Sunday, July 19, 2015

Building a custom tail light panel or grille

I have been reading Hot Rod magazines since I was a kid, well over forty years ago. I always wanted to customize my car as I built it, not only the motor and chassis but also visually. Since my my current 70 Mustang was lacking a grille and turn /signal parking lights I got the opportunity to do just that. I decided to build a custom grille with turn signals and driving lights hidden behind the mesh. I built the grille before I made the tail light panel. The method and materials were very similar. I will show how I built the tail light panel first, as I had not documented the process of building the grille. I will then discuss how the frame of the grille was constructed. Even though I once knew how to weld and had bought a cheap wire welder at Harbor Freight I felt it would be simpler to use hand tools and readily available materials. I chose steel mesh available in panels at my local Orchard Supply Hardware store. I used aluminum strap, angle "iron" scrap sheet aluminum, screws and pop rivets. I used a hacksaw, metal snips, hand drill and a couple of holesaws to make some openings. For this particular application; a panel to cover the stock sheetmetal panel  between the tail lights I would have to provide an opening for the fuel tank filler neck and truck lock.

The first thing I did was to measure the dimensions, then cut a cardboard template to fit the opening. Since I had already built a grille using similar materials and methods I was confident in the process.

The template is your guide, if it fits in the space and you build the panel to fit the template there should be no problem. However if your car is like mine and has been banged up and not repaired exactly correctly there will need to be an "adjustment" factor. My rear panel was kind of wavy, the filler neck was a little tweaked, and the bumper was bent a little. Come to think of it the tail light assemblies were a little wonky too. Don't let this faze you, just build it as if your car just came off the showroom floor. I did establish a center line for the template to locate the filler opening. I then made  another small template to position the trunk lock opening. I should have made a preliminary light paper template, then transferred both of the locations to the cardboard. I just introduced more opportunities for mis- alignment. I also wanted to use some scrap aluminum sheet for the center of the panel. If you are careful to square up all your measurements and cuts I guess it would be okay, I just wanted to be in the "re-purposing" groove. I used the sliding shade panel from a 70's Buick sunroof I had laying around. I had used this for part of the grille too. It just makes it harder to make accurate measurements, since you don't have a "factory" straight side to use as reference. Still it can be done successfully.

I laid the mesh panels on top of the template and marked the cuts with a magic marker. I cut them with a a pair of metal snips. I cut one, positioned it on the template to make sure that it was the right size, than cut the other panel. You could use a hacksaw or cut off wheel just as well.

I mocked up the panel by placing the mesh panels over the center panel. I still needed to cut out the opening for the filler neck and trunk lock. I had a small hole saw, approx. one inch, from a wooden door lock mounting kit. I drilled the small hole for he trunk lock easily. I used the saw to drill a center hole for the filler neck opening which I enlarged with tin snips. Not a real good idea. I couldn't make an accurate circle and tried to grind it smooth with a rotary stone. After some frustration I went and bought a 2 1/4 hole saw at OSH and made a new center panel. This came out much more satisfactorily.

Now I had two mesh panels, a center panel and I had to build a frame to hold them. I was going to build a frame work out of 3/8 in. flat aluminum stock. Two long strips on the top and bottom and two shorter ones on the ends. I had initially used screws to hold the grille frame together as I mocked it up, but this time I felt it would be easier and quicker to use some short aluminum rivets to put the frame together. I assembled these directly on my template. I placed a wooden panel under the template so I wouldn't drill into my table. I used just one rivet at each connecting point. This frame was going to be covered by the mesh panels and another set of aluminum strips. The mesh is sandwiched between the inner and outer panel.

I mounted the frame under the filler cap for a look see. Not too bad. I tried to contour the upper and lower strips to  conform a bit to the tail light housings. What I could have done was to mock up the top and bottom strips by using a flat wood molding, then I could have made a much nicer fit to the tail light housing. Then I could have transferred the contour to the aluminum strap. Truth is I didn't feel like driving to OSH for the wooden molding. I guess I could have used a piece of card stock also. It would have made a better quality job and only taken a little more time. This is really where the difference in craftsmanship makes itself known. Take more time, measure twice, cut carefully. Take time to "massage" the fit. You can do an outstanding job if you don't rush it. Still pretty good for a beater. I will continue the journey on my next post.

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