Two Tears in the Coffee Can

            I spent Monday morning massaging a small section of the hood.  The area is about seven inches long and five inches across, up top right near where the VW symbol goes.  I spent the entire month of November working on it before I set it aside for later.  Now is later, and I’ve been having another go at it for the past three weeks.

            Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.  Genau!  Yet, as I drink my morning coffee I somehow convince myself otherwise.  I convince myself that I do not need any more practice or any more skill.  No, what I need on this fine spring day is a mantra.  Not the one I used yesterday, though.  No, that manta was clearly not up to the task – it was, not to put too fine a point upon it, a shitty mantra.  I need a new mantra.

            Touch.  Suggest. Coax.

            Feel 99%.  Force 1%.

            Lead it into being what it was meant to be.

            Think “tink-tink-tink.”

            On the way out to my tiny, detached garage (repeating my new mantra to myself) I check to make sure my neighbors have already gone wherever it is they go.  Wouldn’t want to rile ‘em.  I grab a small bucket and fill it from the hose with about three inches of water.  My tools are already laid out from the previous efforts.  I turn the spotlights on, put the earplugs in, don my safety goggles, and have at it.

            In a nutshell the work involves this: the area is already stripped to bare, shiny metal.  I rub my hand in all directions over and around it, feeling where I need to focus my efforts.  Sometimes I use a marker to help.  Some advocate spraying the area with a light coat of cheap spray-paint (any color you like) and then block-sanding it back to reveal the high and low spots.  But a Beetle is round!  I’m ever more certain that Dr. P. designed it that way solely to test my patience.

            Within easy reach are a selection of body hammers, dollies, and a spring-steel slapper.  These are not items that you can find at Home Depot.  The slapper (which looks like a shiny, elongated metal spatula) is one of my favorite tools for three reasons.  First, it was not easy to find.  Second, it distributes the blow more generally and gently, and I seem less inclined to really screw things up with it.  Third, I just like to say “slapper.”

            Body work is a very slow and incremental process.  Just because it’s called a “body hammer” doesn’t mean you can go swinging the thing around like Thor, beating the offending sheet metal into submission with a mighty roar.  I know this; still I tend to be a bit ham-fisted.  Hence the tink-tink-tink.

            Once I’m satisfied that I’ve gotten the area as smooth as I can with the hand tools, I fire up the angle grinder.  Attached to this I have a shrinking disk, which is nine inches in diameter, made of stainless steel, and perfectly smooth.  The idea is that one can use this tool to take advantage of certain characteristic of cold-rolled steel.  To wit: if the metal is heated, like most other materials it will expand.  But if you quench it quickly, like with a wet cloth, it will actually shrink to an area less than that you started with.  The shrinking disk is smooth so that it generates friction without removing metal.

            One can also use a torch for the same effect.  I tried that myself and found that using an open flame is unwieldy and imprecise.  Theoretically, the shrinking disk only contacts – and therefore only shrinks – the high spots, which is exactly what you’re after.  But the torch heats the entire area.  I wasn’t making any meaningful progress so I put that idea aside.

            After several hours of work with the hand tools and the shrinking disk, I can get the panel to within ninety percent of my standards.  It’s that last ten percent that is driving me completely nuts.  “Ninety percent” means that from a few feet, it looks perfect.  The area is firm, strong, and does not “oil can.”  Up close, however, very small imperfections become apparent.  I can feel them with my hand.  So just a little more gentle tapping, maybe another pass with the shrinking disk, and THWONG – it’s oil canning again, like the lid from a jar of baby food.

            With my ear plugs in, the effect of my string of curses reverberating around the garage is muted.  I don’t even waste the energy.  My shoulders ache and my hands are numb.  I’m utterly deflated.  I put down my tools and step outside for some fresh air.  I watch that same old fat-ass squirrel chowing down at the bird feeder again.

You can't see it -- but it's there. Should I just paint the whole car flat black?

            Why can’t I leave well enough alone?

            I have my reasons.  My distaste for body filler is one of them.  Most people who have never attempted to restore a car (including myself, until now) scoff at the idea of using body filler – mainly because they have no idea what it takes to get a panel straight without it.  Without body filler, unless you intend to buy an ill-fitting aftermarket piece, or a pristine original one, you are entering into the rarified air of artisan-quality metalworking.  Very, very few men do this any more.  It takes years – decades – of experience to do it well.  They have at their disposal an array of devices which, from their names, seem to have been inspired by a medieval torture chamber: shot bags, planishing hammers, shrinkers, stretchers, mandrel benders, metal brakes, bead rollers, and (my personal fave, simply for the sinister sound of it) the English wheel.

            Walk into that modern, production-style, insurance-driven “collision center” out by the Walmart, and tell them you’d like to have your fifty-year-old fender planished.  Even if they know what you’re talking about, they’ll scratch their heads, shuffle their feet, and talk about you after you’ve left.  Sure, they could un-crumple your late-model SUV (mainly by replacing the offending pieces) and color-match the paint as good as new.  That’s what I’d do if I banged up my Subie, on the insurance company’s dime.

            No, the true body-man seems to be the old, crusty, word-of-mouth type, who lives at the end of a dirt road, behind a rusty gate, with a shop larger and better-equipped than the trailer he lives in, and answers the telephone on the fifth ring (if at all) with a simple “Hello?”  He charges a small fortune for his work, and deserves every penny of it.  A reliable source told me that to finish that small area on my hood would run me upwards of six-hundred dollars, if I could find someone to do it.

            Virtually every historic car that’s been restored has body filler on it, somewhere.  I’ve used it in places.  Usually, I work the area as best I can with the body hammers and the slapper, apply high-quality (and high-dollar) two-part body filler in several sand-and-fill stages, and then apply a finishing glaze so it’s as smooth as fresh steel.  So why not do this treatment on the hood?  When the hood is open it’s very flexy, as there is little to support it.  I’m worried that sooner or later any filler or glaze that I apply would pop out.  The roof, by contrast, is a fixed panel with relatively little flex.  Even there, I worry about the filler I used, but this is probably unwarranted.

            The gauntlet was thrown when I successfully welded up cracks that had appeared along the bottom lip of the hood, near the handle.  This is common weak spot: first rust, then cracks.  I used a rotary brush to scrape away the rust and was able to fill the voids with weld.  Then I used my pneumatic die-grinder to shave away the excess weld.  I’m very proud of the results.  So I’m crushed that it may have been all for naught, since I can’t get the rest of the panel straight.

After -- and no filler either!

            I left my tools lying where they were and called it a day.  Went for a bike ride, took a nap, attended to some administrative duties, and tried to get my mind off of things for a while.  But late in the afternoon, on a lark, I made one phone call.

            In the episode entitled “Fender Fender Youth Misspender” I detailed a visit to a professional Volkswagen restoration shop not far from here.  My phone call was to the proprietor, “Tony.”  It just so happened that Tony was parting out a very usable ’64.  Nearly all of the body parts – fenders, doors, deck lid, front clip, rear clip, roof clip – were already accounted for.  But he still had the hood, which was “near perfect” and would be an exact fit for my ’65 (there were no changes to the hood that year).  Mindful of my last visit to Tony, I kept him on the horn while he examined the hood more closely.

            I told him to run his hands along it.  Feel anything?  A small ding here, a little bump there.  How about the lip?  A little rust, one teeny-tiny crack, maybe an eighth of an inch.  How about underneath?  Beautiful, bright factory Ruby Red (L456) paint.  A little surface rust up top, but nothing major.  Support structure intact and clean.

            The answers were the right ones, so the next morning I drove up there.  Tony is in his thirties and is a third-generation Volkswagen guy.  His grandfather started the business, and today it operates in the same place.  Since I’d been there last, Tony has scaled back a bit.  His reputation is such that he can afford to be choosy.  Even before, with his fully equipped production shop running several cars through at a time, he had a waiting list of many months.  Now that he’s scaled back, he only takes on projects that interest him.

            He is also shifting more into the parts side of things, he said.  In a pasture on the property, there are dozens of old Volksies in varying states of decay.  Many of them are beyond restoration, but are valuable for the parts.  I did not tour the pasture he spoke of, but apparently that’s where the hood I was after came from.

            When I pulled up he and another guy were right in the middle of pulling the engine out of a late ‘60’s convertible Beetle.  While I waited for them to finish, I noted with satisfaction that even the pros do it the same way I do – the old jack, drop, and slide.  And unless you’re ready with a replacement engine, please let the car back down to Earth.  They get scared up there, with their go-go wheels all a’danglin’.

            With these men preoccupied, I had plenty of time to examine the hood.  Tony had it ready for me, leaning up against the ancient, rusty hulk of an early ‘60’s Mercury.  No, the hood was not perfect.  But I spent some hands-on time with it and decided that even as-is, it would be acceptable, especially if I paint the car white (whole ‘nother discussion).  His over-the-phone description of it was accurate.  After scouring the internet and shopping in person for other contenders, I’m pretty sure that, east of California, this is probably the best I could do.  I talked him down about thirty dollars and felt good about that, on principle. 

            Tony’s friendly in a quiet, easygoing sort of way.  He has the air of a man who knows his business and has nothing to prove.  For this reason I trust him, and I trust that he had no way of knowing that my own lack of skill prevented me from making much of the fenders he sold me a while back.  He gives advice freely when it’s asked for, but he doesn’t pry, doesn’t ask questions, and doesn’t tell me the way I should have done things, after the fact.

            Tony wouldn’t let me go until he showed me the inner sanctum of his new – yet smaller and more exclusive – shop.  I was happy to oblige.  Inside was his personal Karmann Ghia project, wearing nothing but its original Bernina Blue paint with a slight, authentic patina on it.  He said he planned to just clean it and clear-coat it.  In this case I agree.  Tony is one of the elite few who embody that rare combination of consummate skill and exquisite taste.  Too many times I have seen – in magazines, at shows, on the road – examples of the finest workmanship producing the tackiest, gaudiest, red-neckiest, most tasteless, most puerile, most irreverent, most aesthetically-challenged garbage ever to grace the highways and byways of this great nation.  Maybe I just don’t get it.  Maybe it’s an acquired taste.

            Tony picked up what appeared to be the glass disk from a disassembled speedometer and polished it with his t-shirt while I drooled over his work.  He was further elaborating about his plans for the Ghia but I was having a hard time paying attention.  Also in the shop was a red 1975 Super Beetle Convertible, fresh from the paint booth.  Tucked into the corner was a somewhat-out-of-place, partially disassembled 1991 Corrado.  But the cat’s meow, the bee’s knees, the pièce de résistance, was an almost-complete 1978 Westfalia.

Dear God,

            Okay, I know you’re a busy guy.  So don’t start with that “not being sensitive to your needs” business.  I know you’ve got some pretty big things on your plate right now, what with earthquakes, tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns, wars, disease, drought, famine, floods, climate change, refugees, homelessness, child abuse, spouse abuse, animal abuse, airline captain abuse, mass extinctions, contaminated water, unhealthy air, deforestation, economic crises, shootings, stabbings, the NCAA playoffs, American Idol, Elizabeth Taylor retrospectives, and global ennui.  Shit, Charlie Sheen alone is likely enough to test your holy patience.  There just ain’t no app for that.  But could you please PLEASE – once, of course you get all of that other stuff squared away – PLEASE send me a Bus?

            It’s not like I’m picky or anything.  You gave me a beautiful wife and a job and a fine home and good looks and superior intellect and the ability to get on a bicycle and climb like some crazy-ass mofo monkey with his tail on fire.  I appreciate that.

             A split-Westy would be best, but I’d settle for anything – a Samba, a Kombi, a late-Bay, or even a Vanagon for Christ’s sake!  As long it says “VW” in front, the engine is in back, and I can sleep in it.  Is that too much to ask?   To sweeten the deal a bit, when this Beetle nonsense is over, I’ll likely have a bunch of leftover parts I just might be willing to let go.  I’m sure you could work miracles on original German steel.   Think it over for a day or two.  Let me know.




PS. Velvet Green (color code L512) would be best.  But really any color will do.



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