Body: Applying the Skin

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Chapter 9: Body - Applying the Skin

Now comes the fun part. After countless hours getting the chassis built and the body skeleton fabricated, it's time to start seeing what the car is going to really look like as we begin hanging the sheet metal skin.


Flat panels

Roof

Photo 9-1 Roof panels being cut, bent and fitted. Photo attribution
The skinning process takes place in two stages. In the first stage, all of the large flat body areas are covered with flat panels. In the second stage, all of the curved areas, connecting one flat panel to another, are fabricated. 18-gauge sheet metal is used throughout the fabrication, and we begin with two panels which will cover the front 3/4 of the roof. These panels are crowned at the center, where they join over a raised center rib member of the roof skeleton (Photo 9-1). Each panel is bent to form a curve along the front edge, to create a smooth transition from the roof to the front of the windshield frame. This bend is made by clamping the sheet metal to the work table under a length of 1" black pipe (Photo 9-2). A heavy metal hammer, also shown in Photo 9-2, is used to tap the metal around the pipe.
Photo 9-2 The front edge curve of the roof panel is bent over 1" black pipe. Photo attribution
Photo 9-3 Roof panels clamped to skeleton and tack welded in place. Photo attribution
Photo 9-3 shows the front bend in the sheet metal and the two panels clamped to the skeleton as they are tack welded around the outer edge and down the center seam. With the major portion of the roof skin in place, the contour of the "crown" is established, and we can now duck to the underside of the roof and install additional 1x1 roof supports (Photo 9-4). If these supports are installed earlier, before the skin is in place, there is a good chance they might get positioned at the wrong height...either too high or too low. With the sheet metal panels in place, it is a simple matter to follow the contour of the crown as it tapers left-to-right and front-to-back, and position the roof supports correctly.
Photo 9-4 Additional 1x1 supports are welded to the skeleton following the "crown" contours of the sheet metal. Photo attribution
Photo 9-5 Panel for rear top curve being clamped in place for bending. Photo attribution
At the rear of the roof is a major curve, which transitions from the roof to the back skeleton. The sheet metal is cut to the correct length and width so that it will butt up to the two existing roof panels, and span the main corner supports of the skeleton. It is butted to the existing roof panels and held in place using a length of square tubing and clamps (Arrow "A" in Photo 9-5). A second length of square tubing (arrow "B" in Photo 9-5) is laid on the sheet metal 8"-12" from the front edge of the panel. Clamps are attached to this tubing and the skeleton sections below, and the tightening/bending process is begun as the sheet metal is drawn down to the curved skeleton sections. The tubing allows us to bend the sheet metal uniformly across the entire width of the panel. Without the tubing, the sheet metal can bow or become deformed if we try to bend just one small section at a time. By moving back and forth between the two end clamps, tightening each as we go, the metal can be curved in a uniform manner to minimize kinks and potential oil canning.
Photo 9-6 Sheet metal is progressively bent around skeleton curves using clamps and support tubes. Photo attribution
Photo 9-7 The bend is completed and the panel is clamped for welding. Photo attribution
Photo 9-6 shows the next step in the bend's progress. As Tube "B" from our prior photo is drawn firmly against the skeleton supports, a third tube, "C", is added and clamps are positioned so that the balance of the sheet metal can be drawn toward the skeleton supports. Also note that clamps "D" are utilized to keep the sheet metal firmly against the skeleton supports once it has been drawn tight around the curve. Photo 9-7 shows the sheet metal fully formed around the skeleton supports and being held in place for tack welding. Note that wherever possible, the sheet metal is tack welded to the skeleton from the inside (Photo 9-8). If the panels are tack welded on the outside along the edge of the panel, it would make it very difficult to fit the next panel flush up against the first. So, try to keep abutting panel edges free of welds.
Photo 9-8 The rear top curve welded. Photo attribution

Rear panel

Photo 9-9 The rear panel mocked up to mark for final cuts. Photo attribution
The next panel to go on is the lower section at the rear of the car. The panel is cut roughly to shape and then clamped firmly to the car (Photo 9-9). From the inside of the car, it is marked where it will fit around the driveshaft tube and the panel is cut to final shape (Photo 9-10).
Photo 9-10 The rear panel cut and ready for installation. Photo attribution
Photo 9-11 The panel is clamped tightly to the skeleton and prepared for welding. Photo attribution
The panel is once again clamped firmly to the skeleton (Photo 9-11) and welded in place (Photo 9-12). Note that the area between the lower panel and the upper curve has purposely been left open. This is the area where the hatch door will be located.
Photo 9-12 Rear panel welded. Photo attribution

Doors

Photo 9-13 The outline of the door skeleton is traced onto sheet metal and cut out. Photo attribution
The door skins are made by clamping a blank of sheet metal over the door skeleton and tracing around the perimeter and window opening. The metal is then cut as shown in Photo 9-13. The panel is firmly clamped to the door skeleton (Photo 9-14), and tack welded around the edges (Photo 9-15).
Photo 9-14 The sheet metal is clamped to the skeleton and tack welded. Photo attribution
Photo 9-15 Clamps are removed and final welding is completed around all edges and the window opening. Photo attribution
With the clamps removed, the doors are welded up around the outside and around the window openings and the welds are ground smooth (Photo 9-16).
Photo 9-16 The welds are ground smooth using a 4 1/2" angle-head grinder. Photo attribution


Side panel

Photo 9-17 A side panel cut and ready for installation. Photo attribution
Next, the large side panels of the car are cut and installed. To create a side panel, the builder can either create a cardboard pattern or, as was done here, cut sheet metal roughly to shape, and then clamp it to the skeleton to draw the cut lines. Photo 9-17 shows the side panel cut to shape.

The side panel will abut the door, so the crowns in their sheet metal must match. If the contour of the crown at the door edge does not match the contour of the crown along the door jamb, it will be very obvious to the naked eye when the door is in the closed position.

To crown the side panel, a 3/8" spacer (see arrow) is tack welded to the door jamb at the same height as the 3/8" spacer located on the rear vertical of the door (Photo 9-18).
Photo 9-18 A small spacer is tack welded to the door jamb to crown the side panel. Photo attribution
Photo 9-19 The panel is clamped to the skeleton for welding. The front edge of the panel is left un-welded at this point. Photo attribution
The side panel is then clamped firmly on all sides EXCEPT the door jamb side (Photo 9-19), and welded in place (Photo 9-20).
Photo 9-20 The side panel welded. Photo attribution

To make sure the contour of the side panel crown will match the contour of the door crown, the door is installed, and a length of 5" wide, 1/8" flat stock is clamped to the door (Photo 9-21). Then, from the inside of the car, the side panel sheet metal is pushed firmly against the 1/8" flat stock, and small tabs are tack welded from the skeleton to the sheet metal, to hold the sheet metal in position.

When the 1/8" flat stock is removed, the crown contour of the side panel should match perfectly with the crown contour along the edge of the door (Photo 9-22). The void between the sheet metal and the jamb is then filled with a combination of sheet metal strips and welding (Photo 9-23).

Photo 9-21 Flat stock is clamped to the door. Then, from the inside of the car, the front edge of the side panel is forced against the flat stock, and tabs are welded between the skeleton and the edge of the panel, so that the contour of the panel matches the contour of the door. Photo attribution
Photo 9-22 When the flat stock is removed, the contour of the door and side panel match. Photo attribution
Photo 9-23 Because of the crown, there will be a small void between the side panel and the jamb. This void is filled with sheet metal strips and welding. Photo attribution


Hatch

Photo 9-24 Although it was later replaced, the hatch door is here being skinned with sheet metal. Photo attribution
As noted earlier, the operating rear hatch will be replaced later in the build process. But for those who might be interested, Photo 9-24 shows the hatch after being skinned with sheet metal, and Photo 9-25 shows the hatch hung in place.
Photo 9-25 The original hatch door installed. Photo attribution


Firewall

The firewall sheet metal is marked and cut to shape using a cardboard pattern. (Photo 9-26) The panel is then firmly clamped in place (Photo 9-27) and welded (Photo 9-28).

Photo 9-26 The firewall panel cut and ready for installation. Photo attribution
Photo 9-27 The firewall panel clamped for welding. Photo attribution
Photo 9-28 The completed firewall panel. Photo attribution


Cowl

Photo 9-29 A "cowl curve support" is welded to the windshield post. Photo attribution
The cowl gets a bit trickier than the prior panels, particularly because of the cowl corners, which require some mathematics. Most cowls from the 20's and 30's have a corner curve, which is uneven from the front to the back. That is, the radius of the corner curve is larger on the firewall end than the radius on the windshield (cockpit) end.

To build the cowl, one must first decide the radius of these two curves. For this car, the radius of the curve at the firewall end is 4" and the radius on the windshield end is 3". These curve radii are a matter of personal taste, and they can even be identical, front-to-back, if the builder wishes.

To begin building the cowl, we need a short length of 1/8" thick x 1/2" wide flat stock steel to be used as a corner-curve-support at the windshield end of the curve (Photo 9-29). The length of this support is determined by the radius of your curve. The support is going to look like exactly one quarter of a full circle. Thus, the length of the support will be one quarter of the circumference of a circle having the radius you have chosen.

Here is a quickie formula to calculate the length of the support, where L=length and R=the radius of the curve. 3.14 is the value used for pi.

L= (3.14 (2 x R))/4

Or in longer hand: Length equals pi times twice the radius divided by 4.

For this particular car, having a curve radius of 3", the calculation looks like this:

  • L=(3.14(2x3))/4
  • L=(3.14x6)/4
  • L=18.84/4
  • L=4.71

(Sorry if the math may seem a little drawn out, I just want to make sure folks can follow it and use it.)

The curve support piece is cut to length and bent around 6" PVC pipe to form one quarter of a circle with a 3" radius. The support is then positioned and welded to the windshield post at the windshield end of the cowl (Photo 9-29).

Photo 9-30 Posterboard pattern is cut to fit tight to the windshield post. Photo attribution

Next, a pattern for cutting the sheet metal is made using posterboard or heavy paper stock. Cut the pattern paper 12" wide and draw a line down the center of the paper on both the top and bottom of the paper. Also, mark the center of the firewall curve, and the center of the curve support just welded to the windshield post. (Note that the accompanying pictures of the pattern process, 9-30 through 9-34, were taken during a prior cowl fabrication. The body shown in the pictures will appear slightly different than this body, but the process is exactly the same.)

The pattern paper centerline is matched to the centers marked on the two curves, and the pattern is cut and trimmed to fit tightly up against the windshield post. Once it has been trimmed, it is taped in place (Photo 9-30). Note also in this picture the center mark "A" for the curve support and marks "B" noted on the pattern, representing the two ends of the curve support. The firewall end of the pattern paper is allowed to extend out over the firewall hoop (Photo 9-31).
Photo 9-31 The pattern extends over the firewall so that the edge of the firewall hoop can be traced onto the underside of the pattern paper. Photo attribution
Photo 9-32 When removed, the pattern drawing will look something like this. Photo attribution
Holding the paper so that it can't move, a line is drawn on the underside of the paper following the outer edge of the firewall hoop. When you pull the pattern paper off, the underside should look like Photo 9-32. The pattern can then be trimmed (Photo 9-33), transferred to sheet metal, and the metal cut out and marked with a centerline (Photo 9-34).
Photo 9-33 When the pattern is trimmed, it will look like this. Photo attribution
Photo 9-34 The resulting panel with a centerline drawn to locate the panel on the skeleton. Photo attribution
The panel is then formed into the rough shape of the curve by bending it over 5" PVC pipe using a series of clamps. Once it is roughly shaped, it is positioned on the skeleton with the centerline on the panel lined up with center points of the two end curves (arrows), which were previously marked. The panel is bent to its final form around the two curves using clamps, and, if necessary, a bit of coaxing with a teardrop mallet (Photo 9-35).
Photo 9-35 The panel is bent to shape and clamped to the skeleton. Photo attribution
Photo 9-36 The corner tack welded to the skeleton. Photo attribution
The panel is then tack welded in place (Photo 9-36).

The cowl's lower side piece is fabricated in conjunction with a small strip of sheet metal, which transitions from the front of the door opening to the front of the windshield post. This transition piece will follow the shape of the door crown contour on the door side, and transition to the straight contour of the windshield post on the engine side. This transition piece also extends up to the roof to cover the side of the windshield post.

With the door in place, a small 3/8" spacer is tack welded at the edge of the front door jamb to match the highest point in the crown of the door. The transition piece (arrow) is then clamped in place over the spacer as shown in Photo 9-37. Additional spacers are then added above and below the first, to ensure the contour of the transition piece matches the contour of the door crown at the front edge of the door. The transition piece is tack welded in place.
Photo 9-37 A narrow strip of sheet metal (arrow) transitions from the crown contour of the door edge to the straight contour at the front of the windshield post. Photo attribution

Next, the side panel is cut to shape and tack welded to the firewall hoop at the front, and to the transition piece at the rear (Photo 9-38). The voids along the jamb edge are filled and welded (Photo 9-39). The final piece of the cowl is the top section. This section is made by first creating a posterboard pattern. The pattern outline is transferred to sheet metal, cut and tack welded in place (Photo 9-40).

Photo 9-38 The cowl side panel cut and tack welded in place. Photo attribution
Photo 9-39 The void created by the crown contour (arrow) is filled and welded. Photo attribution
Photo 9-40 The cowl top panel is cut and welded in place. Photo attribution

Curves and corners

Shaping with stumps

Photo 9-41 Two oak tree trunk sections are used to create metalshaping "stumps". Photo attribution
As the sheet metal fabrication moves into the second phase where complex curves and corners need to be formed, there are two tools to consider adding to your shop. The first tool is not only very helpful, it is dirt cheap: the wooden stump.

As was noted in Chapter 6 (Introduction to Scratch Building) stumps have been a mainstay of sheet metal fabrication throughout much of the automobile's history. This was particularly true in European countries, and remains true today in some coachbuilding shops.

Two different stumps were cut and used for this project (Photo 9-41). Both are approximately 36" tall, which is a comfortable workbench height. The stumps were cut from 18"-20" diameter oak tree trunks, and they are debarked.
Photo 9-42 Universal shapes are carved into the stump with a chainsaw. Photo attribution

After trimming both ends to get the stumps sitting flat and level, a chainsaw is used to carve various shapes into the top of the stumps. The shapes are then smoothed using a 3" portable plane and a 7" angle grinder with coarse sandpaper. The shaping of the stumps is not to create an exact "buck" to shape the metal over, but rather to create a few universal shapes which can then be used to form the metal in many different ways.

The stump shapes used for this project are shown in Photo 9-42 and 9-43. Photo 9-44 shows the author getting in a little practice with the stumps, and photo 9-45 shows some shaping being done with a stump and a teardrop mallet.

Photo 9-43 The shapes are smoothed with a portable plane and 7" grinder equipped with coarse sandpaper. Photo attribution
Photo 9-44 Getting some practice time on the stump. Photo attribution
Photo 9-45 Working some bends on the second stump shape. Photo attribution


English wheel

Photo 9-46 The Harbor Freight English wheel was used on this project, after some modifications to make the unit more rigid, and to maintain better control over the wheel action. The English wheel was helpful but not essential for creating the panels on this car. Photo attribution
An English wheel was purchased to try out with this project. This is a relatively inexpensive unit from Harbor Freight. As shown in the photo, there are a number of modifications that need to be made to an entry-level wheel such as this, including some significant reinforcement of the frame to eliminate flexing (Photo 9-46). The English wheel is handy, and does speed up the shaping work. However, it is not absolutely essential. All of the cars shown in the Chapter 7 galleries were fabricated without a single builder using an English wheel. Obviously, the more professional shops rely heavily on their English wheels to reduce labor time. But for the first-time scratch builder, there are many other tools that might be considered more essential for the task.

Top corner curve

Photo 9-47 A curve must be created to span the area between the roof and side section (arrow). Photo attribution
The first curve to be tackled is the top corner curve, which transitions from the side of the body to the top of the roof. This is the area shown at the arrow in Photo 9-47. The length for the curve can be measured easily on the skeleton, but the width must be calculated using the formula shown above. The curve covers one quarter of a full circle. So, the width of the work piece is determined by calculating one quarter of the circumference of a circle having a radius of 3". In this case, 4 3/4" (rounded). Once cut, the work piece is clamped to 5" PVC pipe, by laying 1x1 square tubing down the centerline of the workpiece, as shown in Photo 9-48. The metal is then forced around the curve by laying an 18" block of 2x4 on the sheet metal, and hammering up and down the length of sheet metal until it wraps fairly closely around the PVC. Note that the 5" PVC pipe is a circle with a 2 1/2" radius, while the curve we want has a 3 inch radius. This works to our advantage, however, since the metal retains a good bit of its "memory", and even when hammered around this smaller cylinder will spring back to a slightly larger size.
Photo 9-48 The curve is made by bending the workpiece over 5" PVC pipe. Photo attribution

After the workpiece is roughly shaped around the PVC pipe, we remove it and make use of 6" diameter well casing to do our final forming. The well casing has exactly the radius we are creating (3") and the workpiece is hammered to conform with the inside surface of the well casing using a plastic teardrop mallet, as shown in Photo 9-49. The resulting curve is shown in Photo 9-50. The curve section is then clamped to the body and tack welded in place (Photo 9-51).

Photo 9-49 To give the curve its final shape, it is hammered against the inside surface of some 6" well casing. Photo attribution
Photo 9-50 The curve after being shaped. Photo attribution
Photo 9-51 The top corner curve being welded in place. Photo attribution


Rear corner curve and cap

Photo 9-52 The compound-complex curve and cap necessary to cover this area on the rear corner of the car is the most challenging metalwork of the entire project. Photo attribution
This particular curve on a scratch-built body is probably the most daunting challenge to the amateur coachbuilder, and the one curve that convinces most novices they could never build their own steel body. It's the compound-complex curve running up the back corner of the body, and finishing off with a cap at the top. It transitions from the side panel to the rear panel, and also transitions to the roof of the car (Photo 9-52).

The easiest approach for the novice is to break down these difficult curves into many smaller curves, shaping and forming each section one at a time. It is far more time-consuming than how a professional shop would approach such a task, but it is a much easier technique for the amateur to master.

This particular curve is started with a couple of the primary sections (Photo 9-53). The metal is shaped using a combination of PVC pipe, stumps, a beater bag, hammer and dolly, and on this project, an English wheel. (The English wheel speeds up the process but the task can be accomplished without it.)
Photo 9-53 For the amateur builder, the best technique is to break the curve down into many small sections ranging from a couple of inches to a foot in height. Each section is shaped, trimmed and tack welded in place before moving to the next section. Photo attribution

The import thing is to do one piece at a time, tack weld it in place, and then move on to the next piece. This way, the shape at the edge of the second piece will match up with the contour along the edge of the first piece.

Also, as the pieces progress, it is sometimes helpful to first cut a pattern for the next piece using posterboard. This will give you the general size of the piece, and cut down on the amount of edge trimming that must be done to ensure the abutting pieces fit together without any large gaps. Don't make a great effort to cut the pieces to the correct shape right at the beginning; it's much more efficient to cut to a rough shape and then do a good deal of your bending and shaping.

The bending, hammering and shaping will compress and flatten the metal, altering the outside dimensions of the workpiece. If you have ever flattened pizza dough or pie crust with a rolling pin, you understand the effect. As you push down the center of the dough, the outside spreads out farther and farther in the pan. The same thing happens with metal, although to a much more limited degree; as the metal is worked, the outside dimensions will change. The pieces will need to be trimmed or ground along the edges to allow them to fit tightly against the abutting sections.


Photo 9-54 The sections in the corner cap area become smaller and more pie-shaped. Photo attribution
Note also that the individual sections are only minimally tacked in place. Now and then, a piece may need to be removed and redone if the overall curve is not forming up correctly. You need enough tack welds to prevent any movement, but not so many that it makes removal difficult in the event of an error. As the sections progress upwards toward the cap, the pieces will need to become smaller and more pie-shaped. The pieces will also require more shaping work to ensure that they fit properly and maintain the correct curvature (Photo 9-54). Here, posterboard patterns become almost essential. The final cap pieces (Photo 9-55) will require a good deal of shaping work with the stumps and beater bag, and many trial mock-ups to check the fit and shape. These final pieces will also require a good deal of edge trimming as the metal is stretched and formed. Don't expect your first attempt to survive; it may take two or three cap pieces before you get it right.
Photo 9-55 The corner cap completed. Photo attribution
Photo 9-56 The sectioning technique is continued on down to the bottom of the curve. Photo attribution
With the difficult cap pieces in place, the lower segment of the rear curve is finished off by fabricating more individual sections (Photo 9-56). Then, it is on to completing the other rear corner of the body (Photo 9-57). Make no mistake, this is a slow and tedious process. Each of these rear corners took approximately 20-24 hours to complete, and they still need to be welded and ground smooth. Don't become discouraged if your progress is slow, and plan your project work accordingly.
Photo 9-57 The same steps are used to finish the passenger side of the car. Photo attribution

Visor

Photo 9-58 The Mr. Roadster windshield wiper kit parts. Photo attribution
There will be a visor over the windshield, but before that can be fabricated, the electric windshield wiper must be installed to ensure the visor will not create any clearance problems. A wiper is being installed only on the driver's side. This happens to be a Mr. Roadster single-speed wiper with the automatic park feature (Photo 9-58). After determining the best wiper mounting location, a hole is drilled through the top section of the windshield frame (Photo 9-59).
Photo 9-59 A hole is drilled in the upper windshield framework for the wiper driveshaft. Photo attribution
Photo 9-60 The wiper motor is installed temporarily. Photo attribution
The wiper motor is bolted in place (Photo 9-60), and the wiper arm is attached (Photo 9-61).
Photo 9-61 The wiper arm is installed on the driveshaft. Photo attribution
Photo 9-62 The main front panel of the visor is mocked up using temporary supports. Photo attribution
The main panel of the visor is cut roughly to shape, and is mocked up using some temporary supports and clamps (Photo 9-62). The underside of the panel is checked to make sure there is clearance for the wiper arm to operate (Photo 9-63).
Photo 9-63 On the underside of the visor, the wiper clearance can now be checked. Photo attribution
Photo 9-64 A piece must be designed to transition from the roof to the visor in this corner area (arrow). Photo attribution
The most difficult part of the visor fabrication is designing a corner piece that will smoothly transition from the body to the visor (Photo 9-64). After trying out a number of paper patterns, the final piece is cut and shaped (Photo 9-65).
Photo 9-65 The corner transition piece. Photo attribution
Photo 9-66 The front panel is temporarily installed, and the edge of the corner piece is marked on the back side of the panel. Photo attribution
The piece is then tack welded in place with a similar piece fabricated and welded at the opposite end of the visor. The front panel is temporarily put in place, and the outline of the corner piece is marked on the back side of the panel (Photo 9-66). The front panel is then cut and temporarily installed on the car, so that a 1/8" x 1" piece of flat stock can be welded along the bottom inside edge of the visor to support it across the entire width of the windshield (Photo 9-67).
Photo 9-67 The front panel is then trimmed on each end, and is now ready to be welded in place. A 1/8" x 1" piece of flat stock is welded to the leading edge of the visor to support it across the full width of the windshield. Photo attribution

Body skin completed

Photos 9-68 through 9-73 show the completed sheet metal work prior to final welding of all the seams and the beginning of the paint preparation work. Note that the grill shell shown in these shots is an aftermarket unit and was not fabricated by the builder.

Photo 9-68 The completed sheet metal skin. Photo attribution
Photo 9-69 The completed sheet metal skin. Photo attribution
Photo 9-70 The completed sheet metal skin. Photo attribution
Photo 9-71 The completed sheet metal skin. Photo attribution
Photo 9-72 The completed sheet metal skin. Photo attribution
Photo 9-73 The completed sheet metal skin. Photo attribution





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