Notes on Walnut Dash Board Refinishing

By Rob Kempinski and Dave Wedeking

Postscript by Russ Billings, 4/22/97

Under the notion that this might be of benefit to other Tiger owners, Rob has complied and cleaned up a series of questions and answers related to refinishing the walnut dash board.

They had this conversation in the Winter of 1995 via E-mail.

I took the dash board out this weekend. It is time to refinish the wood, clean the instruments and do some steering column work.

What has been found to work for striping old varnish off the dash without damage to the veneer?

When I refinished my dash, the cracks had penetrated the finish and actually cracked the veneer. I had to reveneer the plywood. To remove the finish and veneer I used an orbital sander with 100 grit paper. However, if you only want to remove the finish, you can still use a sander. With a good touch you could take off most of the finish using the 100 grit. When you are close to the walnut veneer, switch to a finer grit paper. Something like 220 to 320 will work fine. Pay attention to what you are doing and you shouldn't hurt the veneer. Watch out for angling the sander as it will quickly sand down a corner if you hold it crooked. If this does happen, use some walnut stain to cover the thin spots. Also, wear a dust mask.

If your veneer is cracked or pieces have chipped off the best way to make the dash look good is to either repair a section or to reveneer the whole dash. Another hobby of mine is wood working so I readily reveneered my dash. The toughest part is finding a good source of walnut burl veneer. If you want more details on this let me know.

What has been used to refinish the wood?

I'm not sure what the factory used, but it had a very built up look. To reproduce that look, I used, based on the recommendation of Scott Woerth, some acrylic goop called Aristocrat. Fisher Hardware in Springfield Virginia had it several years ago. It is easy to use and makes a glass smooth high build surface that looks very much like the factory finish only better. Follow the directions on the can. Also, make some sort of temporary tent to keep dust and other flying debris from settling on the resin as it sets. Bars and taverns use this stuff for table tops. The only problem I think is it is susceptible to UV degradation (but most polymer finishes are). The other popular choice is polyurethane. But IMHO it just doesn't look right. You can also use varnish but it is very labor intensive, requiring rubbing and sanding between multiple coats.

Any experience with chemical paint/varnish removers? Will they attack the veneer?

I have had chunks of finish chip off but the veneer and plywood is intact.
There is a little delamination at each end that I think I can reglue.

I have experience with chemical strippers. However, I am not sure what Rootes put on their dashboards. The stuff on my dash did not look like varnish. If it is varnish it would probably come off OK using Marine Striper or Strypease. Both require application and then scraping with a tool. The chemicals don't really hurt the wood. It's the scraper that can do the damage if one is not real careful, particularly around all the holes in the dash. It's easy to catch the scraper under the veneer and delaminate it.

After cleaning the wood, it's a good idea to use some sort of neutralizer and then oxalic acid to evenly bleach the wood because no matter how you do it the striper works unevenly.

I do not know what kind of wood the factory used. It is supposed to be walnut but the original dashes I've seen do not look like black walnut available here in the states. They are almost the color of mahogany. Anyway, I put a thin wash of walnut stain on my dash and steering wheel to make them match.

Since I'm a wood worker and not really a refinisher, I was more comfortable reveneering the dash. The black walnut burl veneer I obtained had a lot more figure and a nice dark brown walnut color.

I am still working out the best option based on what I find as I start working on the dash. It looks as if the reveneer option may be the only good solution. I started calling around here for veneer, but the only source wants to sell it in 4' x 8' sheets for $372. Do you have a source? What would a piece big enough for the dash cost?

IMHO, you don't need a real big piece. Walnut burl has pretty irregular grain so with a careful cut you can get by with a piece big enough to cover the main instrument section. The irregular burl grain makes it easy to hide the joints. The dash board surrounding the cubby hole you can cover by carefully scarf joining the veneer together. The joint on top is only an inch or so long and hidden by the dash pad. It is not noticeable. The padded rail covers the joint on the bottom. In fact, with burl veneer, there will probably be a few irregularities that will need filling prior to veneering. This is normal. Following this plan, the piece should be about 3.5 feet by 12 inches. This is well within the regular stock of most veneer suppliers. I paid $32 in 1991 for a piece to do my dash.

Here is an explanation of scarf joining if you're not familiar with the term. When making the cut use a metal straight edge and a very sharp tool. A new Stanley blade or a stout X-acto knife works pretty well. Unless of course you have a veneer saw - they're cheap but not at all mandatory. Put the straight edge over the part of the veneer you intend to keep. This protects it from a wandering knife. Hold the knife at an angle to perpendicular, 45 degrees is good, and cut the veneer. The take a scrap piece that best covers the area around the cubby hole and cut it so the angle will complement the other cut. This way, if the veneer were to swell (unlikely since it will be rigidly held in place) the overlapping 45 degree cuts slide and there is no plywood exposed. A straight butt joint would pull apart showing the substrate.

As for suppliers, you can mail order some veneer. I recommend. Constantines in Bronx, New York. They handle lots of different kinds of veneer. Their sales person can tell you what they have in stock and what would work best for you. Their phone number is (718) 792-1600. If Constantines can't help you, look at the current issue of Fine Wood Working magazine. The back of the magazine lists several shops specializing in veneer. Remember, with careful joining you don't need a hugemongous piece. The days of such plentiful veneer are over, and asking for a big piece will jack up the price. BTW, you could also browse the local hardwood shops. Most carry veneer and you may find a few pieces that match well. Buying pieces this way maybe the most economical.

I would avoid the preglued veneer. I'm not convinced of its durability. However, this stuff is the easiest to work with. You just need a rolling pin or a wall paper roller. (You can always use a veneer hammer but only dedicated wood workers have these.) You peel off the backing paper and push the veneer glue side down. Don t put glue on the plywood substrate for this type of veneer.

If you go with traditional veneer, you'll need some yellow carpenters' glue and some sort of press. The press is nothing fancy. You need something to press evenly on the veneer to squeeze the glue smoothly.

To make a simple veneer press, get a piece of masonite and a thick piece of plywood both long and wide enough to cover all the veneer but no more than 1- 1.5 inches longer in any dimension. Nail or screw the masonite to the plywood. Then nail some 2x4s to the back of the plywood along the edge. This is your press. Masonite is good for a press as it is flat. The 2x4s give it rigidity to apply the pressure from the clamps.

Make sure the substrate surface is smooth, clean and straight (I had to fill in some chips in my substrate, particularly around the screw holes. The original stuff tends to become compressed over the years. Glue small carved pieces of wood in the holes and sand smooth after the glue is dry.) Line up the veneer so everything is covered. Make the cuts now as necessary. You can use veneer tape (also available from the suppliers) to keep the cuts aligned. Once you ve finished making a piece of veneer to cover the whole dash, you re ready for the glue up.

Have the veneer handy. Spread yellow glue all over the plywood substrate. Then quickly spread some glue on the back side of the veneer. Make sure the mating sides are fully covered with a thin coating of glue. An old paint brush works well for this. Place the veneer on the substrate and line it up. The yellow glue gives you about 10 - 15 minutes working time. Put the masonite with 2x4s on top of the dash being careful not to move the veneer. Use wood working clamps (c-clamps or spring clamps) to squeeze the masonite against the veneer. Let the set-up dry over night. Some people use wax paper between the veneer and the press to prevent the glue from seeping through the veneer and sticking to the press.

Once the glue is dry you can cut out the holes for the instruments. A router with a flush trim bit works well or you can use the knife again, a rasp or some sand paper. Be careful with the router as some of the holes have steps in them. The veneer will dry a little lumpy as the burl grain is very wild. Sand with no rougher than 150 grit and work down to 320 or better depending on you patience. Don't be too vigorous or you'll sand through the veneer. A bummer but repairable.

Some shops use vacuum veneering. This is a no fuss no muss way but requires a vacuum pump and plastic bag.

If you don't feel comfortable doing the veneer work, I bet some local wood working shop would do it for you. I don't know what they would charge though.

Did you refinish/repaint the back of the dash? If so, with what?

Rob: I left it alone. There is a school of thought that says if you veneer one side of something you should do the other side to equalize stress. I didn't think this was necessary as the plywood was over 20 years old and equilibrated. The new veneer was covered with about 1/8 inch plastic goop so it isn't going to absorb/shed too much moisture. In three years there has been no problem.


I found your conversation on dash re-finishing quite interesting. I make my living by restoring jags, I think one of the most over-looked parts of restoration is the dash.

Pertaining to chemical strippers, you should try Dads Easy Spray. It's not cheap or easy to find, but well worth the effort and expense. It jells on contact and works well. But don't follow the directions. Instead, let the stuff sit on whatever piece your working on for 1 hour. You'll see the results.

thanks-- Russ Billings--- Huntsville, AL., submitted 4/22/97

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