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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.

This text is copyrighted and duplication, re-distribution or publication is prohibited without consent of the author.

Article: Selling A Beetle
Last updated: 2/9/02

Beetle Steering Wheel Restoration

Symptom- You just put a new interior, new headliner and carpet in your Beetle, painted the inside of your doors and dashboard and all of a sudden that cracked steering wheel sticks out like sore thumb.


First and foremost let me say that I am not an expert on this (but that has never stopped me from trying something, learning from it and sharing what I've learned with anyone else willing to give it a try).  But nor was I an expert on early Beetle restoration 13 years ago either.  Like anything else, you learn something by just trying it and keeping at it until you get it right.  I had read articles on steering wheel restoration many times in the past and it seemed easy enough.  But years before I finished my '57 I got lucky and traded a single broken semaphore for a nicely restored oval wheel so steering wheel restoration wasn't an issue then.  The steering wheel in the split I bought this past summer was OK, but the horn button was badly cracked.  I found a very nice horn button on eBay, installed in a so-so wheel and I bought the whole setup just to get the horn button.

I decided to try my hand at restoring this wheel and sell it as a means to recoup some of the horn button money spent.  Part way through the endeavor, I remembered that I still had my old, original oval wheel in the loft so I grabbed it.  Compared to the split wheel from eBay, it looked like a cinch.  Then, after driving my split late in the fall and expecting to park it for the winter, I decided to yank the wheel out of it and restore it too as my skills on the first two wheels were improving.  I had spent so much time on the eBay batwing wheel, I had pretty much convinced myself that it would come out better than the other one and it would go in my split and I'd sell the one that was in there originally.

So for solid few weeks of nights, I was out there in the garage with tiny little squares of sandpaper, ScotchBrite pads, wearing the skin off my fingertips and getting a light beige dust all over everything.  I was trying to get ready to spray primer and eventually ivory single stage urethane and as setting up and spraying auto paint is a big effort, I wanted to get it all ready at the same time.....

About Wheels

A few things worth mentioning, some obvious some not.  A steering wheel is made of a steel core around which a plastic is formed and molded.  Like the other stuff in your (old) car, it has to withstand extreme environmental conditions, notably temperature extremes that repeatedly expand and contract the wheel.  And as the plastic and steel expand at different rates relative to this invariably cracks the wheel plastic.

Regarding what kind of paint to use on the wheel, keep this in mind: the steering wheel is clearly the single most "handled" part of the car.  Many vintage enthusiasts know that Krylon "Ivory" spray paint is a dead ringer for the VW Ivory (L567), but rattle can enamel is not going to hold up to the rigors of a steering wheel's life (at least if the car is driven).  VW used lacquer but urethane is a better choice today in my opinion.

And just as trying to tear off a split fingernail with your other hand will all but guarantee that it will tear down into the nail bed and not across the top like you want it to (and hurt!), cracks in steering wheels never go across the smooth, flat face portions of the wheel.  They find their way across the bumpy, detailed, ribbed sections of the wheel like a heat sinking missile.

Invariably doing steering wheel restos requires some research on wheel styles and wheel colors.  I spent some time looking into the early wheels and decided to combine my findings in a table.  My primary sources were the Bob Wilson "'49-'59 Authenticity Series"; the Garwood "Car of the Century" book and the Wolfsburg West website.  Clicking on the wheel types below will open a picture of that wheel in a new browser window, but note that the horn rings, for those wheels that had them, are not shown in the pictures, nor are the horn buttons.  Also, thanks to Wolfsburg West for these steering wheel images from their website.

Year Wheel  Color
1949 Some 3 spoke, some Batwing Black, L41 (early 3 spoke), Ivory, L567 (late 3 spoke and all batwing)
1950 Batwing Ivory, L567, also a light chocolate brown color was apparently used, color code unknown
1951 Batwing Ivory, L567, also a light chocolate brown color was apparently used, color code unknown
1952 Batwing Ivory L567 to October 1952, Gray Beige after that (very close to L75 Beige)
1953 Batwing Gray Beige
1954 Batwing Ivory, L567
1955 Batwing Ivory, L567
1956 The "Oval" wheel Gray Beige (from Aug '55, start of new model year)
1957 The "Oval" wheel Gray Beige
1958 The "Oval" wheel Stone Beige, L471
1959 The "Oval" wheel Stone Beige, L471
1960 Dished wheel Silver Beige, L466 or Ivory, L567
1961 Dished wheel Silver Beige, L466 or Ivory, L567
1962 Dished wheel Silver Beige, L466 or Ivory, L567
1963 Dished wheel Silver Beige, L466 or Ivory, L567
1964 Dished wheel Silver Beige, L466 or Ivory, L567
1965 Dished wheel Silver Beige, L466 or Ivory, L567
1966 Dished wheel Black, L41
1967 Dished wheel Black, L41
1968 Dished wheel Black, L41
1969 Dished wheel Black, L41
1970 Dished wheel Black, L41
1971 Dished wheel Black, L41


Sizing Up a Candidate

It is worth mentioning before we start what types of things will make a wheel restoration hard, if not impossible.  Of course as I have said and continue to say, with enough time, resources and money, anything is restorable.  But knowing what I know now, there are some wheels that I would look at and just say "no thanks".

Things that are pretty easy to fix are stress cracks that go across any smooth surface.  By smooth I don't necessarily mean flat either.  Cracks a spoke ends (most common) in the curved "nooks" where they swing out to meet the rim, really aren't all that hard to fix,  Likewise, cracks on and around the hub curves are pretty easy too.  Another thing that isn't too hard that might otherwise make you run away are large areas of surface cracking.  One of my batwing wheels had this uniformly all around the outer rim where a wheel cover had apparently been laced on for many years.  It was addressed by applying a couple heavy coats of high solids primer, with sanding in between.

What is hard are cracks that go over and intricately molded areas like the ribbing in the spokes on the early wheels, and notably the fine ribbing on the '56-'59 "oval" wheels.  One or two cracks that go across or part way into this area on a wheel that is otherwise decent wouldn't make it trash in my book, but filing and re-contouring those areas (by hand with fine carving tools and files) is very difficult and time consuming, and the results (no matter how good or bad) are often visible on a finished wheel.  Look for another wheel to start with if these areas are badly cracked.  Another area of great lament are the "detents" across the back of the rim.  Between the wheel's "knuckles", if you will.  These seldom really get damaged, and the ones that I struggled with for weeks on end were ones I actually munged up myself trying to Dremel everything out.

In short, if you have a need for a nice '61 (for example) wheel to restore, don't try to start with one that looks like it came from Fred Flintstone's car just because it is $3 at the swap meet.  You will only make you life difficult.  Take the time (especially if you are looking for a later model wheel) to find a very nice wheel before you even start.  Of course, like Beetles themselves, the earlier the wheel, the less picky you might be able to be.

Tools and materials

First and foremost here, you have to embrace something here that may go against you very being (it did mine).  Steering wheel restoration is done by hand, not power tools.  Yes, I'd like to believe that every restoration challenge in the world is best solved by something with a power cord, 3/8" air line or at least a big NiCad battery, but steering wheels aren't.  Take power tools to them, and you will invariably create more damage than is already there and perhaps make the wheel trash if it isn't already.  Other than routing out cracks with a Dremel, and using a spray gun, the "power" tools you will use are at the end of both of your arms.

Here's what you will most likely need:

A Dremel or some other high speed rotary tool to grind out cracks.  A conical high speed steel cutter works best.

POR-15 Epoxy Putty.  Yes, there are other products, but this is what I used and it works great.  You can get it from www.aircooled.net.

Sandpaper.  100, 220 and 600 grit is what I use.  Black oxide is my fav.

ScotchBrite hand pads.  These things are invaluable.  I use the "red" (07747, medium) and gray (07745, fine) kind.  Good news is that Home Depot's in my areas just started carrying these in small bundles.  Used to be (and you might have to) you had to go to an autobody supply shop for these or had to get them on line at 3M's Abrasives page.  A box will run you about $20, but you will find countless uses for them.

Primer and paint.  Read my DIY Paint article for lots of insight on the mysteries behind auto paint.  Do you have to use real auto paint?  No, but keep this in mind, your wheel is one of the most handled items in the car.  Urethane paints are the most durable available today.  Also, a sandable, high solids, auto primer will insure proper adhesion of the paint to the wheel and, perhaps most importantly, it will allow you to easily fill small pinhole imperfections and larger areas of surface cracking.  You can sand auto primer to a smooth finish that will give your wheel a better than new appearance when done.

Files.  I do a lot of work with only 2 files; a 3/4" wide, rounded file, and a small rat tail "bastard" file (I have no idea why they call it a "bastard" file).  Also a medium flat file and set of very small "fine" files.

Fine wood carving tools.  Ok, you probably don't need these, but struggling to get my backside detents right, I ended up buying a set of these and they worked pretty well.  I got them at a store called "Woodworkers Warehouse" and they worked very well.  The finest one could carve out the thin grooves in the oval wheels

The Basic Techniques

The basic idea behind steering wheel resto is to rout out any cracks that are found, fill them with an epoxy putty, sand and paint.  Sounds easy enough right?  Well, like many restoration jobs, one element is key.  Patience.   This really is a take your time kind of job.  And with repetitive applications of putty, primers and paint, it is all but certain that you aren't going to finish this job all in one day.  The best way to approach it is is a "workbench therapy" project.  Start the restoration, do a little bit each day, come back the next evening and do a little more.  My wheels were on my bench for weeks, and each night I would come out, flip on the lights, turn on the radio or pop a CD in and get into it.  Often I would focus on one area at a time on the really bad wheels.  Just the hub, or just one spoke where it meets the rim.  Tonight, file, sand, sand some more, apply a bit more putty, then put it down until tomorrow night.

The putty of choice for many wheel restorers in the past has been PC-7 two part epoxy.  It has the adhesion and shapeability that is needed for wheel restoration.  But more recently a superior product has become available from POR Products that is ideal (and intended for) wheel restoration.  POR-15 Epoxy Putty comes in two slabs of a beige clay-like compound that is kneaded together by hand to for the ready to use putty.  The best part about it is that it is water based.  It will even stick to damp surfaces and cure underwater.  The advantage of this is that you can work the putty into the routed cracks and with a wet finger, smooth it out so that filing and sanding afterward are minimized greatly.  Once dry, it is very similar in harness and workability to the wheel plastic itself.  It is easily filed, shaped sanded.

But be aware that this putty is poor as a bonding epoxy.  That is for using it to glue stuff together.  I tried it on a horn button and an early split dome light and it failed miserably.  JB Weld works mush better for this and is my choice for bonding.

Once the putty is set (24hrs to be safe), it can be sanded to shape.  Depending on the area of the wheel, I found myself usually starting with the files to shape the dried putty.  Especially true in the spoked end, "nook" areas.  It files very easily and the trick seemed to be using a rounded file that matched the desired (concave) contour as much as possible, going slowly and gently and only pushing the file in one direction, not back and forth.  About the only use for the medium flat file is the face of the hub, where the horn button goes.

Once the shape was close, I got out the 100 grit sandpaper and with very small (like 1" square) pieces folded once over, worked the filed area smooth.  After that, same thing with 220 grit.  For larger, irregular areas, I go over it with the medium (maroon/red) ScotchBrite pads.  Go over your whole wheel with these before shooting any primer or paint.

As for primer, remember what it is supposed to do.  Many people have unrealistic expectations of primer.  Primer is best to fill in small, uniform, areas of imperfections, like shallow pitting or cracking.  It is not used to fill in isolated cracks, depressions or pitting.  Why?  Because you have to level sand the whole area that you spray with primer (this is especially important for larger, flatter areas).  If you spray a layer over the piece to fill imperfections in just one small area, when you sand you will sand off most all of the primer you just shot before you have the whole area level (that is, you will have left only tiny bit of primer in the depressed areas).  Primer is a layer then sand off operation.  You want to "surface" the part that you are painting with it.  Make sense?

And last there is paint.  I use urethane paints for my wheels, including a high solids, etching primer.  More about auto paints and applying them at my DIY Paint Job article.

Ok, show me how.....

Ok, you want to see all the pics, right?  Rather than try to insert them in the text, I opted to show them all below with text describing each one.  They are all thumbnailed so you can click on them and see a full size pic in another browser window.  Just close that window to get back here.

Here's the POR putty.  Two separately packaged slabs, half a pound each I believe.  You just pinch off equal amounts and roll it around in your fingers.  Really easy stuff.
Here's some of the tools I use.  The blue sanding block is sitting in a square of "red" ScotchBrite pad.  Home Depot now sells this.  The sandpaper is almost always used in small sizes as you are virtually always only working one small area at a time.  And you can see the files that I use.  One not pictured that I also use is a very fine, "nail file" type.  I cover the workbench with a soft felt-like cover when I do this work as to not mar up the wheels.
Look familiar?  Classic, spoke-end cracking. This is an oval wheel and this one really isn't all that bad.  See the finer cracks on the back of the spoke in the foreground of the pic?  They may look like they are just paint layer cracks, but they aren't.  All visible cracks must be routed out and filled.  On a difficulty scale of 1-10, ten being hardest, these kinds of cracks are just a 2 or 3.
Here's the Dremel bit that I use to route out the cracks.  It is a conical high speed cutter.  It cuts well and doesn't burn the wheel plastic.  You can angle it into the crack to get a shallower opening if you need to.
Here's proof that the shallow, fine cracks go into the plastic.  I took down this surface with a rotary ScotchBrite pad pad, but you wouldn't want to do this.  The "low spot" created had to be filled, filed and leveled out.  You can see a routed crack at the extreme left in the shadow.
Some cracks on the backside of the spoke routed out.  I rubbed the wheel with a ScotchBrite pad first to take all the scum off so I could see what I was working with.  Good idea to do this first, rough up the whole wheel ("AY!  batwing, you tolkin ta ME!?").  You can see cracks at the far end of the spoke that were done too.  Repairing these cracks is cake, about a 2 on the difficulty scale.
I went a little deeper on the cracks that seemed to have opened up the most, not sure why, just seemed like a good idea.  The ones at the extreme inner bends of the spoke looked the worst before I started.

Here's a tip I heard from someone that I didn't use on these wheels (hence, no pics); at the end of each routed crack, press the bit down in deep, straight down, so the routed crack ends with sort of a hole at each end.  This is done to "arrest" the stress fissure that caused the crack in the first place.  Also, go about 1/8" -1/4" beyond the visible end of each crack.

A batwing wheel spoke ready for primer.  The dark brown is the outer paint on this wheel, the medium beige brown is the sanded POR-15 epoxy putty, and the light color is the wheel plastic and perhaps the original ivory color.  How do you get this repaired are undectably smooth?  Lots of time, use only small "two fingertip" pieces of sandpaper, and feel the area with your eyes closed.  When you can't detect any surface aberrations, you are ready for primer.
Ok, here is freshly cured putty on the batwing wheel hub.  No filing or sanding has been done at this area yet.  You can see just how smooth and formed you can get the stuff with some water and a wet finger.   Cracks are common  here too.  Getting this inside curve radiused just right is key to making this repair undetectable. 
The slightly tapered rat tail file works well here.  Start with this to shape the putty after it has dried.  Roll/twist the file slightly to prevent knurl marks and push it only forward against the putty, do not file back and forth.   Go slow.  Try to use only the part of the file that has the same radius as the cove you are trying to shape.  Stop and eyeball your work from different angles often.  This is part that takes patience.  Difficulty of getting cracks repaired here: 6-7
The backside of the oval wheel.  You can see the filled cracks and everything is perfectly smooth and ready for primer.  Again, forget your eyes; close them and use your hands and feel the surface.  And when you sand here, don't bear down over the cracks.  Instead, sweep the paper back and forth over the whole area.  The go over it with the ScotchBrite pads.
So what's hard about this?  This part is.  When the cracks go shooting across fine molded areas like these "ribs", getting them shaped back to spec is very hard.  Here, tiny bits of putty are smooshed into the crevices, smoothed as good as possible and then shaped with a tiny file when dry.  This is 8-9 on the old difficulty scale...
A set of miniature files I bought late in this restoration foray.  They work very well for filing and shaping those fine ribs on the spoke faces.  The cut is very fine on them, but they work well.  In fact, they are literally all you can use to surface the little "valleys" in the oval wheel spoke faces.
Primer time.  I shot Speis-Hecker (pronounced "spheeez") 5110 HS primer on the wheels.  It is a catalyzed, high solids, acrylic urethane etching primer and is wonderful to work with.  If you look close on the rightmost, lower edge of this batwing wheel rim, you can see some surface cracking that the original coating had, visible through the primer.  This wheel was apparently wrapped with a wheel cover at some point that caused the cracking. I'm not sure if the cracking was just in the original paint, or if it went deeper into the plastic, but it looked very deep.  Deep enough that unless I did some serious grinding all the way around, I wasn't going to get to the bottom of it.  So I lightly sanded (100 grit) the outer rim, followed by medium ScotchBrite, wiped it down and shot a heavy layer of HS primer.  If you look at the rim on the right of the pic, you can see that it has sanded very nicely smooth, just as I had hoped.  This primer fills very nicely and sands easily.
What does a "10" look like?  This is.  A munged up wheel rim "detent".  I did this damage myself trying to smooth out the detents with a Dremel.  This was a disaster, bad idea.  I spent literally weeks trying to figure out a way to re-create these detents with putty and make them look decent.  It was VERY hard.  Lesson:  Don't use any power tools on these (only use the Dremel for the crack routing, that's all!) and if you are considering trying to resto a wheel with munged up detents, forget it, and go look for a better candidate.  Truth is, the detents are seldom messed up, and only the ones on the batwing wheel are this deep.
You can see here what a great job the Spies HS primer does.  This is the backside of the oval wheel, the one that had the 3 big cracks across it.  The surface is perfectly smooth, the cracks have disappeared and the surface can be sanded to a glass like finish.
The fine ribbing on the face of the oval wheel's spokes needed some more work.  Here the thinnest of the miniature files is used, it actually fits the contours of the rib grooves well.  Some tiny bits of putty had to be pressed into imperfect areas and after drying, they were re-shaped.  The area was re-sprayed with primer before final coat.
A batwing wheel after spraying with L567 Ivory.
Another shot of the painted wheel.  You can see how smooth the outer rim came out.  This wheel was cracked very badly there when I started.
This is the second wheel and this one has a horn button that had cracked apart, was restored and painted with the same paint as the wheel.  You can see the outer rim is very smooth here too. 
Another shot of the painted horn button and wheel.  The trim ring in the button was re-chromed.  This wheel was badly cracked across the spoke ends, and the ribbed spoke faces.
Here is the other finished batwing wheel, this is the one that will go in my split.  The horn button you see here is an original one, and is unpainted as they were originally.  The plastic ivory color a bit lighter than the Spies L567 ivory urethane that I used to paint the wheel.  The jury is still out on this Spies color, but overall, the wheel does look very nice and the paint is VERY durable.

So, does it look easy?  It really isn't that hard, and I suspect that the later wheels are easier still without all the intricate detailing of the early wheels.  But as I said, it is 90% patience, take your time, work on it a bit each night.  BY HAND, this isn't an exercise in power tools.

Copyright© 2002; John S. Henry; 

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