I’ve learned through process that proper steering wheel restoration is and art. How to do it the right way and achieve professional results is a question that fills my inbox weekly. I’ve been wanting to write this article for some time, and I just finished restoring my own wheel in our ’67 Beetle, We’re starting to offer this as a restoration service to our customers. Here’s some insight into how it’s done.
I’m not at all trying to come off arrogant, but restoring a steering wheel (or anything for that matter) does take skill and understanding of the painting and body work process. Don’t expect that you’re gong to throw a quick coat of primer on your wheel on a Friday, spray it with some paint and be back on the road by Monday. The drying process (curing) alone can take 2 weeks or more, depending on your geographic location.
Let’s talk a little about what you’re going to need.
- A clean, dry area to work
- High quality masking tape
- A respirator
- An air compressor with an automotive paint gun (Assuming you already have experience with this)
- Professional epoxy resin.
- Automotive primer
- Body filler (For the smaller scratches)
- The correct color VW paint, and knowledge of what your correct color is. (I’m a purist)
- Attention to small details that no one will care about but you
- Sandpaper. 220, 500, 2,000, and 3,000 grit for the final stages. Also, understanding how to wet sand properly.
- Lacquer Thinner
- Glazing putty
What is an epoxy resin?
Epoxy resins, hardeners, and other products are high performance materials. They are a complex blend of chemicals specially selected to give each system its desired characteristics. As with any chemical, poor handling or misuse can be potentially hazardous to health, therefore it is essential that the appropriate safety procedures are observed when using these products. Materials Safety Data Sheets should be available for each hazardous product from the materials suppliers.
Let’s get started.
Assuming that the wheel is removed from the car, the first thing you’re going to want to do is clean it. Keep in mind, it’s the most used item in your vintage VW. 45 + years of love means it’s going to need a proper bath. I like to use Lacquer Thinner. It dries fast, and removes all of the oils and dirt. Don’t be surprised if you have to really have to spend some time cleaning it. Mine took at least 15 mins. Allow to dry. This will give you a moment to have lunch and think about your next ’67 Beetle purchase, or that NOS part you’ve been hoping to source.
Now that the wheel is dry and clean of any oils, you’re going to want to start with some glazing putty. This stuff works really well, and fills smaller cracks & imperfections that have accumulated over the years. Take your time with this step and enjoy the process.Make sure you fill all of the rough spots. Don’t be scared, as this stuff sands away with ease. Think of your steering wheel as an art, sculpture project. Didn’t you love art class in high school?
Once you’ve worked this into the wheel, let it dry at least an hour. Then, you’ll want to use the epoxy resin for the bigger cracks. This stuff will harden to a solid rock in about 5 min. So, it’s best to work fast. If you’ve never worked with an epoxy before, you might want to read a bit more about how it works. Try only to use what you need, as it’s very hard to sand if you goop it up too much. I made that mistake a few times, working on oil bath air cleaners. The old saying is true; less is more.
Now, you’re ready to sand and do a bit of artistic shaping. I like to start with a good 220 grit, slowly moving my way to 1,000, 2,000, and finally 3,000 for an ultra smooth finish. Do keep in mind, if you sand away too much and expose the damaged surface, you can always start over. Over the years, I’ve learned that paint and body work is very forgiving. You just have to understand each process and take it slow. If you rush, you’re going to make mistakes and it’s going to show in the final product. For us, that would mean and unhappy client and that’s not acceptable.
Make sure to sand down nice and smooth, as you’ll be covering the whole wheel with primer. If it feels rough, it’s going to show up once primed, and you’ll be doing this process over again. Again, it’s an art project. Take your time. Oh, make sure you’re wearing a mask. This dust is really nasty stuff.
Next, I like to rub the whole wheel down with thinner again, in case any oils from my hands have made their way on to the surface of the wheel.
Now, we are going to mask and add some primer. I tend to go on bit heavy. Again, you’ll sand some of it off anyway during the next process. Also, you should probably open the window or better yet do this outside. Also, be aware of the temperature, as moisture in the air does not mix well when doing projects such as this.
You’ll want to let the wheel cure for a few days. This is a perfect time to move the fuel filter out of your engine area, if you’ve not already done so. Thumbs up, you’ve done a great job so far.
Now that the wheel has been properly primed, you’re going to begin the wet sanding process. I like to use start with 1,000 grit, then I work my way up to 3,000 as I mentioned with the earlier process. Primer has a way of coming out like snot, so make sure you remove any and all of the rough surface. This is the base layer for your paint, so get this wrong and it’s going to show. Oh, you can also make a jig of sorts to hang the wheel while it’s drying. While not fancy, what I did here worked really well. Also, it’s easy to move around. The last thing you want is your fingerprint in fresh paint. Boy have I learned that the hard way over the years.
Enjoy the wet sanding process, as it really smooths out the wheel in preparation for the first coat of paint.
Let dry for at least a few hours. If it’s a nice day, let the wheel bake in the sun a bit. What’s that saying about waiting for paint to dry?
Here’s another shot of my fancy DIY painting jig. Being that we are starting to restore more wheels for customers, I’ll probably design something a bit better. But, for now.
Wet sanding all done? Happy with the ultra smooth results? Great! Now it’s time for paint. Get your air compressor ready, and make sure you are wearing mask, gloves, etc. Let’s apply the first coat. (I did some spot color test with a rattle can too) You’ll want to go light with the first few. Even coats up and down. Make sure to cover the whole wheel.
I like to lay down 4 coats max, but this is something that could be debated. The goal is to make sure it looks even and there are no spots left without paint. Now, this is where you’re going to have to wait more. I like to let the wheel cure for at least a week or longer before we move on.
Are you ready for the final step? After that all that hard work, you’re going to want to clean the wheel down with a good rubbing compound. Then, a good sealer wax. This gets rid of a very thin layer of paint and brings out that factory shine.
Now, the moment you’ve been waiting for. Let’s get the wheel back on the car. Wow, look how great it looks sitting where it belongs. I enjoy the whole restoation process, but I’d have to say this is always the moment that makes me smile the most. Plus, you’ve put an origional part back on your car. Nothing beats German parts.
Well, there you have it. How to restore the steering wheel on your vintage Volkswagen.
Feel free to chime in with any questions, criticism, etc. Again, it does take skill, dedication and it a lot of work to get right. We are here to help.
You can also inquire about having your own wheel restored. I take a lot of pride in the work I do, as I love these old cars. 1967beetle.com has helped ignite this passion into a business. For that, I’m forever grateful.