Doors—one of the most visible components on our cars. By now, they've seen their share of issues; dings and other parking lot rash, minor collisions, maybe the hinges failed and they've over-extended and kinked into the fender, or the fender has been pushed back into the leading edge and damaged it. And of course, there's rust; it's the rare door these days that doesn't have rust holes in the corners.
During the re-body process of our 1969 Camaro, we installed a set of new reproduction doors from Auto Metal Direct, but they had another set of doors in the shop that were prime candidates for receiving new door skins. The AMD Installation Center is operated by Craig Hopkins, an old-school body man who taught us a lot during our time up there. When we say "old-school," we mean "a time before plastic filler," when dents and damage were worked out with thought and finesse and finished with a metal file; not simply beat out with a hammer, frosted like a cake with body filler, and sanded with a board.
One of the keys Craig pointed out to us is that there are no sharp edges anywhere on a car's body—all the character lines and contours are rounded and rolled, not sharp. From a distance, the peak on the horizontal wheel well lines of a 1969 Camaro may look sharp, but when you get right up to them, the contours are all round. It's the same with the metal around the pinched perimeter of the decklid, the hood, and the doors.
Like the rest of the body on our Camaro, Craig's approach is to disassemble the pieces and replace what needs replacing. For these doors, that meant separating the outer skin from the inner structure, making any repairs, and installing a new skin. It sounds daunting, but once again, Craig made it look easy because it's very straightforward: You just undo what the factory did, and redo it.
Most of us would be inclined to try and repair any damage to the original outer skin because it's been ingrained in us through thousands of magazine stories that hammering dents and welding in patch panels is the right way to do it. After watching Craig skin this door, we're now looking at all the other project cars in our shop and wondering why we'd spend hours trying to straighten dings and dents, cut out rust, weld in replacement metal, get the compound curves correct for our patch, and try to metal-finish those repairs, hoping to get the big expanse of metal smooth enough to have no waves, no warps and no oil-canning … when we could simply replace the whole outer skin in a third of the time.
This story will show you the basic process for re-skinning a door, and we're pretty sure you'll agree with us that it's definitely better than trying to salvage the original, which was actually a pretty good starting point by today's standards. But for an even more detailed look at how to do this and other old-school metal working, Craig has a series of instructional videos aimed at restoring and finishing sheetmetal the right way, showing welding control, body filing, fit and finish of body panels, and more. After watching him quickly and cleanly completely re-body our 1969 Camaro and send it out the door needing very little in the way of prep work prior to painting, we're certain there's a lot more to learn from him to make our cars much better.
1. Our staring point: an original 1969 door that was never hit or creased, but at over 40 years old, there were expected issues with rust, and a few dings.
2. Typical of most vintage doors of any make or model, ours had rust in the corners. This really isn’t what we’d consider bad though. This would have actually been a pretty good door to find at a swap meet. The “old” way of repairing this kind of damage was to cut it out and weld in new metal.
3. The door skin is crimped over a flange on the door’s body, or carcass. It’s spot welded to the carcass in several places.
4. Obviously, the first thing to do is strip the door down to nothing. An impact driver is one of our favorite tools, and is often the only way door hardware (among other things) will come loose.
5. Once the door is stripped, the "fold" of the outer doorskin that wraps around the window channel is cut off with an air chisel. Used properly, an air chisel can separate metal with great precision. We’ve seen a lot of guys just start blazing away and destroy flanges and cause unnecessary damage.
6. With the doorskin released from the top, it’s time to release the folded flange all the way around the other three sides. Rather than try to unfold the metal and peel the whole skin off, Craig simply grinds through the folded edge.
7. With the fold ground away, the folded flap of metal is free, as is the doorskin on the other side, without damaging the flange on the inner carcass.
8. There are some spot welds along the edges, and they’ll need to be identified and ground away.
9. The outer doorskin isn’t just going to fall away once the welds and flange are ground away—sometimes the welds might have gone a little deep and “stick” the front of the skin to the carcass a little bit, sometimes it’s just rusted together, sometimes the flange wasn’t completely removed. A simple putty knife or spatula driven between them will separate the panels.
10. The door carcass looks about like you’d expect—completely surface rusted and a little worn. But it is not rusted through along the bottom or the corners. At this point, if there were rust holes, you could very easily do the needed repairs and bring the carcass back to OE-spec before installing the door skin, something you could never do with the skin in place.
11. The door carcass was blasted and primed black inside-and-out prior to replacing the skin. Now it’s the perfect starting point.
12. A careful inspection will usually yield some problems. This window-regulator mounting hole was wallowed out and had fatigue cracks—an easy repair that will make the hardware function as new, so don’t just let it go.
13. Along the entire mating surface for the skin and the carcass, the paint was ground off for a good contact.
14. Craig then applied a coating of weld-through primer to the entire perimeter. Leave no metal un-coated.
15. The top flange on the door is blank—it needs a couple holes added for spot welds, window fuzzy mounting holes, etc. Measure their locations on the carcass and transfer them to the flange.
16. A lot of times a drill bit will distort an area, mainly because the bits are often dull and we force them through, rather than cleanly removing metal to make the hole. This is the perfect application for a hand-held hole punch.
17. Rather than hang the skin on the door carcass, Craig fits the carcass onto the skin. This requires supporting the skin, which is fairly delicate and easily dented. Craig keeps it simple by breaking down the skin’s shipping box and laying it on a body shop saw horse—firm, full support without concentrated pressure points that will twist or dent the skin.
18. The door carcass gets set on the skin. The skin comes with a 90-degree flange around the perimeter, and the carcass nests inside. It’s not a tight fit—the skin is oversize by about 1/8-to-1/4 inches all the way around. Center the carcass within the flange, leaving the same border around the three sides (front, rear, and bottom edges).
19. Along the window opening, the doorskin folds over and registers fully on the top of the carcass. The skin will be spot-welded a couple of places along this edge.
20. A couple of panel clamps set very, very lightly hold the skin to the carcass around its perimeter. Over-tightening the clamp will dent and deform the skin.
21. Here’s the most critical part: seating that flange. You don’t just fold it over, you have to work it over, and you have to do it the right way. If you looked at a cross-section of the fold, as installed, it has to look like a “U” wrapping around the flange of the carcass, rather than a “V” folded over. To get that “U” shape wrap, you have to hold the dolly tight to the panel, and drive straight down onto the edge of the upstanding flange to upset the metal and start the rounding process.
22. If you look close, you see the flange is now bowed in the middle of the upstanding part, rather than folding along the bottom of the 90-degree bend. Absolutely critical. If you don’t upset the metal with that first downward strike, you’ll simply fold over the “V” and the carcass will move or bind, and things won’t line up.
23. Once the doorskin flange is bowed a little, you can start working it over onto the carcass. Make several passes, moving the whole flange toward the carcass a little at a time.
24. A word about hammers: you’ll need at least two special hammers for installing a doorskin, unless you’re a really good, experienced body man… but Craig’s skills are exceptional, and he still employs the special hammers. The first is a high-crown face he uses to initially work the flange down. It concentrates the blows and gives him more control over how the metal is moved, than if he were just using a flat-faced body hammer. This face comes in handy for many other operations, and should be in your arsenal anyway.
25. This is a dedicated doorskin hammer—it’s designed specifically for this. Note the curvature of the head; allowing you to get right next to the carcass and still work the narrow flange along the bottom, while the long, narrow face is perfect for finishing the flange. It’s very, very handy, but probably not what we consider an essential tool for your collection.
26. This cross-peen hammer is absolutely essential to your collection—note how it gets down right into the angles of the bodyline. This hammer head comes in handy for many, many situations.
27. Get the flanges all going, and keep working them together, working down toward the corners where they meet. Don’t hammer one to completion, and then start on the other. Finish with the corners.
28. This is very difficult to see, but it’s the bottom edge of the flange. It is rolled over, like the underside of the letter “U” not sharp like the letter “V.” The absolute key here is to stop hammering when you get to this point—you do not hammer the fold flat, you don’t smash the fold over onto the carcass. It fully envelops the flange of the carcass and holds it; it doesn’t crush it. If you flatten it, you’ll distort the metal along the bottom edge of the door and ruin its nice flowing look, which you can’t get back with bodywork in a can and paint.
29. Once the flange fold is complete, the whole thing is dressed with sandpaper, the spot welds are completed as needed (since most of us don’t have a factory-style spot-weld machine, you’ll need to pre-drill small holes along the flange), and then its all re-primed.
30. The finished door looks perfect, and requires nothing but hand filing to prep it for paint. It is, for all intents and purposes, a brand new OE-style door, without any patches, welding-warp, oil-canning or any of the other pitfalls that come with patching rusty corners on a 40-year-old door.