1932 Ford Coupe before restoration

The Joys of Shaping Sheet Metal

By Richard Stoebel

I have always been a hands-on person.  From building model airplanes as a kid to working on my own cars, it has been a lifelong obsession.  My formal training as an aircraft mechanic taught me how to work metal precisely.  There can be no substitute for quality when working on airplanes. 

Over the years I have built two old cars and an airplane, a 1946 Piper J3 Cub.  After completing a 1937 Ford Tudor sedan years ago, I swore I would never build another because of the work involved.  But, in a weak moment, I took on another project.  This most ambitious project was a 1932 Ford hot rod which took eight years to complete.  The original body was the most difficult part of the project since the bottom ten inches was badly rusted.  The car was so bad that it never would have been restored to original.  I decided to build it as a fender less hotrod with a chopped (lowered) roof.   I almost gave up on the project multiple times.

Some sheet metal panels are available as reproduction parts, but some are not.  The panels are easy to install using a MIG (metal inert gas) arc welder.  Still, a technique has to be developed to weld panels properly without building up too much heat.   Heat warps thin sheet metal which must be straightened.  It is amazing how you can stretch a metal panel using a hammer and dolly or you can shrink it using a heat and quench technique.  I had to use both methods many times during the restoration of the 1932 Ford.

One door panel was so badly warped that I just could not straighten it, so I cut and removed the entire panel just below the window opening near the belt (beauty) line stamped into the door.  If you are lucky enough to have a whole shop full of sheet metal tools, life is easy.  But I did not, so I formed the new door panel into its compound curve by gently using a soft faced hammer and an old boat cushion as backup on the floor of the garage.  Professional shops would have used a tool called an English Wheel.   But, in this case, Yankee ingenuity got the job done.

Older cars had drip moldings above the door openings to channel water away from edges of the roof.  Because of rust in this area, I had to carefully remove the moldings by drilling out the spot welds.  New metal was grafted to the remaining portion of the molding and a bead formed at the upper edge.  Local restoration shops could not help me form the bead with any of the equipment that they had, so I made my own dies and welded them to a pair of vice grips.  Inch by inch I formed the bead on both drip moldings and spot welded them back onto the roof.  Perfection!

When it came time to form the transmission hump sheet metal, tools that would have been handy were a slip roll machine for radius shaping or a bending brake for sharper bends.  I had neither tool, so I improvised by bending the radius around the telephone pole in front of the house!  Sharper radius bends were simply done in the vice with brass or leather jaw protection so as not to damage the metal.  These methods worked perfectly but, admittedly, took more time. 

1932 Ford Restored

Now you know why it took eight years to finish this old Ford and why I almost gave up on it many times.  Rusted old cars are a challenge.  So much so, that several companies are manufacturing cars that you can assemble yourself or buy completed.  Kit cars are beautiful and new metal or fiberglass is so much easier to work with, but there is the pride of restoring an original car knowing the blood, sweat and tears that went into it. 

I did 90% of the work in my garage, farming out the final paint to a friend who is a master painter for PPG.  Window glass went to another shop and I worked with the upholstery shop owner to finish the interior.  What a shame to cover up all of the hand formed metal work!   Then it was time to take the car on the road where I attended three national car shows and the local annual indoor Hartford, Connecticut Autorama.  After many cruise nights, trophies and awards, I now just enjoy having the car in the garage and going for occasional joy rides around the area.  I will always remember forming sheet metal and using my hands to fabricate something special.  Such is the joy of working with metal and having pride in ownership of an award winning antique car.     

Dick Stoebel Headshot

Richard “Dick” Stoebel lived the American Dream in mid-century America. He grew up in a modest New England home, worked during high school, married a beautiful woman, became an engineer working on jet engines, had two children, rebuilt old cars, and flew his own airplane. Like many Americans over the years, he finished building a house for his young family—six months of hands-on, never-ending evening and weekend projects.

After working in the aircraft engine industry for a year, I went back to school to obtain my BS degree in Aircraft Maintenance Engineering.   After 43 years as an engineer, I retired from Pratt & Whitney Aircraft in Connecticut.

Now retired in Florida, Dick continues to enjoy the American Dream.
He hopes that you enjoy reading his book as much as he enjoyed writing it.

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1 thought on “The Joys of Shaping Sheet Metal”

  1. I forgot to mention that Dick has a book out called “I’m Almost History” which chronicles life of an American Dream family from the 1940s to the present day, showing how the Stoebels were at the same time innocent and joyful, awkward and vulnerable. Just like all of us!.

    You can read more about it below:

    It’s available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Im-Almost-History-Richard-Stoebel/dp/195118808X/

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