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: Bringing a Hardtop Back to Life - One Step At a Time  ( 1725 )
Jonathan Tee
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« : July 03, 2009, 11:13:51 AM »

Bringing a Hardtop Back to Life - One Step At a Time
by Matt Miller

From what I've seen and experienced of the Land Cruiser community, each Cruiser is on a quest—and it is interesting to relate the quest of a Cruiser to that of its owner. Some Cruisers sit dormant for years, wasting away in fields or barns, perhaps reflective of the owner's lack of ability, time, energy or money. Some Cruiser owners consider the ultimate quest to be building a trail truck—a buggy of sorts that is meant to tackle the wildest terrain. Others might lobby for maintaining their Cruiser in the same condition in which it was purchased as the most pressing goal. Still others would say that breathing life back into Cruisers, whether by full-on restoration or for some—like me—one piece at a time, is an admirable aspiration. This goal may not be all-encompassing, but as I look back at the 2½ years that I've owned my FJ40, I can't help but notice this piece by piece nature of my quest.

One of the things that has bothered me about my truck since day one was how dark it felt—the aftermarket paint is a dark silvery gray, the bezel was black, the wheels were black and the interior had a dark textured trunk liner of sorts all over it. But the thing that has bothered me most is the fiberglass cap of the hardtop. It was painted the same color as the rest of the truck, and with the white top of FJ40s being very distinctive, it has always bothered me. Not only that, but the headliner had been pulled out at some point, leaving dangling black pieces of glue and dirty delaminated sections of fiberglass and exposed foam backing. There's only so much of this that a person like me can take. As a result, over the past few years I have worked one project at a time, building my skills, working up to taking on the fiberglass repair and repaint project—and because it bothered me so much, I needed the same amount of dedication, applicable knowledge and mental preparation for myself.

Here's what I knew I was up against:

   1. Getting the pieces of the hardtop separated from each other and dealing with the imminent broken bolts;
   2. Removing the residual headliner glue to have a smooth working surface;
   3. Repairing the top and delaminated sections of fiberglass;
   4. Prepping the surfaces and painting both inside and out to bring light into my Cruiser.

Being just out of college and having little to no experience, I had to tackle these things one step at a time. Simple things like clear coat evaded me in my first repainting of my bezel and other rattle can adventures I've had, but I was catching on. My dad, having had experience with fiberglass work and using more sophisticated paint sprayers, would help me with the final touches, but first I had to get the top off so I could work on it. I broke about half the bolts getting the pieces separated, so I had to carefully drill out and re-tap many of those holes.

The next step was getting the glue residue off. I did a quick pass with the sander to get the danglies removed, and then tried to attack the glue with the sander. It worked okay for thin sections of glue, but where it had been laid thick, the sander just heated it up and pretty soon I had molten glue smearing around, clogging up the sander and generally not resulting in a viable solution. Not being one to be disheartened by a little stubbornness (I've gotten used to things not going very easily when working on my Cruiser), and realizing that late August was my deadline so that I could have my newly painted hardtop ready for the annual Rising Sun Ouray trip, I had to think of a way to scrape it off. I found, after a little experimenting, that a screwdriver works very well to chip and scrape the hardened glue off—but be careful in thin sections not to poke through the fiberglass. With all the glue off, except in the corners where I couldn't reach (this is a trail truck, so I'm looking for the balance between a job done perfectly and a job done good-enough), I was getting closer to my goal.

Next I had to find and remove the delaminated sections of fiberglass and trim the sections that had not fared well during the headliner removal process. That was easy—just cut with a sharp utility knife and pretty soon you have little circles of foam showing through the fiberglass on the inside of the lid. One problem though—some of the foam got pulled up with the fiberglass I had cut out, so now I had a bunch of little quarter-sized ¼" deep voids to fill. Like I have come to realize, it's never going to be easy....

With this all done, it was time to source some fiberglass cloth and resin. There are two types of resin—epoxy and polyester—and we guessed this one to be epoxy since we couldn't smell polyester while I was sanding the top. So I bought a quart of resin and hardener, my dad sourced some fiberglass cloth—which turns out to be quite expensive—and we were ready to lay up some glass. The game plan was this: use glass cloth to fill in the little voids, then lay a patch piece over where the foam was showing through; then we were going to take two large sheets and recover the entire inside to give as smooth a finish as possible, which I found is really hard to do with big sheets by hand.

One last step before we could lay up resin—we had to construct a work area. One thing my dad has found working with various cloths and resins is that if you pour the resin onto a clean plastic sheet, lay the cloth on top of it and then use squeegees or paint brushes to get the resin to rise through the cloth, you get much better absorption of the resin. So we took a workbench and turned it into a cloth-wetting center. With all these preparations done, we were ready to go.

Resin has a pot life once you mix in the hardener and on hot days that life span decreases. So you have to work fast. In my case, I had to learn fast how to get this right the first time, but it's really not that hard. You wet the cloth and then lay it down where you want, smooth it out, move on to the next one and wait for the resin to cure and harden—as long as your substrate is clean, the cloth will stick. It turned out we needed more resin than we originally thought—the big pieces especially seem to soak up a lot of resin—so I had to make another run to the plastic store and after a few hours, everything was all laid up, trimmed, coated with resin and we waited for it to cure.

The outside was easier—I took the random orbit sander to it to get the paint off and to get a good substrate. I cleaned it up and I was ready to paint. I decided after reading what other people have done to go with painting it PPG 833 to match fairly close to factory Toyota white. I also wanted to repaint my bezel since it hasn't fared very well without clear coat, and since it wasn't the right white anyway. My dad has a spray gun with 1.7 mm and 1.4 mm nozzles—the larger good for primer/surfacer and the smaller good for paint and clear coat—so I only had to pay for the paint and I was on my way.

Not really much to the painting except that I did it one side at a time, where I guess ideally you would have it hanging and be able to reach both sides during the same shoot. The other thing about painting is the cleaning up when you're done spraying. You let the part sit and dry but you're still racing the clock to get the paint out of the gun before it hardens—especially surfacer, which gums up very quickly and is a pain to remove. So after more hours cleaning than actually using the equipment, I had a primed, painted, clear coated, white surface to feast my eyes on. After more struggling to find replacements for the bolts I had broken, it was all back together just hours before I drove through the mountains at night to attend the Ouray trip.

Was it worth it? Yes. Could I have done a better job? Yes. Did I do a good enough job? Yes. Would I ever do it again? Honestly, I would look harder at finding a good used top—this was not that cheap and it took quite a while. Am I happy with the results? Yes, very. It fulfilled every expectation that I had and is one step toward having a truck that I have taken (or in some cases, has taken me) on my quest. The learning, the achieving, the getting it the way I want it—those are all parts of my quest.
« : July 03, 2009, 02:12:05 PM Jonathan Tee »

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