Tools & Space: Classic Car Restoration Essentials
Space, the final frontier.
No classic car restoration can be accomplished without sufficient space and many projects have been abandoned for lack of enough room to work efficiently. You need a garage or some other enclosed space if you expect to do a restoration.
A carport isn't really enough, since the thousands of parts on a typical car — when spread out — occupy large areas. You also need a place to actually work on these parts, like a basement workshop. If you have a generous friend who does have space, great! Otherwise, look around for place to rent. Keep in mind that a typical car restoration project will take a minimum of 2 years to complete. Get a lease...there's nothing worse than having to move a dismantled car restoration project (a car moves best on its own wheels) because your friend needs his space back. If space is unavailable, put your plans on hold until circumstances change.
Car Restoration Tools: The Absolute Minimum
To properly restore a car you must own a good selection of screwdrivers, pliers, socket and open-end wrenches (metric, if your car is foreign). If your buying a new set of wrenches, there are several brands of good quality wrenches that have a lifetime warranty. Tools can take a beating and it's good to get their replacements at no cost. You will also need sheet metal scissors, drills, wire brushes and electrical tools (drill, grinder, sabre saw, etc). Get a good, sturdy bench vise that has jaws at least 3 inches wide. It's hard to imagine working on automotive components without one.
During your car restoration project, you will have a need for an engine crane, engine stand, floor jack, air compressor, jack stands, torch, welder and many other specialized tools. It's better to rent these tools as needed unless you are confident you will use a given piece of equipment enough in the future to justify its purchase.
If you're going to invest in such equipment up front, your first priority is a compressor. Good, reasonably-sized compressors (see below) are available everywhere these days and only cost about $300. Air tools and spray guns are also widely available and quite inexpensive.
Choosing a compressor
There are many on the market, so it pays to choose wisely. If all you plan to do is paint or run a few light air tools, a smaller compressor will do nicely. At the very least you should get one with a 20 gallon tank and 2 horsepower motor. These typically can deliver 4 cubic feet of air per minute at 90 psi pressure, more than enough for most air tools and paint guns, but not enough for sand-blast cabinets and heavier equipment. These compressors are also designed to run on 220 volts, but can be wired for 110 volts. (You should arrange to have 220 volts available in your shop).
The right way to go about choosing is to list what air-powered equipment you ultimately want to own and find each piece's requirements. Your compressor will have to meet those minimum requirements. Double-stage compressors are much more efficient and capable than single-stage models. They are capable of more pressure, quieter operation and longer life, and are available (as with single-stage) in oil-free configuration. Oil-free compressors have the advantage of not sending vaporized oil into the air line, potentially contaminating paint guns.
Whether a compressor is an upright model or one on wheels is a personal choice. We recommend you get a demonstration before buying. Some brands are quite noisy and might not be suitable for your shop. Compressors are available at Sears, Home Depot, Harbor Freight Tools, Wal Mart, etc.
If you new to car restoration, check to see if welding classes are available to you. Oftentimes, local community colleges offer them as part of their automotive technology curriculums. You'll not be sorry you did.
By far, the most versatile and easy-to-use welder for car restoration projects is a MIG (Metal Inert Gas). MIG welders used to be expensive, but many are quite affordable with prices ranging from $200 up. A low-end MIG welder will work fine, but it won't have many useful features such as multiple current settings and easy control of gas pressure and wire feed. Our experience has shown that a MIG welder that has 4 current settings, variable wire speed control and a gas bottle with a manual control valve will handle virtually any automotive task. A couple hours practicing MIG welding will provide you with the necessary expertise to tackle restoration work.
Other welders available include TIG, Arc and Oxy-Acetylene. All are effective for various tasks but all require considerably more practice to use properly.
Note: No matter which welder you choose, invest in an instant-darkening welding helmet. It frees-up both hands for working with the metal and provides more protection than goggles.
Floor jacks are widely available and inexpensive, and you can't do without one. Avoid "compact" floor jacks designed to be carried in trunks. Your jack should be large and heavy, with steel wheels. It should have a lift capacity of 2 tons and a lift height of at least 16 inches.
Other Car Restoration "Must-Haves"
You can't have too many screwdrivers, so make sure you have an assortment of them in many different lengths, Phillips and flat. That goes for pliers as well. You will need regular, needle-nose, wire-cutting and locking pliers, in several sizes.
A complete set of sockets is necessary, of course. If you can't afford both 3/8 and 1/2 inch drives, get a 1/2 inch drive set. The smaller set won't be able to handle large fasteners that are torqued down.
Open-end and box-end wrenches are absolute necessities. Get a set with "overlapping" sizes (one wrench will have ends in 1/2 inch and 9/16ths inch, the next in 9/16ths and 5/8ths, for instance) so that you will always have two wrenches that will fit a given nut/bolt. You will be able to hold one while turning the other.
Hammer, hacksaw, allen wrenches, spark plug sockets, tape measure, files, cold chisel. Electrical tools worth accumulating include a 4-inch grinder, sabre saw, sander and variable-speed reversing drill. If splurging, get an electric impact wrench. It will serve you well.
Some of these devices require learned skills, so take some time to practice with new equipment. Most people can learn basic car restoration skills quickly, but it's always possible to hire out certain tasks or find a club member who will do it for you.
A typical "frame-off" restoration of an automobile will take at least 1,000 hours of your time, assuming you have some basic skills. Add to that any time spent learning specific techniques (or undoing mistakes), and you can quickly run up another few hundred hours. Do not set a time limit or rush a restoration! Doing so will result in frustration and failure.
The point is, a restoration is a fun, long-term project that is endlessly rewarding in the doing - so long as you are not in a hurry. Assume from the start that the project will take at least two years and you can approach it philosophically. Take pride in completion of individual components as you go along rather than looking at the overwhelming amount of work still to be done. If you can't control your patience, forget the project and buy someone else's already-restored car.
Get your finances in order and try to research what your restoration might cost (here again, club members who have already done restorations will be of great help). It will surely end up costing more than you estimated, but at least you can undertake the project with a clear knowledge of the magnitude of investment required.
How much you ultimately spend depends upon how much of the work you perform and how badly deteriorated the car was in the first place. Aim your sights at the proper level. Show-winning restorations look that way because a lot of money was spent achieving perfection (typically these cars are far better in every way than the original ones). On the other hand, like-new "drivers" are less costly to accomplish and allow their owners to drive them without worrying about a few nicks and dings.
And speaking of money: when buying tools, especially big items such as welders and compressors, get the best quality tools you can afford (even if it means saving a little longer). It can be a hugh time waster to have to stop what you're doing to wait for your compressor to cool off because it only has a 25% duty cycle. By adding a hundred or so dollars to the purchase of your compressor, (and watching for sales) you can get one rated at 100% duty cycle and no waiting.
Purists will say that a car should be restored to exactly what it was when it left the factory, including exterior and interior colors, options, etc. True, cars that are shown for national ranking awards do have the highest value (museums and high-end collectors want them absolutely original) but the real world is very different.
When your car was produced it was offered with many options and colors to appeal to the greatest diversity of tastes. When you restore the car, build it as you would have ordered it from the factory in the first place. Choose the colors and options you would have wanted back then. The finished car should please you, not the next buyer. Besides, accessories and aftermarket equipment have always been available to "personalize" individual vehicles.
Sure, the car won't be worth quite as much money at selling time but the enjoyment you got out of it will more than make up for the difference. In the minds of most restorers there is nothing more pathetic than a flawlessly-restored "trailer queen" that is dragged from one show to another and never started or driven. Automobiles were meant to be used and unless yours is the last documented example of a particular car in existence, restore it to your tastes.
Of course, changes in family status, income and health can cause the abandonment of a car restoration project, but if you do your homework up front it is extremely likely that you will see yours to completion. Those hours spent performing the work pass by quickly and those "skinned-knuckle" episodes are always balanced by the occasions where you have come up with a very clever solution to some vexing problem. In short, car restoration is a great challenge but a wonderful hobby.