cheaper welders, the wire
may be energized as soon as you turn on the power switch. My gasless unit
is this way.
When I first started playing around with
my MIG welder, I had no idea how to set it up. It has a continuously variable
wire speed adjustment and a shielding gas regulator. I did buy one welding
book but it didn't tell me how to set this stuff up. I also had a choice
of 4 heat settings. That was easy, I knew that I needed the lowest setting
for sheet metal. Well, in the interest of saving somebody some time, I
measured my wire speed and gas settings. This was after my body shop owner
friend used the welder and subconsciously reached over and tweaked the
settings a few times. He said it worked "fine".
Now those are just starting points for you, they work well for me on the Beetle body sheet metal. I know that 10 CFH (cubic feet per hour) doesn't equal 5 l/min (liters per minute), but they are close on the gauge. The easy way to measure the wire speed is to grip the trigger for exactly 5 seconds and measure how much wire was turned out. As 5 seconds is 1/12 of a minute, you should get around 14 inches of wire spun off in 5 seconds. OK? Your welder's setting may vary.
Ideally the wire speed is "matched" to the
arc that is formed (determined by the power setting and metal type/thickness).
If it is too fast, you will get sputtering and lots of slag. Too slow,
you will get some popping and may generate a hotter-than-needed arc.
God knows this was probably the hardest for
me. It is so easy to buzz across a few pieces of sheet metal and then think
"Ok, I'm ready for that NOS quarter panel now!". For God's sake, practice!
Get a pile of scrap metal, I suggest that you start with big stuff first,
like angle iron or bracing. Weld together all kinds of stuff. Make some
shelf brackets, a jewelry case for you wife/girlfriend, weld bolts together
and nuts to braces for no reason (make little "stick people" out of old
nuts and bolts and screws, it's fun and they make nice conversation pieces).
Make a small airplane hanger if you have enough angle iron. Just buzz away.
Then try sheet metal stuff. Start with lap welds, then "pool" welds' then
lastly try some butt welds. Practice. When you are done, you should
have all sorts of useless metal "projects" laying around.
For me the hardest part was seeing what the
hell I was doing. I use a handheld mask. I did buy a flip down helmet type
mask but I find it way too cumbersome. The self darkening masks have gotten
pretty cheap ($100) and are supposed to be super, but I have never used
one. I still rest the outer nozzle of the torch on the work, at an angle,
once I have the wire "pointing" at where I want to weld. But be warned,
doing this with some welders will ground the whole torch and it will not
work (some inexpensive welder's nozzle case is not isolated electrically
from the wire guide, but most are). I once hose-clamped a big nail on my
gun as a guide. Place you torch, flip the shield in front of your face
and hit the trigger. You will notice that once you hit the trigger, the
arc light will illuminate the area well and you will be able to see what
you are doing. You will also notice that no matter how carefully you place
the torch before you put the mask in front of your face, it will be off
by half an inch or more once you strike the arc. The arc causes an aberration
in the space-time continuum (just kidding). The trick is to quickly
move it back into position and keep going. You don't want to lose your
"sun", as my friend Tom says. Even if you have to "pulse weld" (thin metal,
see below), hit the trigger again just as the work looses enough glow to
start to become invisible behind the mask. Once you get the hang of it,
you will be able to sustain the welding action without dropping the mask
by just "dancing" the light along.
If you have never welded, you may wonder
how you know you are doing well while you are welding. It is actually very
easy, it's the "sizzle". A perfect MIG weld makes a medium pitched, super
hot "sizzle" sound. You will know it when you hear it. It is uniform, with
no sputtering or popping, it is pure and smooth, like something cooking
or being seared. Learn this sound and strive to make it.
I think I already said this somewhere, but
metal must be super shiny clean to be welded. Don't over look this one
or get lazy, It is a sure way to get crappy welds. You must use a high
speed grinder to get the metal shiny. See the "Tools"
section for a picture of grinders that you can buy for as little as $19.95
from Harbor Freight. The air powered angle grinder is my favorite by far.
I have given mine a real workout and it works great. Grinding discs are
cheap and available at Home Depot or most local hardware/tool stores.
Any two pieces of metal that are touching
can be welded, and if you are very good, even metal that is just close
together. There are several types of welds that can be done with the MIG,
they are characterized by the metal placement as well as the MIG deposit
Metal Placement Methods:
|Lap Weld- This is where two panels overlap slightly.|
|Flange Weld- This is where two panels overlap slightly but one has a flange on it to allow one surface to be nearly flush. Flange making tools (vice grips with dies welded into their jaws) are available from Eastwood and other body shop tool suppliers.|
|MIG Pool- This diagram shows how the panels are prepared and placed for a MIG "pool" weld. The holes only go through one panel. This could be done also for a lap or flange weld.|
|Butt Weld- This is the panel placement for a butt weld. The panels edge's are flush up against each other.|
MIG Deposit Methods:
|Stitch Weld- No rocket science here, this just means that you weld in short sections leaving spaces in between. This is usually done to minimize heat build up and is usually a very good idea for butt welding. This is what I did with the front apron of my '57, except I used very small "stitches", more like tiny tacks. One you let the metal cool, you can go back and "fill in" between the stitches and eventually end up with a continuous weld. (see Page 5 of the resto series for pictures of this welding)|
|Continuous Weld- Just what the name sez. You have to be pretty good at welding to do this on standard gauge body panel metal without burning through or warping the metal. A good welder can "pulse" the torch a bit, build up enough metal to sink heat away and move a long a weld without warping or blowing holes. Tight panel to panel contact and shiny metal is essential.|
|"MIG Pool" Weld-
The technique here is to "pool" molten metal in the hole that is made in
one of the panels, fusing it to the solid panel, and then continuing to
build up metal to fill the hole, fusing it to the top panel as it "spills
over". When carefully ground down, these kind of welds most closely approximate
the factory spotwelds and are pretty much undetectable. If you are really
picky about your work not looking like, well,..work, this is what you want
The holes that seemed to work best for me were about 1/4" in diameter.
I have seen just a few MIG welds that look "nice" once the metal cools, but the vast majority of them benefit from a little dressing up. The extent to which you may want to do this will often depend on where the welds are. If they are under the back seat or up under the inner fenderwells maybe you really don't care what they look like. But if they are visible, even if only when door and/or lids are open, you might want to clean them up a bit.
If you aren't going to grind them any, you should at least go over them with a wire brush on a drill to remove the arc "smoke" dust from the weld, and any loose slag that was produced.
The grinders pictured on the "Tools" section of this series of articles are instrumental in cleaning up welds. These things will take down metal more quickly than and drill mounted stone, etc. The more powerful electric 4" grinder is hindered a bit by its size though, as you can't easily get it into tight places. For closer confines, I use the air powered grinder with a 2" grinding disc. It is very small, easy to control, and can take down metal nearly as fast as the bigger electric one. For really tight and small stuff, the Dremel Tool (also shown on the "Tools" page) with either a steel cutting bit or a grindstone is useful. If you have duplicated spotwelds using the "pool" method described above, you may want to grind them down flush. I often use the 4" electric grinder to "knock down" the majority of the weld, then use the air grinder with a fine grit pad to carefully bring the weld flush.
After grinding, I recommend using a Scotchbrite disk on a drill to smooth the welded area. These are those coarse looking, thick discs that look like a very coarse sea sponge material coated with abrasive. These things will take the grinding "marks" out of the dressed area nicely, leaving smooth shiny metal. Do this step and the welds will be virtually undetectable.
Grinding of any kind propels very fine particles of metal at very high velocity, mostly in the direction of the sparks. These particles will embed themselves in virtually any surface they hit. (I have a glass jar on my bench that was in the "line of fire" of the 4" grinder for some time. It's surface is impregnated with metal particles) If they strike painted surfaces, they will embed themselves in it and later will rust if exposed to the slightest moisture. Hopefully, I shouldn't have to tell you to wear proper eye protection too....
Hopefully that gives you some idea of the
techniques available if you are new at this. Once you get comfortable with
your welding skills, you will be able to get great results. MIG welding
is cheap, easy to learn and very versatile.
Supporting the body while working on it
Years ago, I had seen a picture in Hot VWs magazine of 4 guys lifting a body off of one chassis and placing it on another. The notion that an entire car body could be that light intrigued me and I always wanted to pull the body on a Beetle. Several years ago I got my chance. Prior to attempting to separate the body from the chassis though, I removed all 4 fenders, hood, decklid and glass. I basically removed all of the bolts (snapped off no less than 7 of them, but got them out no problem using the MIG blob/nut technique, see the Tool Techniques article) then lifted the car with a 2x4 under the rear apron and by the front tire well floor (was replacing it anyway). With the sound of rubber separating from metal, the body let go of its 40 year old grip with the pan, the weight of the chassis and drivetrain really did the work.
I found the bare body shell to be very easy to move around and work with. I was curious about how much it weighed, so I went upstairs and got the bathroom scale and placed it alternately under the rear and front apron, letting it support the weight of the car while I took a reading. I got roughly 120 lbs on the front and the back. Thus that bare shell of a '57 Beetle (I mean bare shell) weighs about 240 lbs. I could very easily pick up either end of it and me and my friend Bill had no problem lifting it on to the trailer.
I have to be able to park 2 cars (an '85 VW Cabrio and a '95 Merc Sable Wagon) in my 24 x24 foot garage with the '57 in there. As a single car, it was easily placed across the back of the garage on the "Cabrio" side, but once the body was separated from the chassis, storage became a bit of an issue. I was able to relegate my wife's car to the driveway outside in the summer (although took grief for it) but in the New England winters it was imperative that all cars could be stored inside.
[Actually, once during a big winter storm, I had four cars; the '57 Beetle, my Cabrio, a Toyota Celica and a Jetta; in the garage and my 16 horse tractor with a huge snowthrower attachment, about 7 feet long, all in the garage with the doors closed.]
So storing the body and chassis, while they were separated, in a "one car" space was a requirement.
If you look at the pics on page 2 (and later pages, particularly the last pic on page 6) of the resto series, you can kind of see how I did this. I had fully restored the chassis first, wrapped it in a tarp and added some wooden "box" frames to the dollies that supported it. This allowed me to set the body on top of it, about 10 inches above it and still work on the body. Eventually, I had to take the body off and place it on saw horses to finish the nose.
My two best recommendations then, would be to keep at least one friend close by, and buy some of those casters. I counted recently, and I have at least 24 of those little suckers on my garage floor right now. Anything reasonably big and/or heavy that needs to be moved occasionally, is on wheels. It makes it so much easier to work on stuff.
Aside from those, a set of sturdy sawhorses
will easily support the body. You might also find a small, rolling table
useful for supporting doors, lids, etc. while you are working on them.
Just use common sense and be safe.
Copyright© 2001; John S. Henry