Welcome to the BugShop FAQ

The text following is part of a series of articles written by John S. Henry on the restoration and maintenance of air-cooled Volkswagens. While his experience is exclusively with the Beetle, many of the techniques can be applied to other models.

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Article: Doing a "#4" Restoration, Page 3
Last updated: 10/31/01

Doing a "#4" Restoration, Page 3

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:

  1. Structural only- You just want to restore the structure of the car. Yes you want to paint it and make it look nice, but you really don't care if your '74s door came from a '74, or even a Beetle for that matter. Structure and function is all that matters. And example of this might be using a '71 fender and taillight on a '66 (making whatever modifications necessary) or using a '68 and later hood (with fresh air vent) on a '67 and earlier and just welding up the vent from below.
  2. Beetle-esque- (for lack of a better term) This is the "in between" approach, between #1 above and #3 below. The car will look correct to the novice, but panel stampings, heater vent locations or internal "not able to seen" characteristics might not be correct for this year. A good example of this would be using the readily available after-market "'67 and earlier" front apron on a '59. It would work and look fine, but discerning enthusiasts would be able to tell that the rigidity stamping and release tube hole location would be different.
  3. Totally Correct/Picky- Quite simple, this is insuring the panel is exactly the same as the original. This may dictate you replacement/welding technique too.
You really do need to give this some thought before jumping into a major metal resto project. Don't assume that all the correct panels are available for your car. Most are, but some may not be. Get as many catalogs of vendors who sell replacement panels as you can. My favorites are BFY, Wolfsburg West, Rocky Mountain Motorworks, Mid America and JC Whitney (favorites as references, mind you). These catalogs will give a great idea of what is available and what is not. And remember that "fits to '67" doesn't mean that it will be exactly the same as the one on your '59. In fact, with some businesses, it doesn't even mean it will fit. Any good business will be able to tell you if you call them.

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:

"Dressing" the Welds

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.

Important: 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

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