I previously published this article on my Lotus Heritage blog but thought this might be of interest for anyone owning a British car with wood trim or a wood dash, I have seen some very good looking MGB’s with wood dashes. This is how to make them.
When I purchased my 1970 S2 Lotus Europa a few years ago it had a very typical old Lotus problem, the wood veneer on the dashboard was delaminating, Of course, this wasn’t the only problem but it’s good to tackle projects one at a time, perhaps two or ten or… . but, let’s start with the dash board. What could be easier than restoring the dash? That is a question that got more complicated as I proceeded but I’ll do my best by sharing what I learned.
Before you start to rip apart your dream car I should also mention that this is not a “first” woodworking project. It requires many tools, lots of experience and in many cases new skills and dedication. My work life was primarily being a professional photographer but I also spent many years building houses and doing interesting custom furniture so making a new dash came naturally. I would rank this project as being a 5 out of 10 and if you tackle a project like this you will learn many new skills. Much of what I’m covering would be valid for other older cars as well so your Triumph might be thrilled.
Let’s get started!
Most articles discussing removing the wood dash in a Lotus Europa talk about the requirement of taking the windshield off first. This is likely the reverse of how the Europa was built as it’s very clear that the dash and dash cover were installed before the glass. I guess it makes sense.
The Europa windshield is bonded to the fiberglass body and any attempt to remove it could likely break the windshield. Additionally, with the cost of having a windshield reinstalled adding to the cost of refurbishing the dash I decided to attempt the repair with the windshield in place. It’s one of the decisions you make and very soon regret but once started needs to be finished. Grab your coffee and tools and let’s get to work.
There are numerous screws to remove and parts to disassemble. I started by removing all of the accessible screws and bolts that hold the dash to the dash cover. There are 4 large bolts that run across the top of the dash. These are easy to remove and release the upper dash from the Europa body. Removing the center console provides access to 2 bolts at the bottom of the dash that connects to the body as well. The Europa dash is a stressed member and likely adds some strength to the body, a very smart and light weight in Lotus tradition solution. Additional small bolts attach the lower trim pieces to the dash and side of the body. These are tight to reach but come out easily. I found that loosening the 2 large bolts holding the steering column helped as well. This is a perfect time to remove the steering wheel if you haven’t already. The last step is to remove the 2 large fresh air vents from underneath the dash.
It should be easy to pull the dash at this point but I found that on my Lotus the wood dash was glued to the dash cover. I carefully went in with a knife and separated the two. You might be fortunate as reports have some dashes not being glued (likely to save money, this is a Lotus).
Removing gauges and switches is easy but small hands could be useful. I used cable ties to group the individual wires and photographed each part as it came out. The more photos the better, trust me!
Congratulations, you are now committed to a big job before you will be driving a Lotus again. What have I done?
Making a new dash for your Lotus or any other car.
There are 3 options to installing a new wooden dash in your car. What you choose will likely be determined by what your level of woodworking skills is, whether you have the proper tools and… how much money you want to spend.
The simplest solution by far is to purchase a new dash from a company that produces them. There are a few in the US that can provide the wooden dashes in different species of wood for approximately $400 US although prices go up from there. https://cgautowood.com/ and http://www.mercedeswoodwork.com/ are 2 sources online.
The second option is to use the original dash and apply a veneer. This will require the old cracked veneer to be removed, the dash sanded and a new veneer to be glued in place. This is likely the easiest do it yourself solution if the original dash is in reasonably good condition and you have minimal woodworking tools. I won’t discuss the pros and cons in this article but if anyone is interested in veneering I could dive into the subject in the future.
I settled on a third option however, buying a sheet of ½ inch ribbon mahogany plywood and using the original dash as a template in making a new one.
A number of woodworking tools are required so if you are planning on producing only 1 dash and don’t own at least some of the required equipment head back to the first option of buying a wooden dash. You will likely save money, frustration and possibly your marriage.
- Jig saw with quality wood blades
- Router and bits (Rabbet bit, pattern cutting bits)
- Orbital sander
A sheet of ribbon mahogany plywood set me back about $45 from Windsor Plywood. I’m not sure what wood was used originally in the Europa as it seems to vary a little. English oak was common, walnut looks great, birds eye maple could be interesting. It’s your car and unless you are a concours owner have fun. I chose mahogany because I love the colour and the new dash will match the inside of my boat, not that it matters! The downside of mahogany is that when exposed to bright light for long periods of time like in a boat it starts to bleach out. My Lotus is generally garaged or covered so it shouldn’t be a problem. DO NOT use solid wood for a project like this. It will rapidly warp and crack.
Whatever choice of wood you have determined will look good, spend some time moving the old dash around the sheet of plywood to determine what grain structure and patterns will work best. A sheet of plywood is enough wood for at least 8 dashes but you might find that one area is better than another, perhaps the grain will be straighter or the wood will have better colouring. This is the most critical step so spend some time on it!
For my required usage I cut out 2 rough dashboards, one for the original instrumentation and a second for customizing at a later date. These are rough cuts either done with a circular saw or jig saw. These rough blanks were sanded with a random orbital sander and 400 grit sandpaper before coating with 3 layers of polyurethane. Varnish is another option. I would say not to use Lacquer as it tends to crack but others will disagree. I expect the original dash boards were lacquer but that’s what we are replacing. Regardless of the finish you use I lightly sand after two coats and then apply a third coat. These blanks are now ready for machining. The finish will be somewhat soft for a few days so letting the finish to properly dry for a few days is recommended. At this point you can also see how beautiful your new wooden dash will be as the finish brings out the colour. It’s time for a beer.
Using a pattern cutting bit in your router trim the new dash down to the proper size. Clamps can be used to hold the 2 pieces of wood together but I find it easier to use screws. The old dash is on top at this point so don’t make the mistake of setting a screw too far in when sandwiching the boards as it will come through the veneered face. Take your time. There is skill involved in this procedure so if this type of work is new to you consider practicing on some cheaper wood first.
Using the old dash as a template mark out all the openings that are required for the switches, gauges and other dash controls. This is the time to make any changes that might be needed. In my case I deleted the radio as I can’t hear it in my car anyway. We will be using the old dash as a template again and I recommend covering any unwanted holes with tape so you don’t cut them by mistake in the new dash. You don’t want to mess up at this point! Believe me, it happens and can ruin a good day!
I cover the front of the new dash with masking tape to protect the finish from damage in the next steps. At this point verify that the dash hole markings are correct, it’s possible to have them rotated 180 degrees as the dash isn’t symmetrical. This also could make for a bad day.
A jigsaw with a quality blade is used to roughly cut out all the openings in the new dash. Drilling a hole first makes it easier to plunge the blade in. Take your time and leave the opening about 1/8 to3/16 inch too small as the router will be used for final cutting.
After this step the old and new dash are once again combined and the router is used to do a final trim on the new dash. The smaller switch openings require a small pattern cutting bit of about 1/8 inch. For the larger openings a bit in the ¾ inch range will work best if available. The larger bits tend to cut cleaner than small bits and should be used whenever possible but check the radius of the openings to determine what bit will work.
A rabbeting bit is required to cut the indentations behind the air vents. These bits have a lower bearing with a larger cutter above. The indent needs to be cut out approximately 3/8 inch wider and ¼ inch deep. This cut is made form the back of the new dash.
When you are finished it should look something like this.
Any wood that will be in the car needs to be sealed on all sides. This is true of both plywoods and solid woods. A failure to seal wood properly is likely part of the reason the original dash cracked in the first place. Heat and humidity are sealed on one side but can penetrate the other. I painted the back side first with a good primer and then a coat of black paint. This black paint is visible in the glove box, instrument binnacle and around the switches so make sure to cover these areas well. Once the paint has dried well the face of the dash can be lightly sanded if any black paint has got on the front face.
Labeling is available from RD Enterprises https://www.rdent.com/ for a reasonable price. It’s a little finicky to apply but basically you cut out the label you want and attach it to the dash. Getting them straight is the challenge! Watch the spacing; on the dash I just produced I put the labels too close to the openings.
An application of 2 more coats of varathane followed a few days later by a final sanding with 600 grade sandpaper and one final coat of finish and the project is complete. Was it worth the effort? As I enjoy woodworking and have the proper tools I would say yes but would not have taken on the project without the proper tools and experience. That said, this would be a good project for someone wanting to learn about woodworking and finishing. If you take a project like this on before you know it you’ll be building kitchen cabinets and living room furniture. The skills transfer to many different projects.
You might notice in the image above that the dash cover is missing. As usual in a restoration a small job can grow large quickly. I ended up damaging the dash pad a little when I removed the original dash. The dash pad is old, warped and very brittle. Once again the easy method of replacement is to buy a new one. Banks Engineering in England has fiberglass dash pads available. That’s not my style however. I’m redoing the original with the aid of fiberglass. Just another project to add to my list.