Pati’s Truck Project: Stepping “Custom” Up A Notch

AUGUST 25, 2012 – Pati had a long list of things to do on her ’51 Chevy Pickup this summer. She might not be too far down that list…but she’s decided to take her time, try new things, and make this truck amazing! In her process of customizing a Chrysler dash to fit in her Chevy pickup, Pati decided to try out some woodworking! Read on to find out more, or jump to the first post to start at the beginning! 

So when I left off, I had just gotten the dash pieces clamped in place ready for permanent welding. I finished fitting the sides and welded ‘er up. Next up is replacing the dash pad.

The original Chrysler dash had a grey padded bar across it. The vinyl cover and the foam underneath had disintegrated terribly, and the metal frame was still 6” too wide like the dash was. I knew I wanted to do some woodgraining in the interior, and after trying multiple paint and print techniques successfully on other cars I wondered what it would look like if I used real wood in this truck. I decided to create a new dash pad out of wood and veneer it with the same veneer I am going to use on the bed wood.

The first step is to create a block of wood that fits the metal dash that I can carve to shape. The dash has a concave bend in it, so no flat board was going to work and no single board would bend enough and stay bent. I had to laminate thin layers of flexible wood together to create my board. I did this by laying masking tape all over the dash, then screwing down the first layer of wood. I cut the u-shaped groove out of the bottom pieces to fit over the lip that marks where the gauge pod goes. I will eventually have to cut this section out, but I thought it would be easier to leave it for now.

Next I glued a second layer of wood down and clamped it good. When the glue dried, the wood had no choice but to stay bent because the glue is stronger than the wood. I built up 4 layers of ½” wood, letting each layer of glue dry overnight.

After I had my curved block of wood, I could start carving my dash pad. I should mention I have no power tools for wood, so anyone with comments that begin, “Why didn’t you just…” can leave the keys to their woodshop in my mailbox. On the positive side, this story shows what any person can do with just some simple, inexpensive hand tools and a bit of determination.

I used chisels for the rough shaping and a hand plane for more careful smoothing. This is a very rewarding workout and you can see the wonderful-smelling mess it makes on the floor. Six-and-a-half hours flew by like nothing. Having all that wood and wood dust around the shop made me a little nervous. Note to self: DO NOT make grinder/welder sparks while woodworking!

After the pad was shaped the way I wanted it, which is to say a curved face that tapers at each end, I was ready to sand it smooth. I used a bodywork trick and spread charcoal dust on the wood before I block sanded so I could see where my high and low spots were. Worked like a charm! I also used a ‘shoeshine’ motion with a long sheet of sandpaper instead of a block to get a nice no-flat-spots curve to the face.

Now the moment of truth- checking the gauge pod for fit… and yikes, was it off! I was super careful to make templates off the old pad, and checked that the new one is exactly the same shape and size in the center and both ends, but because of the narrowing to fit the truck, the curves between have all shifted. A lot! I expected a little gap, but geez! The gauge pod is pot metal, so it doesn’t bend. What to do?

The gauge pod is the central focus of this dash, so it has to be right. Nothing left to do but make it fit! I used a jeweler’s coping saw to slice the pod at its transition point between pod housing and mounting flange. The tiny blade worked beautifully on the pot metal and in the tight spaces. I put the pod back on the dash and was surprised to see what enormous gaps resulted when all pieces were sitting where they needed to be.

Since pot metal can’t be welded by standard means and because I had no pot metal the right shape to patch the holes anyway, I decided to try some All-Metal. All-Metal is a two-part filler like Bondo except that it uses aluminum particles for body instead of polyester. It’s easy to work with and dries very, very tough. It’s still just a filler, though, so it’s not meant to create parts or patch gaps. I layered it on as thick as the pot metal and embedded some mesh for strength. So far it’s holding up great with no cracks or weird chemical reactions. I like this stuff!

Now that I have a dash pad and gauge pod, I need to fit the chrome trim. In theory, I should be able to take the 6” speaker section out and everything should be fine. I bolted everything to the dash just to make sure there were no surprises, measured, then made my cut with a die grinder. I thought for sure I’d have to rechrome the piece I cut, but I got lucky and you can’t even tell that the edges have no chrome. This is getting exciting! It looks like a real dash!

I am ready for some wood veneer! Veneer is super thin real wood that furniture makers glue on cheaper wood or particle board to make what they’re building look classy. My plan is to wrap my wood dash pad and the top of the metal dash in veneer.

The veneer glue I bought is actually heat-activated contact cement. With regular glue, you spread some glue where you want it, put the thing you want to bond right on top of it, hold it for a little bit and sooner or later, it’s dry and stuck together. With contact cement, you put a layer on each piece you want to bond, wait for it to dry, then put the pieces together. They stick! Heat from a clothes iron or heat gun ensures my parts will stay stuck.

The glue instructions don’t say anything about sticking to metal or primer, but it’s ok for porous surfaces and primer is porous, so here goes nothin’. I cut my imitation-black ebony veneer so that it will make a V-shape on the top of the dash. Woodworkers call this bookmatching. It looks great and two pieces are easier to work with than one big piece, but getting them to meet perfectly in the middle was a trick!

This crazy wood is called waterfall bubinga. Waterfall is the name for any wood with finger-wave swirls like this. Bubinga is the type of tree. It looks and sands a lot like mahogany. I taped down the veneer piece so it wouldn’t curl up when I put the wet glue on it, and the foam roller lays out the glue nice and even. I bookmatched four pieces on the dash pad. My veneer strips had a strange off-color section on the ends (the difference between the central heartwood and outer sapwood of the tree) and I thought I’d play it up by putting them together into a diamond shape. Last, I added an accent strip of real black ebony to help visually tie the pad and dash wood together.

I hope this dash isn’t going to clash with all its woodgrain waves and chrome stripes and what-all. It will definitely be eye-catching, that’s for sure. I’ll be painting the metal part of the dash and gauge pod black to keep things calm, even though I think a black interior is about as cliché as a dozen red roses.

There you have it: one custom dash just about ready for paint and clear. J The clearcoat will get sprayed over the wood too, and the grain will really come alive when it’s glossy.

Next up: window trim and door panels that can hold their own next to this awesome dash…