As mentioned earlier, the interior is about 95 percent of what you’ll see of your muscle car while driving it. Most of the interior that you’ll see while driving is right in front of you: dashboard, instrument cluster, center stack, and console. Your car’s designers carefully chose the layout to serve several functions. The entire assembly has to be pleasing to the eye without being distracting. The dash itself has to have the right materials to prevent glare. The instruments have to convey sometimes complex and rapidly changing information at a quick glance. So when something’s just not right with any of those components—when a gauge isn’t responding, for instance—your eye tends to focus on that and not on the road.
This Tech Tip is From the Full Book, MUSCLE CAR INTERIOR RESTORATION GUIDE. For a comprehensive guide on this entire subject you can visit this link:
SHARE THIS ARTICLE: Please feel free to share this article on Facebook, in Forums, or with any Clubs you participate in. You can copy and paste this link to share: https://musclecardiy.com/muscle-car-tech-tips/muscle-car-interior-restoration-dashboard-guide/
The good thing is that you can now convince your wife that you need to have the dash recovered because it’s a safety issue, not just an aesthetics issue. The bad thing is that dashboard restoration is a rather complex task, which becomes tougher the more complicated your dash is, and many muscle cars had increasingly intricate dashboards with multiple contours and angles. Gauge restoration is even more involved, and precise gauge calibration requires oscilloscopes, signal generators, and other electronic equipment most guys won’t have in their garage. Oftentimes, your best bet is to send gauges and dashes out to specialists who have the right equipment to do the job.
Still, it’s worth watching these specialists not only to settle your curiosity, but also to gain an appreciation for what goes into instrument and dashboard restoration and to take away tips on how best to take care of your instruments and dashboards.
Instrument Panel Refurbishment
Obviously, the best time to address your instruments is while you’re addressing your dashboard. After all, if you’re going to have to remove your dashboard to have it recovered, you will also have to remove the instrument cluster to lift the dashboard out anyway, so why duplicate your efforts by removing the instrument cluster again at a later date?
You’ll find once you do remove the instrument cluster on your muscle car that this is a complex part of the restoration. While cars of the 1930s through the 1950s had an integrated look and feel to their instrument clusters, with everything flowing into an art-deco or space-age theme, the instruments in muscle cars had a real back-to-basics appearance. This made it seem as though each circular gauge were its own individual component, just as in the rally and race cars that Detroit wanted the youth of America to believe they were piloting. Why else would the manufacturers start to install tachometers at this period, when they’d barely done so in the five decades prior?
All the aftermarket gauges that speed shops peddled over the years helped reinforce the concept of individual components. Yet pulling a muscle car’s instrument cluster out from its dash shows that the gauges remained just as integrated as in previous decades. Of course, the integration can be a good thing. Were it not for that printed circuit board on which everything mounts, the tangle of wires behind the dash would be greater and far more complicated.
When actually removing the instrument cluster from the dash, loosen the nuts that hold up the steering column and let the column hang a little lower, or remove the column altogether. If keeping the column in the car while you’re removing the gauges, make sure to drape a towel or rag over it so the instrument cluster doesn’t nick the paint on the column if you accidentally drop the cluster.
Even though the printed circuit board eliminated a lot of wiring mess, you’ll still encounter a good number of wires on the back side of the cluster, so don’t just yank the cluster out of the dash once you’ve loosened all the screws holding it in. Instead, carefully feel around the back of the cluster for the connector from the wiring harness and any wires for the dash lamps. You’ll also need to feel around for the speedometer cable and unscrew it from the cluster. Now would be a good time to unscrew the other end of the speedometer cable, clean the old grease off the cable insert, and apply new grease. The more grease the better.
Instrument Panel Restoration
Step-1: Instrument Panel Restoration
The instrument panel in our 1965 GTO had seen better days. At some point, it lost its veneer facing and was down to the bare plastic, which looked rather dingy. The lenses in front of the instruments had gone a little hazy, and the instruments themselves had become a little sun bleached. Fortunately, we were able to find reproduction parts to help spruce up our dashboard and only needed to set aside an afternoon to do so.
Step-2: Instrument Panel Restoration
After removing a few screws, we were able to separate the instrument panel from the dashboard. Here, you can see the cables for the climate control, which need to be disconnected before removing the instrument panel entirely. Also, disconnect the wiring harness that plugs into the instrument panel, any dash lamp wires, and the speedometer cable.
Step-3: Instrument Panel Restoration
With the instrument panel removed, now is a good time to grease the speedometer cable and check the behind-thedash wiring for frays, cracks, and bad grounds. Also, replace the bulbs in the dash lamps.
Step-4: Instrument Panel Restoration
With the instrument panel out of the car and on a workbench, we were able to separate the metal chassis of the instrument cluster from the plastic panel. Note where or if any instruments ground to the chassis. If dealing with a circuit board, look for discoloration between the circuits that would indicate a short circuit.
Step-5: Instrument Panel Restoration
Though we used a reproduction instrument cluster chassis, most such chassis were well protected from any rust or damage throughout the years, so it wouldn’t take much to clean one up. If you will be painting your chassis, make sure not to paint over ground connections.
Step-6: Instrument Panel Restoration
New faces for the gauges alone will make the dashboard look ten times better. Refacing the speedometer requires removing and reinstalling the needle, which needs to be done carefully to avoid damaging the speedometer’s internals. Note how we modified the dash lamps to merge all of the lamps’ grounds into one.
Step-7: Instrument Panel Restoration
Being careful not to overtighten the screws going into the plastic face of the instrument panel (freshly cleaned, you may notice), we reassembled the whole shebang and reinstalled it in the GTO. Yet something was still missing.
Step-8: Instrument Panel Restoration
We bought a real-wood veneer kit, trimmed it, stained it to the right shade, and glued it to the dash panel surface with contact cement. We chose to leave the aluminum backing off the veneer, though it would hurt nothing to leave it on.
Step-9: Instrument Panel Restoration
Sure, it looks much better than how it started out, but refreshing an instrument panel also serves a couple of important functions: It now has brighter dash lamps and allows a better view of the gauges. We also now have the peace of mind of knowing that the wiring behind our dashboard is sound.
Next, you need to figure out if you want to send your gauges out for restoration and recalibration, or if you simply want to replace or reface them. On our 1965 GTO, with gauges that worked perfectly but looked a little aged, I decided on the latter route using parts supplied by Original Parts Group.
First, I did research on 1965 GTOs and discovered that the tachometer, with a green band all the way around the face, was used only on the GTO from early in the 1965 model year. Late 1965 GTOs used a different tachometer face, in which the green band becomes yellow and then red. And for you trivia buffs, 1965 was the only year GTOs had the checkered-flag graphic on the face of the speedometer.
Three Phillips-head screws along the top of the instrument panel and three along the bottom secure this GTO’s panel to the dash. The screws for most muscle cars’ instrument panels are usually inserted from beneath, so if you find that you can’t remove your panel, squeeze underneath your dashboard and look up to find any less-than-obvious screws. Don’t try to pry the panel away from the dashboard with brute strength; you’ll usually find the hidden screw that way, but only after you’ve cracked your instrument panel. Some instrument panels use plastic or metal clips instead of screws in some places; check with your car’s assembly manual to see if that’s the case.
With the instrument panel free from the dashboard, we were able take the assembly over to the workbench, where we removed the GTO’s cluster from the panel and then removed the gauge assemblies from the cluster. To reface the speedometer, we had to remove the needle first, done by carefully turning the needle clockwise completely around the dial until it came loose from its mounting post. We could then easily replace the speedometer face by removing a couple screws.
If your plans include sandblasting and painting your instrument cluster at this point, make sure to consider whether your gauges are normally grounded through the metal chassis of the instrument cluster and, if so, to leave at least a little bit of the metal exposed where they go to ground. A dab of dielectric grease in those spots on reassembly will help prevent corrosion.
One thing I decided to do at this point was to join all the ground wires for the dash lamps into one common ground wire. This way, should I ever have grounding issues for the dash lamps in the future, I’ll only have to trace down that one ground wire instead of half a dozen or so to find the trouble area and fix it. Any corroded or dirty contacts on the circuit board can be cleaned with fine sandpaper, emery cloth, or even a rubber eraser, depending on the level of corrosion.
Finally, should you find the acrylic lens in front of the gauges fogged, scratched, or hazed, most restorers recommend using Novus Plastic Polish to bring back the acrylic’s transparency. While it’s possible to use a buffing wheel set at very low speeds—less than 1,000 rpm is what Novus recommends— smaller instrument lenses should be done by hand using a disposable lint-free cotton cloth. Novus markets three grades of plastic polish: #3 is meant for heavy scratches, #2 for light scratches, and #1 for final dressing. Start with #3 or #2 and work your way down to #1.
With everything cleaned, refaced, or replaced, reassembly is simply the reverse of disassembly. Just be careful when tightening the screws going into the plastic; overtightening them will often lead to cracks or other damage, especially on older plastic. Only tighten the screws until they’re snug; no tighter.
With the instrument panel back in the car, I thought it looked a little plain and realized something was missing—the wood-grain appliqué that was originally glued to the face of the panel. Pontiac used two versions of the wood-grain dash in 1965, apparently interchangeably with each other. One version used real wood veneer on an aluminum backing, while the other used a paper-backed imitation grain. I wanted the real wood veneer, so I ordered a veneer dash kit, available from most restoration parts houses that deal in GTO parts. The kit allows you to install the veneer either by itself or with the aluminum backing.
The veneer, aluminum-backed just like the original, required a bit of trimming with a rotary tool to fit the instrument panel, and to more closely replicate the original stain, I treated the wood to a coat of boiled linseed oil. Using contact cement, I was then able to secure the veneer to the instrument panel. As I did this, I realized that it wouldn’t be too tough to source either thin veneer or thin aluminum to craft something similar to dress up an otherwise plain muscle car dash panel.
When you’ve finished reinstalling the gauges and hooking everything back up, make sure to test all the gauges for correct operation— especially the speedometer. I recommend making sure the speedometer needle travels smoothly across the entire face of the speedometer—all the way to the top. Test it multiple times. After all, it’s a matter of safety to trust your gauges are accurate, right?
If your muscle car’s instruments aren’t quite keeping track of engine revs, oil pressure, or fuel tank level the way they should, then it’s time to either replace them or send them out for restoration. One upside of sending out your gauges for restoration is that a competent shop should have no problem sourcing all the tiny mechanical and electrical parts that are otherwise difficult to find. Also, the shop will have the ability to aesthetically restore your gauges with new dials, and the shop should be able to calibrate your gauges properly.
I visited Instrument Specialties in Oxford, Massachusetts, which had a Rallye instrument cluster from a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T that required a total mechanical and cosmetic restoration. Before any restoration work begins, the crew at Instrument Specialties starts by evaluating the appearance of the gauges and by bench testing all of the gauges to see which ones work and how well they work.
Step-1: Instrument Restoration
Though it looks as if it were dragged through a Borneo typhoon, the fact remains that this Rallye instrument cluster from a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T is a much sought-after item. Still, it required a total mechanical and cosmetic restoration.
Step-2: Instrument Restoration
After evaluating all of the gauges to see which ones work and how well they work, Instrument Specialties completely disassembled the instrument cluster, down to the bare pot metal case.
Step-3: Instrument Restoration
With the needle and two rivets removed, Instrument Specialties separated the face of the speedometer from its chassis, exposing the hair spring, jewel (the white bit in the center of the spring), speed cup, magnet shaft, and odometer workings.
This is where the specialty machines come in. For the speedometer, Instrument Specialties uses a specific Kent-Moore speedometer tester; for the tachometer, they use a custom-designed calibrator that incorporates a master tachometer for comparison purposes; for the remainder of the gauges, they place them on a resistance block to verify the correct ohm ranges.
They next strip the instrument cluster down to the bare case. The case of this Charger’s cluster is pot metal, but other muscle car cases may be stamped steel, aluminum, or molded plastic. Should they find damage to the case at this point, they can either repair or replace the case using parts from spare instrument clusters in their inventory.
Speedometer & Odometer
Each individual gauge is then restored using slightly different processes. One of the more complex gauges, the speedometer, is further disassembled by removing the needle, then grinding and punching out the rivets that secure the dial face to the frame of the gauge. They then remove the odometer and disassemble it using a Stewart-Warner odometer repair tool from the 1930s that just happens to work on nearly all StewartWarner mechanical odometers.
By the way, in the muscle car era as today, car manufacturers relied on suppliers to provide specific parts for their cars. Stewart-Warner was one of the main suppliers of instruments to the manufacturers, along with King-Seeley and Borg, a different division of the same company that built transmissions.
The main problem with odometers is that the white sections on the wheels turn yellow with UV exposure, and often do so unevenly. While some instrument restoration companies use tape decals to replicate the original brightness of the faces, the tape decals can come loose over time and unravel within the speedometer. The proper—and more timeconsuming—method of odometer restoration requires individually silkscreening each number on each wheel in the correct font.
Instrument Specialties can then reassemble the odometer either back at zero or at the exact mileage that the customer specifies. Because muscle cars tend to be exempt from odometer regulations, the legality of resetting the odometer to zero is hardly questionable, but you should still check with your state laws to make sure your local DMV won’t frown on the practice.
The remainder of the speedometer innards consist of the hairspring, which resides just underneath the dial; the jewel, which is actually a small block of plastic pressed into the speedometer chassis under the hairspring; the speed cup and its shaft, which passes through the jewel; the magnet shaft, which resides behind the speed cup; and the plastic gears for the odometer.
Only two of those pieces tend to require replacement: the jewel and the magnet shaft. The jewel quite simply wears over time where the needle shaft passes through it, thus causing the needle to wobble and return inaccurate readings. The magnet shaft, which takes the input from the speedometer cable and then rotates a pair of magnets around the metal speed cup, often suffers from the lack of lubrication in the speedometer cable, causing the metal in the magnet shaft to wear out.
The remainder of the speedometer components tend to remain in undamaged condition. If any parts do need to be replaced, the crew at Instrument Specialties selects the parts from an inventory of NOS parts they’ve accumulated over the years. If the instruments have spent any amount of time on a shelf outside of the dashboard, they tend to accumulate dust, dirt, and even metal shavings (thanks to the magnet shaft), so the crew at Instrument Specialties cleans out the speedometer innards before reassembly.
If the dial of the speedometer remains in good condition and the lettering has not faded or yellowed, then Instrument Specialties uses their specially developed solvent cleaning process that will preserve the dial and its lettering. However, while some instrument suppliers used UV-resistant paints on their dials, others didn’t, thus causing the yellowed lettering. In those cases, and in cases where the dial has rusted, Instrument Specialties will strip the paint and/or rust from the dial with glass beads, then lay down a coat of black background paint.
Speedometer & Odometer Restoration
Step-1: Speedometer & Odometer Restoration
Compare this odometer, freshly silk-screened and reassembled, with the odometer in the previous picture, which has yellowed from UV exposure. Silk-screening the odometer wheels was done digit-by-digit, wheel-by-wheel.
Step-2: Speedometer & Odometer Restoration
Refacing the dial of the speedometer started by stripping any rust, old paint, and ink. Instrument Specialties used glass beads. Glass beads impart a softer texture to the metal, important for attaining a smoother paint finish on the dial.
Step-3: Speedometer & Odometer Restoration
Though the black didn’t fade as much as the white sections of the dial yellowed, Instrument Specialties still used UV-inhibiting black paint for the base of the dial face.
Step-4: Speedometer & Odometer Restoration
Perhaps the most important step in restoring gauges, aside from making them work right, comes when replicating the factory markings on the dial. Instrument Specialties uses a factory printing process with the original artwork negatives to apply the white ink to the speedometer face.
To replicate the lettering and markings, Instrument Specialties uses the same one-step printing process that the suppliers used, but substituting modern UV-resistant ink. The factory printing process actually allows for all sorts of customizing of the dials, using practically any color or font face imaginable. Graphic designers at Instrument Specialties simply create new artwork negatives, which are used in place of the original artwork negatives during the printing process.
This process, which only really works on flat surfaces, is similar to silk-screening, though silk-screening requires multiple steps for multiple colors, while the factory printing process applies multiple colors all in the same step. Instrument Specialties uses normal silk-screening on curved surfaces.
Other instrument restoration companies may use decals to replicate the factory lettering, though those have the potential for peeling and fading. They may also use either hot stamping or pad printing, similar processes that lower an ink pad onto the dial, though those processes have the potential for inconsistency and distortion.
Refinishing the needle tends to require more care than refinishing the dial. From the factory, the needle is perfectly weighted, and any imbalance on the needle, even from excess paint, will cause the speedometer to be difficult, if not impossible, to calibrate properly. Therefore, the crew at Instrument Specialties strips all the old paint from the needle and then airbrushes a new, thin layer of paint on. The lighter airbrushed paint also helps the needle become more responsive and provides more accurate readings.
With the speedometer reassembled, the crew at Instrument Specialties then calibrates the speedometer by either magnetizing or demagnetizing the magnet shaft. The magnet shaft makes no direct physical connection to the speed cup (and thus to the shaft and needle) because it creates eddy currents—a form of electrical current—that influence the movement of the speed cup. By using a magnetizer machine, the strength of the magnet shaft can be altered, thus adjusting the accuracy of the speedometer.
Most tachometers use few moving parts, but rely on electronic signals from an internal circuit board to drive the meter itself, so the faults in a tachometer usually lie either in that circuit board or with the accumulated dirt and metal shavings inside a tachometer. If necessary, the Instrument Specialties crew will replace the circuit board, demagnetize the entire tachometer, and clean out the dirt and metal shavings, then reassemble it with a dial and needle, restored in the same fashion as the speedometer.
In the case of this Charger, the owner wanted a Tic-Toc-Tach to replace the original Rallye clock and he wanted the clock movement converted to quartz. Several companies sell quartz movement conversions, which offer greater reliability over the stock mechanical movement.
The smaller gauges—oil pressure, temperature, fuel, and ammeter—are all refaced with a similar factory printing process as the speedometer and the tachometer. All but the amperage gauge (also called the ammeter) are tested on the resistance block. The oil pressure, temperature, and fuel gauges all depend on a resistance range, measured in ohms, to display properly. The current then feeds a bimetallic strip with a thin wire wrapped around it and the needle affixed to it—the higher the resistance, the more heat, so the bimetallic strip warps and the needle moves.
In Ford and Chrysler muscle cars, the oil pressure, temperature, and fuel gauges depend on a voltage limiter that reduces the voltage from 12 volts to 5 volts before the electrical current enters the gauge. If that voltage limiter fails, the gauge burns up. That is, the wire that heats up the bimetallic spring heats up too much and physically deteriorates, thus losing its ability to conduct electric current at all and effectively killing the gauge.
If the gauge has burned up, it can be repaired with a new wire around the bimetallic spring. The gauges are then calibrated on the resistance block. Calibration is done by applying the minimum resistance, adjusting the tiny star wheel adjuster on the back of the gauge until the needle points to the appropriate mark on one end, then applying the maximum resistance and adjusting the star wheel adjuster until the needle points to the appropriate mark on the other end.
The ammeter, on the other hand, simply works or doesn’t work once it’s clean. If it doesn’t work, it needs to be replaced with a functioning unit. Some restorers prefer to use voltmeters instead of ammeters for a couple of reasons. An ammeter simply displays whether the vehicle’s electrical system is charging or discharging, while a voltmeter (which became common in American vehicles around the mid- 1970s) displays the actual voltage of the vehicle’s electrical system. Some restorers feel ammeters can possibly cause fires when they fail, while others feel that ammeters tend to be the scapegoat for shoddy wiring elsewhere in the vehicle.
With all the instruments restored, the Instruments Specialty crew then cleans (and if necessary, rebuilds or replaces) the original switches, cleans any circuit boards with acid to remove corrosion and tarnish, and replaces all the light bulbs. The plastic lens in front of the gauges is sanded. They progressively sand it with 800- to 1500-grade paper before buffing with a low-rpm air-powered polisher kept below 2,500 rpm to avoid warping or melting the plastic.
The case itself is cleaned and repainted white to aid in reflecting the light behind the gauges from the bulbs. Gels used to color certain lights are cleaned and any lettering applied to the gels is removed and then reapplied via silk-screening. The face of the instrument panel, which usually incorporates the chrome trim around the gauges and switches, is chemically stripped to the bare plastic and wet sanded smooth before the entire face is plastic chromed. The areas to remain chrome are then masked while the rest of the face is wet sanded again before it is painted. Any lettering on the case is carefully applied by hand.
Depending on the amount of repair, calibration, and cosmetic restoration, Instrument Specialties charges about $900 for a simple gauge restoration and about another $300 to restore the instrument panel’s face. From start to finish, the entire job takes about 4 to 6 weeks unless the face requires rechroming, in which case, the job extends to 10 to 12 weeks.
Of course, depending on the model and options of your muscle car, you could easily spend that much money and more time hunting for working NOS gauges to replace your busted ones.
We’ve all seen them, especially when on the hunt for a muscle car. They can often be a deal breaker on first sight, even if the rest of the car isn’t half bad. And as long as you live somewhere other than underground where you never see the sun, you’re going to come across them—dashboard cracks.
The construction of a typical muscle car dashboard, while soft enough to please safety advocates of the day, isn’t exactly a design intended to last through the ages, especially when combined with exposure to the sun and varying temperatures. Basically, a muscle car dashboard consists of three layers: the stamped sheetmetal frame that forms the basic shape and structure of the dashboard; a layer of open-cell urethane foam padding (ranging in thickness from as little as 1/8 inch to as much as 1 inch) over most of the surfaces facing the driver and the passenger; and a textured vinyl skin over the foam.
Auto manufacturers started to introduce padded dashboards in the mid-1950s, and by 1967, they had not only become standard in American cars, they had become mandatory as part of the first wave of codified automotive safety regulations. Together, the foam padding and the vinyl skin are usually referred to as the dashboard’s dashpad or crashpad, if only because that’s what will pad your face during a crash.
Vinyl, as we all know, has a tendency to become brittle and less pliable with age and exposure to ultraviolet rays. A 2002 study by the Building and Fire Research Laboratory at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, showed that vinyl lost as much as two-thirds of its strength in several measurements after just 4,000 hours of UV exposure. Given an average of 12 hours per day of sitting in the sun, that’s a little less than a year. Vinyl also loses its flexibility over time as heat—both from direct sunlight and from the greenhouse effect within a car—causes chemical compounds called plasticizers to bake out of the vinyl in a process called outgassing. Not until the mid-1990s did automotive manufacturers begin to engineer plasticizers that didn’t outgas until they reached much higher temperatures.
It also didn’t help vinyl longevity when automotive manufacturers cut costs for dashboard construction by using the thinnest vinyl possible for dashboard skins—down to around .032 to .035 inch.
Sitting in the sun also leads to wild temperature extremes (only made worse by the use of air conditioning on those really hot days), which in turn leads to the expansion and contraction of the materials in the dashboard. The three basic materials that make up the dashboard all expand and contract at different rates, which leads to a lot of shifting surfaces in the dashboard. Combined with the embrittled and inflexible vinyl skin of the dashboard, a crack is simply inevitable. Thus, more often than not, cracks form in a dashboard, not in the cracks and crevices of the dashboard, where the vinyl skin is under little tension, but in the wide expanses of the dashboard—usually right smack-dab in the center—where the sun-stretched skin has the most tension.
In another cost-cutting measure, manufacturers didn’t treat the foam under the dashboard skin with any sort of UV protector, so once the skin cracked, the foam directly underneath quickly deteriorated. This, in turn, led to more cracks in the dashboard skin and more foam deterioration.
So unless your muscle car has rested far away from any windows in a temperature-controlled warehouse for most of its life, you’re going to eventually come face-to-face with a nasty crack in your dashpad. Covering the pad with one of those partsstore dash covers is not only cheesy, but is just as ineffective at stopping the spread of cracks as slathering plastic filler over rust is ineffective at stopping the spread of rust.
Repairing the dashboard—first by grinding out the crack, then filling it with a catalyzed urethane compound, such as the Urethane Supply Company’s Padded Dash Filler, and applying texture to the filled crack— does nothing to address the embrittled and inflexible vinyl skin on the rest of the dashboard. It also does nothing to prevent more cracks from appearing later on.
Instead, a proper dashboard restoration requires you to do three things:
• Remove the dashboard from the car (usually accomplished by removing a few bolts on either side of the dashboard, right above the kick panel. Be sure to consult your car’s assembly manual).
• Strip off the entire dashpad and apply new foam padding.
• Skin the padding with a new vinyl skin that will conform to all the contours of your dashboard.
It’s all doable on simpler dashboards, ones without too many or too complex curves and shapes. You can simply use contact adhesive, closedcell foam built up and carved to shape, and carefully stretch the new vinyl, applying heat where necessary.
But it’s a much tougher process for dashboards with more complex shapes, including many of our favorite muscle cars. To meet the market need in 1992, Just Dashes of Van Nuys, California, began offering a thermo-vacuum forming dashboard restoration process. It is similar to the process the factories used to apply the vinyl skin to the dashboard.
I visited Just Dashes as they were preparing to restore a dashboard for a 1970 Pontiac GTO, and saw firsthand how a nasty old dash can come out looking brand new. After initial inspection of the dashboard, the Just Dashes crew proceeds to strip the dashboard of its vinyl skin and original foam padding. Though normally well protected from the elements by the dashpad, the metal frame of the dashboard can sometimes rust, especially if the car’s windshield sprang a leak or if water somehow got underneath the vinyl skin, where the original foam then soaked it up like a sponge. Any rust-through should be repaired now, before proceeding. Otherwise, the Just Dashes crew lightly goes over the frame with a wire brush to remove any loose foam.
Step-1: Dashboard Restoration
Shaping the foam is essential to achieving the correct appearance even after the vinyl skin is applied. The foam is what gives the dashboard its shape and definition, and any major gouges will show through the vinyl.
Step-2: Dashboard Restoration
The foam, however, is shaped to exactly the same thickness as the factoryapplied foam to allow all the original components— instrument panel, heater vents, glove box—to fit perfectly into the dashboard. For that reason, the Just Dashes crew constantly checked the fit of those components against the bare-foam dashboard during the sanding and shaping process.
Step-3: Dashboard Restoration
Once the dashboard has been shaped, the Just Dashes crew sprayed a thin, even coat of adhesive to the surface of the dashboard. Again, the adhesive must be as even as possible; otherwise, lumps or voids will show through the vinyl skin.
Step-4: Dashboard Restoration
Another thin, even coat of adhesive was applied to the back side of the vinyl that will cover the dashboard. The thicker-than-stock vinyl that Just Dashes used comes from a supplier that has reformulated the vinyl to be more durable and UV-resistant over time. Just Dashes has a variety of vinyl grains to choose from, to either match the original, or to provide a custom look for a muscle car.
Step-5: Dashboard Restoration
Now coated with adhesive, the dashboard was placed on a vacuum table, sufficiently supported to remain stable through the thermo-vacuum forming process. Cloths placed over areas not to be skinned prevented the vinyl from adhering to those areas. The dash must be adequately braced against the table now; otherwise, it may distort under the strong vacuum.
Step-6: Dashboard Restoration
The vinyl skin was clamped in a metal frame, then heated evenly until it became sufficiently pliable. The amount of heat used varies depending on the size, shape, and complexity of the dashboard.
Step-7: Dashboard Restoration
The thermo-vacuum forming machine pushed the braced frame and vacuum table up into the heated vinyl skin. Once the skin maked a seal with the vacuum table, the vacuum pump was turned on and sucked the hot vinyl skin to the dashboard. As with the amount of heat applied, the amount of vacuum applied also depends on the size and shape of the dashboard. The operator of the machine checked for air pockets trapped under the vinyl skin or imperfections in the vinyl.
Step-8: Dashboard Restoration
With sufficient vacuum and heat, the vinyl skin conformed perfectly to the shape of the dashboard. Note how it also conformed perfectly to the rags in the opening for the glove box; an observation that hammers home the importance of making the foam padding perfectly smooth and divot-free. A mist of cool water at this point helped the vinyl skin set in shape.
Step-9: Dashboard Restoration
Once thoroughly cooled, the dashboard was cut free from the vacuum table and sent to the finishing department, where finishers trimmed the excess vinyl skin off, down to about 1 inch of excess, and then folded the skin over the sides of the dashboard. Here, a finisher used a tucking tool to help the vinyl skin conform to an edge that the thermo-vacuum forming process couldn’t handle.
Step-10: Dashboard Restoration
Several dashboards cooled on a rack as they awaited their turn with the finishing department. Note how the thermovacuum forming process was able to form a variety of dashboard shapes with only minor adjustments in the amount of heat and vacuum applied.
Step-11: Dashboard Restoration
All the vinyl for the dashboard came off the roll in an uncoated, and thus highly glossy, black. After trimming the skinned dashboard, the Just Dashes finishers painted the dash with a vinyl dye to match the original color. In the vinyl dye, Just Dashes mixed a flattening agent to prevent glare coming off the dashboard and into the driver’s eyes.
Step-12: Dashboard Restoration
Fitted with the instrument panel, glove box door, and heater vent doors, the dashboard now looked much better than the cracked and crumbling wreck that had entered the Just Dashes shop. With better materials used in its restoration, the new dashboard should also resist cracking and damage much longer than the original dash did.
According to Irwin Tessler, owner and founder of Just Dashes, the original foam helped cause many cracks in the vinyl skin because its porous, open-cell composition caused it to expand and contract with temperature changes. The Just Dashes crew replaces the old open-cell foam with new, high-density closed-cell polyethylene foam designed to expand and contract with the vinyl.
After laying out different thicknesses of foam depending on the location—thicker 1-inch foam for the eyebrow of the dash facing the passengers, thinner 1/8-inch or 1/4- inch foam for the top of the dash— they then secure the foam in place with contact adhesive. Using various grades of sandpaper ranging from 40 grit to 320 grit, they then shape the foam by hand, constantly checking the fit of all the pieces that bolt or screw to the dashboard, including the vents, speaker grilles, and instrument panel. The foam cannot have any gouges or pits in it at this point; irregularities in the surface will show through the vinyl skin.
Once the Just Dashes crew has shaped the foam padding, they spray a thin, even layer of adhesive on the foam and place the foam-covered dashboard on a vacuum tray that is sealed to a table and then to a vacuum pump. At the same time, they roll out enough vinyl to completely cover the dashboard and spray a thin, even layer of adhesive on the back of the vinyl. The vinyl that Just Dashes uses has the same grain as the original vinyl skin, but is thicker (about .045 inch), which goes a long way toward resisting damage. Tessler said he has also worked with suppliers to obtain a vinyl that has UV inhibitors molded into it, as well as modern plasticizers that don’t outgas at low temperatures. All of these attributes help increase the dashboard’s longevity.
The Just Dashes crew then clamps the sheet of vinyl in a frame and heats it in an oven until it becomes pliable, and quickly raises the vacuum tray up into the heated vinyl. The amount of time and the temperature varies for different-size and different-shape dashes. The soft vinyl makes an airtight barrier with the vacuum tray, at which point the technician can activate the vacuum— again, a varying amount depending on the size and shape of the dashboard—and suck the vinyl down around the dashboard. The use of vacuum forming thus allows the pliable vinyl to stretch around contours and into crevices in much less time than it would take a craftsman working by hand to do the same.
According to Tessler, automotive manufacturers used, essentially, the reverse of the process. They first vacuum-formed the vinyl skin to a negative mold of the face of the dashboard, then back-filled the skin with foam, placed the metal frame of the dashboard into the foam, and then closed the mold around the frame. “Our process loses a bit of definition versus Detroit’s process,” Tessler said. “But this is the closest anybody can get to how they did it originally without the molds, and you’d really have to set one of our dashes side-by-side with an original dash to see the difference.”
To cool the vinyl and help it set in place, a fine spray of water is applied to the vinyl, as the operator visually checks the dashboard to make sure the vinyl formed perfectly to the dashboard and no bubbles appeared under the vinyl skin. Once it has cooled enough, they then cut it free from the vacuum box and the metal frame, leaving between 1/2 and 1 inch of excess around the dashboard.
Over in the finishing department, trimmers remove the vinyl from the openings for the speaker grilles, glove box, vents, and instrument panel. Tuck tools are used to push the vinyl farther into some recesses. At the edges, the finishers dart the vinyl at the corners, then apply even heat to the vinyl, stretch it around the edges, and glue the vinyl flaps to the back side of the dashboard.
All of the vinyl that Just Dashes uses starts out black, so if they are restoring a dashboard of a different color, they can dye it to match using simple lacquer-based vinyl dye, mixed with a flattening agent to cause less reflective glare. Typically, they wait until the end of the process to dye the dashboard, both because the dye would be damaged in the thermo-vacuum process and require touch-ups afterward, and because they don’t have to dye the entire sheet of vinyl, only the section they didn’t trim away.
Though the thermo-vacuum forming process takes about 1/2 hour, it typically takes Just Dashes about 4 to 6 weeks to complete a dash restoration. A straightforward dash restoration usually costs from $400 to $2,000, depending on the size and shape of the dashboard.
So could you build your own vacuum table large enough to accept an entire dashboard? Sure, plans for those have been floating around on the Internet for years. Using a heat gun, you could probably also heat an entire sheet of vinyl perfectly and evenly to make it pliable enough to stretch over your dashboard, with enough practice. And if you’re resourceful enough, you could locate the right vinyl, the right dye, and the right closed-cell foam in varying thicknesses with no problem. According to Tessler, most people who try to recover their own dashboards find themselves in over their heads real quick and make more of a mess than if they had just left the dashboard alone in the first place, but it’s certainly possible to nail such a complicated task on the first try.
So let’s say you did all of the above to recover your own dash. And let’s ignore how much it would cost to buy all those materials and how much time you’d spend researching, designing, building, and testing your own thermo-vacuum contraption versus the money and time spent simply sending your dash out for restoration. Let’s say you even did fix it right the first time around. In the end, you went through all that trouble for a setup you’ll use once, maybe two or three times for your buddies’ dashboards. Was it really worth it?
Just Dashes supplies most, if not all, reproduction dashpads on the aftermarket today, and the removal/ installation process for reproduction dashboards is the same for dashboards restored by Just Dashes. They are definitely an option.
Taking Care of your Dash
Of course, if you’re going to lay out the kind of money quoted above for a new dashboard, you’ll want to take the utmost care of it. The increased durability of the vinyl used in a Just Dashes restoration will go a long way toward preventing future damage, but you should simply keep the dash—and the entire car—out of the sun as well as keep the dash clean of dust and dirt. While Just Dashes does sell a product called Vinyl Life Preserver meant to extend the life of a dash, Tessler said he also recommends using the household cleaner Pledge for its anti-static properties.
Ask a dozen detailers or restorers what to use to keep a dashboard clean and you’ll hear a dozen different answers. If you’re reselling a car after you’ve restored it, some simple Armor All or other silicone oil-based product will certainly shine up the dashboard and other plastic surfaces. You can usually spot a silicone oil-based product by warnings on the bottle not to use the product on surfaces where slipperiness would result. Silicone oilbased products also usually suggest multiple applications to build up the product on the dashboard.
Yet applying silicone oil to a dashboard is widely regarded as harmful to its surface over time, and most restorers suggest avoiding such products when choosing a protectant for your dashboard. Much like baby oil— another product claimed to preserve interior vinyls but which actually does more harm than good—silicone oil accelerates heat transfer to the vinyl, which in turn accelerates damage to the vinyl. Think about it in terms of going to the beach in summer: To avoid a sunburn, you wouldn’t want to use baby oil or tanning lotion; instead, you’d want to use sunscreen, the higher the SPF the better. Or think about it in terms of frying a turkey: What do you use? Cooking oil.
So what should you use to protect your interior vinyl? Again, most restorers have favorite products. First, they emphasize keeping the dashboard clean, and in most cases, warm soapy water will do the job; ammonia or even hydrogen peroxide diluted with water will take care of mildew or tougher stains. However, avoid using bleach, solvents, or harsh detergents. For a protectant, look for a product that blocks UV rays, such as Waxshop LRV conditioner or the 303 line of products, then follow the product’s application directions.
Glove Box Restoration
To model makers and craftspeople, flocking is a fairly well-known process. Most car guys, however, display a look of bewilderment on their faces when you mention flocking to them. “Isn’t that what you do to a Christmas tree?” they ask.
In dashboard restoration—and even in a few other places in the interior, such as inside the console and on some window channels and rubguards—flocking is commonly used to provide a soft, non-slip surface, or as a decorative alternative to bare plastic, vinyl, or metal. It’s that velvety, suedelike stuff that feels like cloth but doesn’t have the padding of a normal cloth surface. It’s a lot more common on cars built in the last couple decades, but unless you’re going for an all-out concours restoration, there’s no reason not to add flocking to your glove box or inside your console. I’ve even heard of race car builders who use the stuff all over their dashboards to reduce glare. It might look a little tacky, but if it gives them an advantage and prevents them from crashing, I suppose it’s worth it.
While the production flocking process involves running an electrical current through the part to be flocked, it’s also possible to flock parts at home without any special equipment, just the right supplies and a little time. DonJer, one of the more prominent flocking supply companies in the United States, offers a home flocking kit—available through Eastwood— that represents a good alternative to sending parts away for professional (read: expensive) flocking.
If the part to be flocked already has flocking on it, then the old flocking should be removed with 120- to 180-grit sandpaper or a medium foam-backed sanding pad, such as from 3M. The flocking will eventually cover any sanding marks in the surface of the part, so feel free to be aggressive with the sandpaper to remove all the old flocking. Once all the old flocking is removed—or if the part has no flocking on it— wipe down the surface with acetone or denatured alcohol (available at any hardware store) to remove any dust, dirt, and oils from the surface of the part.
Planning the flocking process is the key to professional-looking results—and the key to not making a huge mess. Decide where exactly you want flocking to appear, and the surfaces where you don’t want or need the flocking. Though not required, it’s recommended to tape off the areas you don’t want to flock (use green painter’s tape—it doesn’t bleed at the edges as much as blue painter’s tape). Plan to flock an entire surface at a time; flocking a surface in multiple sections will create lines between the sections.
Glove Box Restoration
Step-1: Glove Box Restoration
Though it wasn’t originally flocked, we’ve chosen to flock the inside of the glove box door on our car. Flocking will add a layer of soft protection for the registration papers and assorted fuses we keep in the glove box. It will also help prevent our drinks from sliding around in those ineffective cup holders, were we ever to actually use them.
Step-2: Glove Box Restoration
With flocking, first make sure the surface is totally clean; we wiped the door with denatured alcohol. Any porous surface, such as wood, requires some sort of sealant or shellac to prevent the flocking adhesive from soaking into the base material. It’s also a good idea to use a sealant over the glove box door’s ABS plastic surface.
Step-3: Glove Box Restoration
The heart of the flocking kit is the small bag of flocking fibers and the applicator tube. The flocking comes in a variety of colors to match your interior. Though the bag seems small, we used more than we thought we needed to and still had plenty left.
Step-4: Glove Box Restoration
The applicator tube is actually two tubes. Separate them and fill the smaller of the two about halfway with the flocking fibers. Take care here; the fibers are apt to fly all over the place, so try to keep them contained when pouring them into the tube. Reassemble the tube afterward and set it aside.
Step-5: Glove Box Restoration
We set our glove box door on a sheet of plastic to keep from making a mess, and to recycle the excess flocking fibers later on in the process. The adhesive included in the kit should match the color of the flocking fibers. While the adhesive can be thinned and sprayed, we elected to brush it on with the supplied brush.
Step-6: Glove Box Restoration
Brush the adhesive on thickly, but evenly. This is critical; if you miss a spot now, it may be impossible to fill it in later, so keep brushing even after you think the surface is well coated. There is no correct ratio of adhesive to fibers; the fibers will cover whatever amount of adhesive is there.
Step-7: Glove Box Restoration
To apply the flocking fibers, invert the partially filled cardboard tube and dust the adhesivecovered surface by pumping the two tubes together to push the fibers out the holes. While pumping the tubes, twist them against each other to stir up the flocking fibers within. Maintain an even distance and angle to the surface.
Step-8: Glove Box Restoration
To adequately cover the adhesive, continue applying the flocking fibers long after you think you’ve sufficiently covered it. Any fibers that don’t stick to the adhesive can be recovered by inverting the piece onto the plastic sheet. Don’t tap or brush the piece for at least 12 hours, though.
Step-9: Glove Box Restoration
After giving the adhesive up to 7 days to cure, vacuum the excess fibers off the piece, leaving a smooth and evenly flocked surface. Although we flocked this glove box door all at once, it’s recommended to flock multiple surfaces (such as those inside a glove box) in stages and to tape off any areas you don’t want flocked.
The flocking kit instructions strongly recommend you find a box large enough for the part you’re flocking and line it with plastic to contain the mess created by the process. A simple clean plastic sheet over your workbench will also suffice. Have a shop-vac handy, but also keep in mind that the flocking fibers can be re-used, so consider a method to recover excess material from the sheet.
The flocking kit contains a unique method for distributing the flocking fibers: a pair of cardboard tubes, each open at one end and designed to slide into one another. One of the cardboard tubes has holes punched in the closed end, like a saltshaker. Fill the other cardboard tube about halfway with the flocking fibers, being careful not to spread the fibers all over the place. If you’re not careful, the fibers can act like a small cloud of dust and the slightest breeze can blow them everywhere. Assemble the cardboard tubes and set them aside for a moment.
Next, take the part to be flocked and brush on the adhesive included in the kit. The adhesive looks like a viscous tar, so be sure to spread enough adhesive on the part to even it out and to cover the entire surface to be flocked. This is a critical step because you won’t have a chance to apply more adhesive after you’ve spread the fibers. Any excess adhesive can be simply wiped off with a paper towel and a little denatured alcohol. A few bubbles may form in the adhesive; pop them with the bristles of the brush before continuing.
One note: The adhesive will soak in to any porous surface. So it’s not a big deal if you’re flocking steel, but it may pose a problem if you’re flocking plastic or vinyl, and will definitely pose a problem if you’re flocking wood. The kit instructions recommend shellacking, varnishing, or otherwise sealing the surface you plan to flock before applying the adhesive. If the adhesive is allowed to soak into the surface you’re flocking, then less adhesive will be available to get the job done.
The kit gives you a working time of 10 to 15 minutes before applying the fibers, so work quickly, but be thorough with the adhesive application. The kit includes a small brush, which is fine for small to medium parts, but larger parts require larger brushes to evenly coat the part in the working time. The adhesive can be sprayed as long as it is thinned with mineral spirits.
With the adhesive applied, grab the tube of fibers, invert it, and lightly pump the cardboard tubes to blow the fibers over the adhesivecoated part. Hold the tube about 8 to 10 inches from the part and maintain that distance while spreading the fibers. Keep spreading as long as you see any areas that look wet from the glue, and if the part is not perfectly flat, pump the fibers from different angles to evenly coat all sides and shapes of the part. As the kit instructions note, you can’t pump too many fibers—only so many will stick to the adhesive. The excess fibers can be reclaimed, so keep at it until you’re absolutely sure the fibers cover every molecule of adhesive.
You can turn the part upside down to dump off excess fibers now, but don’t tap or brush away the fibers until the adhesive has fully dried. Be prepared to wait. The kit recommends allowing 10 to 15 hours for the adhesive to dry and then another 3 to 7 days for the adhesive to cure completely. To prevent dust from settling on the part during that time, cover the part with something that won’t touch the surface of the part—a cardboard box works well.
DonJer claims the nylon fibers (which they offer in a variety of colors) make the flocking water- and UV-resistant, and that the 3-ounce bag of fibers and the small can of adhesive included in the kit are enough to cover 15 square feet of surface. That’s more than enough to do the inside of your glove box and the inside of your console. It’s also a quick process and shouldn’t take more than 1 hour, including cleanup (but, of course, excluding drying time).
Written by Daniel Strohl and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks