Plastic Steering Wheel Restoration
By Tom Benford
Be sure to also see How to Make Your Own Wood Steering Wheel and Banjo Lessons: Steering Wheel Restoration
A simulated wood-grain steering wheel made of plastic was standard equipment on 1967 Corvettes, and plastic-rimmed steering wheels were the order of the day from the late 1940s through the mid 1970s for most American-made cars. Over time, these steering wheels are prone to cracking, especially in areas of the country where the temperature changes significantly from summer to winter. You can send your plastic-rimmed steering wheel out to a professional restoration/refurbisher and pay between $100-$200 to have the job done, you can purchase a replacement wheel for $300+ or you can do the job yourself for under $60 total and have plenty of material left over for other projects. And since we like to keep our car restoration project's cost to a minimum, this is what we decided to do. It's not a hard job, but it does take time since there are several steps involved. Here's how to go about it.
The first task is to remove the steering wheel from the car, and this starts with removing the horn button. In the case of the Corvette, it is removed by pulling on it from the edges until it snaps free. On other cars it may be secured with screws or clips that will have to be removed to free it.
The three Philips screws that secure the horn activator ring are removed next.
Make sure the alignment of the wheel is straight before removing it from the steering column. Six screws are used to secure the wheel to the Corvette steering column, but you may require a wheel puller for removal on other cars.
Here's the Steering Wheel Restoration Kit available from POR-15, Inc. Among other things, the kit contains a 3-sided file, saw, 1/8" drill bit, tack cloth, POR-15 Epoxy Putty, assorted sandpaper, polishing compound, and other materials. Since this is a generic Steering Wheel Restoration Kit, there are a lot of extra things included in the kit that I didn't need for this particular refurbishment, but that you may require for your own project.
The other crack is at the bottom (6 o'clock) position and it starts almost at the edge of the bottom spoke and travels around the rim at a slight angle. This crack will be a bit more involved to fix.
A pad of fine (#000) steel wool was used to dress the spokes as a first step. The steel wool removes any surface dirt and grime on the stainless steel spokes and hub.
The hack saw included in the POR-15 kit is used to saw through the cracks all around the rim to enlarge them right down to the steel core of the wheel.
The 3-sided file is used next to file a V-groove into the sawed crack.
Here you can see the V-grove in the upper crack. The purpose of this enlarged groove is to provide a good bonding surface for the epoxy putty.
Because of the proximity of the spoke, it wasn't possible to file the lower crack out. A rasp bit in a Dremel was used to enlarge the crack at the spoke area.
Here's the lower crack after enlarging it with the Dremel. Notice how all the plastic is removed right down to the steel core of the wheel to provide a good bonding surface.
Equal amounts of the two-part epoxy putty are cut by laying the bars next to each other. Be sure to cover the remaining portion of the bars with plastic to prevent them from drying out.
The two parts of the epoxy putty must be thoroughly kneaded together; if they aren't thoroughly mixed, the epoxy putty won't harden completely. Keep a dish of water nearby when using the putty. Moistening your hands before kneading will prevent the putty from sticking to your skin. You may have to dip your hands frequently while kneading the putty.
When the putty is thoroughly kneaded, roll out a "worm" about 1/2" in diameter and about 3" long.
Wrap the "worm" entirely around the crack and force it into the crack all the way down to the metal core. Roll out additional putty and continue to apply it into the cracks until a uniform mound slightly higher than the surface of the steering wheel is formed around the circumference of the cracks.
Wet your fingers and work the putty to feather and smooth the edges, wiping the surface with water frequently.
This putty sets very slowly so you have plenty of time. Don't rush this step, since the smoother you make the surface now the less time and work will have to be spent sanding later.
Here's the upper crack, still with lots of extra putty on it, but you can see how the feathering and smoothing is progressing.
Here's the lower crack at the spoke, and the feathering and smoothing is finished on this one.
The pointed handle end of the file is used to remove excess putty at the base of the wheel where it meets the spoke.
Here's the underside of the wheel to show you how the bottom of the spoke crack looks after feathering and smoothing.
After letting the wheel set over the weekend so the epoxy putty cured and hardened entirely, a piece of #220-grit sandpaper wrapped around the contoured sanding block included in the kit was used to remove the bulk of the excess putty, leaving a very slight mound around the center of the crack.
#600-grit paper was used next to wet sand the repair and bring the filled-in crack flush with the rest of the wheel all around the circumference. The wheel was then washed with clean water and allowed to dry thoroughly.
After spending quite a bit of time trying to match the color of the wheel to automotive paint charts with no success, I decided the only way to get an exact match was to mix my own paint. A trip to the local hobby/model shop was made and these Testors Gloss Enamels for Plastics were purchased: #2732 Engine Red, #1124 Green and #1144 Gold. They come in 1/4-oz. bottles and cost about $1.50 each. I used the cap from a 35-mm film container as a mixing tray. Some plastic-stemmed cotton swabs and a disposable art brush are also required. Depending on the color of your steering wheel, you may not have to go through this tedious trial-and-error mixing process to achieve the right shade. In addition to automotive paint touch-up stick colors, be sure to check nail polish colors to see if you can find an acceptable out-of-the-bottle match for your wheel's color.
Use a scissor to cut-off the cotton end from one side of the swabs, leaving the exposed plastic stem available for use as a "dropper".
After much experimentation, I finally hit upon the right formula to match the color of the plastic steering wheel. Dip the stem of a swab into the #2732 Engine Red enamel and deposit 4 drops into the 35-mm mixing cap.
Next, use another swab stem to deposit 8 drops of the 1124 Green enamel into the cap, right over the red. Red and green, when mixed together, produce brown, but don't mix them yet.
Shake the #1144 Gold enamel vigorously to thoroughly mix the paint, then use another swab stem to deliver two drops of the gold into the mixing cap. This will give the final mixed color the slight metallic tinge present in the plastic of the wheel as it came from the factory.
You can use a coffee stirrer or another swab stem to thoroughly blend the green, red and gold paints together. It is absolutely imperative that you mix these colors thoroughly. When mixed, apply a drop to the steering wheel to check the color match, but make sure you do this color-check in daylight. If necessary, you can add a drop or two of red to lighten the shade of brown, or a drop or two of green to darken it. Be sure to wipe your sample drops from the wheel with a clean cloth before they dry. Adjust the color as necessary until you're satisfied with the match. It should not be necessary to add any more gold to the mix, since you only want a hint of metallic in the final color.
Use the disposable art brush to apply the paint to the repaired areas with smooth, flowing strokes, and overlap the repaired areas slightly, feathering the edges with the brush. The enamel dries fairly quickly, so work carefully but swiftly.
You can't even see the repair. I gave it two full hours to dry before proceeding with the next step.
I used an Xacto hobby knife to scrape off some minute remnants of putty and dried enamel from the spoke where it joins the rim of the wheel after the paint had dried.
The repaired and painted areas were very lightly wet sanded with #600-grit paper to reduce their gloss a little so that the enamel matched the luster of the unpainted plastic. When I say wet sand it lightly, I mean it - if you sand too hard you'll remove the newly-applied enamel and you'll have to mix and reapply another batch.
Carefully mask off the spokes, starting at the rim of the wheel and working your way down to the hub.
Mask the hub as well, and use your fingernail to make sure the tape is sealed tight to the spokes at the rim line.
Eastwood's Diamond Clear for Painted Surfaces was used to produce a uniform gloss over the entire surface of the wheel. Eastwood's reusable aerosol trigger handle made controlling the spray easier and more precise.
I did my spraying outside on an overcast day, mounting the wheel on a fence post of our dog's kennel. Diffused natural daylight, like that on an overcast day, is best for color-matching and for spraying the clear gloss on since you don't have to contend with reflections altering your color perception. I gave the wheel three light coats of Eastwood Diamond Clear. Multiple light coats are less likely to have runs and they yield a more uniform overall finish.
Here's the finished wheel ready for remounting on my '67 Vette. If you're not satisfied with the way your wheel came out, use some paint remover or solvent to strip the wheel and start over again. In truth, it took a couple of tries before I got results I was satisfied with, but it was well worth the effort.
POR-15 Steering Wheel Restoration Kit
Restomotive Laboratories/POR-15, Inc.
P.O. Box 1235
Morristown, NJ 07962-1235
Diamond Clear aerosol paint, reusable aerosol trigger handles, nitrile gloves:
The Eastwood Company
263 Shoemaker Road
Pottstown, PA 19464