Rust Spiders from Mars

I’m running out of puns, I’m sure which will be a huge relief to most readers of this blog. Anyway, as the title suggests I have found some nasty bits under the paint. Lots of paint stripper and hours with a wire brush has revealed horrors under the many layer of paint. Ok – it’s not all bad and given that the van is 43 years old and spent most of it’s life under the blistering heat of Aix-en-Provence and it’s no surprise that the paint -(especially the roof) had become thin and porous – or just flaked off, leaving the bare steel exposed to the elements.

Here’s shot of the roof plastered with paint stripper and wrapped in cling film. The idea behind the cling film is that it excludes the air and stops the stripper from drying out

Paint stripper doing its thing – marginally more interesting than watching paint dry

And here is what’s under the paint

It’s a messy business – this car stripping lark

it took a few more applications of stripper to remove the 5 coat of paint and with a bit of wire brush work here’s the result.

Rust spiders – these probably started off as stone chips and water has worked its way under the paint, leaving little trails of rust in its wake. The corrugated part of the roof is in much worse shape, with scabby bits of rust all over. There’s deep pitting where the corrosion has eaten into the thin steel.

Bare steel – except where it’s rusty…

What to do? I could spend hours trying to grind out the rust but there will be very little steel left – which I would have to make good with filler. Or I can treat the rust with phosphoric acid, which will stabilise it. The whole roof will still be pock marked but actually I think it will be fine. I don’t want to hide any defects, it’s only an old French van and all those imperfections are part of its character (dare I say patina?). With the rust treatment, a coat of etch primer, couple of coats of poly / epoxy primer and the colour coat should keep the rust in check for a few more years yet – so that’s the plan.

Here are a few more shots of the stripping process. Sorry it’s a bit dull, but then this is going to be the most tedious bit of the restoration.

Is that a bit of Bleu Neve I see?
The original sign writing is too far gone to rescue – but I have a set of templates so I can recreate it after it’s been sprayed
‘Scabtastic’ – the cataphoric black primer was easy to strip off the new rear pillar – if only the rest was that easy!

In other good news, I’ve managed to track down a new pair of front wings – without indicator holes, as originally fitted to the AK350. I like to keep people guessing, especially on roundabouts, so having no front indicators won’t be a problem – not for me anyway.

Blast it!

Behold, the back of the van with the new rear pillars fitted – and the doors which fit perfectly – or at least as well, if not better than they did before I started chopping the body about. This is a huge relief. I’ve just got to fiddle in a section of the bottom rail which I had to cut out in order to fit the left hand door pillar, which should be as straightforward as the right hand side which you can see in its respondent shade of weld through copper primer.

The bottom of the doors will need a bit of attention with the hammer and dolly – there’s a bit of tidying up to do where the previous repairs were done but hey! its a van
The top of the rear doors – nicely aligned. I’m going to replace the drip rail as I’ve lost a bit from each side (still attached to the old side pillars) and the rest of it is too friable to repair.

Anyway – the main subject of this post is all about paint removal. I need to prepare the van for paint and since so much of the front, floor, sills, bulkhead, rear wings, rear pillars (and soon to be purchased new front wings) is new metal, I’ll need to etch prime these bits before I can epoxy prime the body prior to putting the top colour coat on. And – because etch primer will bury into the edge of any existing paint and lift it up, I’ll need get the whole shell, doors, bonnet, petrol tank and spare wheel panel back to bare metal first. Soda blasting would seem the most effective way of doing this. Soda as opposed to grit (sand) or any other aggressive media, because it (a) won’t blow holes in the incredibly thin metal (0.8ml steel) and (b) will not introduce heat into the metal and buckle it to buggery.

I got in touch with ‘Dan the blaster’ – a local expert in the art of car shell preparation, who works on Ferrari, Porsche, Rolls and all manner of classic cars. He let me down gently – explaining that he could strip my van and that there were two possible outcomes. The first was that he could do it quickly, and therefore reasonably economically but there was a very good chance that there would be very little van left at the end of the process – or secondly, that he could do it slowly and carefully but that this would take at least 2 days of his time and would cost around £2,000. Did I mention that he works on Ferrari’s and Porsche’s? Yes – these cars are stripped by him and are then typically treated to a £10,000 paint job. ‘What are my options?’ I asked… Cue sharp intake of breath – ‘You can get it dipped, but you’ll end up with stuff running out of all the seams which will ruin your paint job, or you could take it to a cowboy sandblaster and sweep up the remains into a couple of bin bags..’ and so it went on. I could use a DA sander, he suggested, but this would make an awful dusty mess and will put heat into the metal, which will distort it – or you could hand strip it with paint stripper and remove any residue with 120 grit paper, then finish off with 240 grit.

Hand stripping it is then. Recent EU legislation decreed that paint stripper can no longer contain methylene dichloride – this was the active ingredient in the old Nitromors paint stripper. It’s horrible stuff, bad for the environment and bad for ones health. The new paint strippers are much less effective, but are also safer and less harmful to the environment, so this is the way to go. Armed with a bottle of Wickes Paint Stripper and some cling film, I plastered a 2 ft wide section of the roof with stripper and wrapped it with cling film and left it overnight to do its work. Here are the results.

The top coat of household paint came off in one big sheet – deeply satisfying.
all wrapped up in cling film – letting the stripper do its magic

The top coat of Farrow and Ball French Grey has peeled away, leaving the next coat of brush painted silver paint more or less intact. Underneath this silver coat are the original cellulose top coats and under this is the original primer. It will take a few more applications to get through this lot, so I’m in it for the long game. Paint on the stripper, cover with clingy, remove a single coat or two and repeat until I get to bare metal. It will cost a few quid in paint stripper and will take a few days of effort but it will be worth it it the end. Next steps? After stripping, I’ll take the body off the chassis again, paint the underside with Hammerite or POR 15, weld on the new rear wings, weld in the front door hinge brackets and fit the doors, paint the chassis, strip and repaint everything (body and all associated panels with etch primer, ready for the epoxy primer and top coat. Then put back everything I originally removed, replace the clutch, fit my Michelin Man lorry mascot, put the windows back in, sort out the wheels, bumpers and headlight bowls etc. etc. So much to do. I’ve got bags of bits all over the place and a wiring loom which looks like a partially unravelled birds nest – ho hum..

There’s lots of surface rust underneath the paint on the bonnet. This will need to be cleaned off and treated with chemical rust converter before priming.

Back Doors – riding on a storm

I spent a couple of days in the workshop chopping out the other rear door pillar and fitting the new panel to the left hand side. I had a wobbly moment when trial fitting the rear doors – I just could not get them to fit – ie meet in the middle. The only way I could get an acceptable fit was to jack up the right side of the body 1 inch higher than the left side. Doing this and then welding up the back of the body shell would probably result in that 1 inch gap appearing between the back of the body and the rear chassis leg. A bodge would be needed to fill the gap and that’s not what I want

With the body off the chassis, replacing the pillars was bound to be challenging, if not impossible. So, I had to enlist the help of sons Bill and George to help me lift the body off the tables and fit it back onto the chassis. The theory being that if I bolt it all down to the chassis then I’ll be able to fettle the the rear door posts, line everything up and adjust it, then weld them into place. once welded, I can take the body off again and clean it up, ready for paint.

I’d built up the front of the van (floors, sills, bulhead, a-panels, screen surround and toe board on the jig that I made to replicate the chassis. I can’t say I was entirely happy about this approach as all the experts say that body repairs must be undertaken with the body fitted to the chassis, otherwise nothing will line up. I didn’t make the jig to run to the back of the van because, well.. because I couldn’t be bothered. Anyway, the jig worked a treat and all the holes lined up perfectly at the front and at the back. With the body firmly bolted into place – all the way to the back of the van, I tried the doors again. They fit! Well, they fit when everything is firmly clamped together and with a bit of fiddling, I was happy to commit and start welding it all back together again. I think the body is a bit out of shape at the back. The van has had a big clout at the offside rear corner and some point in its life, evident by some ripples in the inner rear wings and a slightly bent B post, so it’s a pig in a poke. Never mind, I can’t make it perfect, so I’ll have to do the bast I can and live with it.

Here’s a shot of the old nearside rear door pillar. I cut it out with a 1ml cutting disk on the angle grinder and unpicked all of the old spot welds

The bottom section of this panel has had a repair panel let it – sandwiched over the remains of the old panel and while it’s strong and sound, it looks a bit dented and shabby

The following pictures tell the story. It was just a matter of clamping, adjusting, welding and dressing with the flap disk to get the new panel in place.

Rear pillar cut out, leaving a very floppy structure!
I made a small flange to join the inside of the rear pilar to the rear of the inner wing
You can’t have too many clamps. I had to make a new piece to replace the rotten rear section of the inner wing. This was plug welded and will be seam welded later

Door and pillar fitted. I had to use a ratchet strap to pull it tight up to the edge of the inner wing
Top tip – I used masking tape to record the exact location of the rear pillar during the trial fit. Then I removed the panel, punched holes in the flange, ready for welding and then clamped it back, lining up the marks
All plug welded and ground down, ready for the edge to be peened over the join
Here you can see the 1/4 inch of the van side, still with it’s original fold mark, which I folded over to cover the welds on the inside edge.

What’s next? I’m going to try and get the shell soda blasted. It it’s prohibitively expensive (I reckon at leat £400), then I’ll have a go with paint stripper – although I expect stripping the shell by hand will be a horribly messy and slow process…


I’m suffering from withdrawal symptoms, having not been to the workshop for a ‘poke about’ for a few days, because I’ve got a frozen shoulder. Not a shoulder of Lamb, but my own shoulder has frozen, probably from welding upside down and stretching too far, so I’ve taken an enforced break. Anyway, my thoughts are turning to paint – or re-paint to be precise. The two previous owners of the van had their own solutions to the traditional methods of vehicle painting. The first was to use a thinnish coat of silver paint, applied with a brush. This looks like it might have been a base coat of metallic silver – sans lacquer and actually looks very good and quite period. I think I could have lived with this and with a bit of flatting off and a couple of coats of clear, it would have left the van looking like a used, well worn but well preserved example. Furthermore they had masked off the original signwriting, so as to preserve some of the patina. The sign said:

  • Bernard Merli – Ebeniste
  • Chemain De La Soux
  • Aix en Provence + telephone number (I can’t recall the exact numbers)

Anyway, the next owner neither liked the silvery finish, nor did they appreciate the original signage, so they obliterated all with a tin of Farrow and Ball ‘French Grey’ – applied with a brush again and quite liberally to boot. Underneath these coats of paint is the original (or what is left of it) factory paint. Bleu Neve code 609 which translates to French Navy Blue. I tried stripping off the French Grey from the sign-painted panels, with limited success and I think I’m resigned to re-painting the whole van in the correct colour and then re-instating the sign writing.  Luckily I managed to find a full set of metal letter templates in a very French looking typeface, which are about the right size, so I’ll be able to recreate the sign writing without too much bother.

So – the question is, what paint should I use and how to apply it. The choices as I see are:

1.Cellulose paint and thinners – actually this has been outlawed as environmentally unsound, but can be used on classic cars. I have painted with this before and it’s quite forgiving in that a poor finish can be cut back (wet sanded) and polished. The downside is that all that buffing and polishing takes time and removes most of the applied paint.

2. Modern Auto paint. This is water based and is a two pack system. It is toxic to breathe in and one has to have an air fed mask and all sorts of heath and safety precautions have to be taken when spraying it. It needs to be ‘cured’ in an oven as well. All modern cars are painted using this system – primer, top coat and lacquer to give it a shine and protect the paint from the elements.

3. Synthetic Auto paint – AKA tractor paint.. Nothing too fancy about this, but it can be mixed to match any colour and should be relatively easy to apply.

After a chat with the Auto paint suppliers nearby, they have recommended the following ‘system’ using Synthetic paint.

First, strip the outside shell of all existing paint, down to the bare metal. Then, fill in and flatten off all defects with filler and sand smooth. Next, apply a coat of Etch Primer. This is a 2 pack paint, which is a bit toxic, so I’ll be doing this bit outside. Next, I have to apply 2 coats of synthetic primer, which is mixed with 10% ‘thinners’ . I’m guessing it’s some sort of polyurethane paint which can be sanded flat, ready for the top coat(s). The top coat is the same synthetic paint which comes in 2 finishes, Satin and Gloss. Now here’s the thing: I don’t want to use a load of filler on the van. It never looks right and because the panels are so thin and flexible, it will at best crack and at worst, fall out in chunks. So, my bare metal surface is not going to be free of dings, dents and the odd ripply bit – and if I paint it with a highly glossy paint, every one of it’s many carbuncles and warts will stand out like sore thumbs. Nor do I want a ‘satin’ finish – it will just look like its been badly painted (which no doubt it will be), so the guys at the body shop suggested a compromise – 50% satin and 50% gloss. 

This ‘special’ paint can be applied with a brush, a sponge roller or sprayed. I’ll spray the outside, but the inside (also brush painted silver currently) will not get the bare metal treatment as it will take too long and will be an enormous ball ache of a job for very little reward. The front floors, bulkhead, sills and toe board are all new metal and will be sprayed inside and out, so it’s just inside the back of the van, roof and sides that will probably end up being brush painted again – and then only if there’s enough paint to go round. 

So, It remains to be seen what it will turn out like. If it looks horrible, I’ll have to deal with it. If it works as I hope it will, the van will look like it’s been around the block a bit. It won’t look too over restored, but then again it won’t have much in the way of original patina. A compromise then. More about paint later – after I sort out the rear door pillars and rest of the rear body. Will it ever be finished…?

Here’s a bit of work I did on the rear right pillar. I had the van on it’s side when I cut out the old panel, which with hindsight was a bit of a mistake. Imagine a cardboard box with both ends open, sitting on its side – now place a tin of beans or fruit cocktail on it – and watch it turn into a parallelogram. This is what happened to the van. The new panel would not fit and I had to flip the body the ‘right’ way up, clamp the new panel in place, re-fit the rear doors (to check the alignment of said new panel), re-clamp the panel, remove the doors, mark it’s position with a sharpie…. you get the picture. I chopped out some more rust where the door panel meets the rear inner wing and replaced it with a new fillet of steel.

That bit by the can of weld through primer looks horrid but it’s actually very sound – just dented. The new strip is clamped up, hole punched and ready to be welded
most of this is hidden, so I don’t need to dress the welds perfectly
New panel in place

One new reap panel in place. I’ve peened over the right hand edge – to fold over the side of the van and make a nice join between it and door pillar.

part-was through folding over the edge to to cover the plug welds. I spent another hour dressing it with a hammer and dolly and it looks ‘pukka’ now

That’s it for now, I’m off to Bearded Theory in Derbyshire (music festival) for a well earned rest tomorrow, so no more updates for a week or two.

Rear Door Pillars

I’ve done what I can to get the front door hinge plates in the right place and have twisted the top of the drivers door frame, so that it fits nicely in its frame now – or at least it’s much better than it was. Any more fiddling with it will invoke the law of diminishing returns, so I’m going to leave it for now and have a look at the rear door pillars. At some point in the past, the van has had a clout in the offside rear corner, which has been repaired by letting in a new section at the bottom where the rear light fitting is located. However, above this, the metal has been bashed about and has stretched too much for me to reshape. I do have a shrinking hammer but access is limited and I’m not sure I have the metalwork skills to put it right – and as I acquired a pair of replacement door pillar panels, now seems like a good time to sort it out.

Here’s picture of the offside pillar. You can see where I started to peel away the previous repair, just above the hole and to the left of where the rear light fitting goes. Below the light hole, another section has been let in. If I replace the whole panel I can sort this out at the same time.

The body is still on its side – at the bottom you can see where I’ve started to unpick the door pillar from the rear crossmember. Note, the ‘Farrow and Ball French Grey’ has not stuck well to the zinc coated crossmember. This will need stripping and etch priming before painting again

The edge of the van sides have been folded over to grip the edge of the door pillars – this is quite a neat way of closing the edge. Cutting out the pillar panel has presented me with 2 options. grind down what’s left and weld the new panel to edge of the old panel which is still spot welded – or unpick the spot welds, bend back the flange, weld in the new panel and fold the edge over again. A bit more investigation and I think I can replicate the original fitment – or I could be making a lot of extra work for myself.

The chisel is resting on the closed over flange
Close up, you can just see the edge which is folded over

I drilled out a couple of the original spot welds and had a look

Teasing open the flange. I then pulled out the sliver of old panel

Below is where the new panel will tuck into the edge, which can then be folded over again

Not too bad but the metal is pretty thin, so plug welding the new panel to it might be challenging
This is the rear door drip rail – I’m going to need a new one of these

I decided to call it a day and have a think about how best to proceed while I watch the snooker final….

The Doors

I’ve spent a couple of sessions in the workshop fiddling with the doors – or to be more precise, the drivers door. As mentioned in previous posts, the doors have never fitted very well and because I braced the shell before I chopped all the panels out and replaced them, everything is as it was before – and the doors don’t fit any better than they did before I started, if anything the fit is worse than it was before.

Being an upbeat sort of chap, I made a plan. No amount of hinge packing would make up the discrepancy and I’m either left with a large gap at the bottom of the door (at the front) or the top of the frame at the rear. I could (and probably will have to) give the door a bit of a ‘heave ho’ to twist it into shape. Anyway, before this I thought it would be best to flip the body on its side, lay the door into the opening and then adjust the hinges to fit. Brilliant…

on its side – easy peasy

Looking up through the passenger door opening (this is a left hand drive van) here’s the door sitting in its aperture as viewed from underneath

Note the large ‘Air gap’s at the bottom – not good

With the hinges in place, there’s clearly something amis. No amount of packing with the flat packing pieces is going to make up the wedge shaped gap between the flat faces of the door and the hinges. So, I’m either going to have to make up a ‘wedge’ of steel to bridge the gap – or bend the hinges into shape. More on this later, because the act of flipping the shell onto its side has exposed the underbelly of the beast, which needs a bit of attention. Here’s what it looks like from a distance – not too shabby… N’est-ce pas?

New floors, sills and toe board from underneath on the left and to the right, the original ‘van’ part of the body

On closer inspection, you can see a bit of crustiness on the front crossmember – at the top of the picture. Close up – there’s a hole.

I cleaned it up with the wire brush on the angle grinder (an unforgiving tool) and the hole became larger.

I chopped out the rust with the cutting disk on the grinder and was left with a neat hole, 6 inches by 1 inch wide, into which I placed a patch of 3ml steel, held in place with a magnet, which enabled me to weld the edges..

A bit of tidying up with the flap wheel and and a dusting of primer – and it’s looking much better. I’ll put a bit of seam sealer over the weld before I paint it later. This part of the crossmember needs to be strong as it the jacking point is fixed to the end of it.

Actually, sorting this small bit of corrosion out has offset the door / hinge issues nicely and I was quite happy to leave it at that for the day. More on the hinges in the next post. There’s a forge and anvil at the workshop, so I’m going to have a go at re-shaping the hinges (opening them out a bit), to see if that helps solve the problem. The doors are not the original van doors, when I took the door cards off, they are painted red inside and are off a much later 2CV saloon. Perhaps the dimensions of the AK350 doors is different to later models – someone might know, but not me.

Ape hosts and Ape handles

Time to tackle the botton of the A posts where they meet the sills. It’s all pretty grotty down at there on both sides of the van, probably because unless this area is closed off from the elements where the sills slot into the the toe board, water will get in rust will be the result. First job is to tack the sills in place, so that I have something from which to measure the A post repair section from. Underneath the van, here’s were the floors join the sills. I punched holes in the floor flange and just made a few plug welds to hold it all in place.

Floor meets sill – some strange pink lighting – must be the iPhone camera

The A post repair section comes with a short lengh of tube, some rivnuts and a nut and bolt. The rivets and single nut bolt and 2 washers remain a total mystery to me – I’m sure they are included in the repair pack for some reason, but neither I, ECAS or the Dutch manufacturer of the parts were able to fathom out what that reason is, so I’ll just keep them in their little bag and then file them under B1N later. The tube is used to reinforce the join between the old and new A post sections, sliding neatly inside, it will give me something to weld to and minimise the risk of blowing a hole through where the join will be. I bought another metre of half inch tube (or ‘Toob’ as they say in Norfolk) as I’ll need a bit more than what was supplied with the repair section because I’ll be doing both sides.

Tube installed

Here’s the bit of A post, ready to bridge the gap where I chopped out the rotten section. I spent a good 10 mins on the grinder wheel, shaping the bottom of the A post where it joins the sill.

Clamped up and ready to weld

There’s no point in trying to salvage the bottom hinge brackets – the bits of steel which the hinges bolt to as they have been repaired once already and will become hoplessly out of shape if I try and cut them off and we reweld them. I have a pair of replacements ready…

You can see below where I’ve stitched in the A post repair section and welded the bottom of it to the sill. This required a bit of dressing with the flap wheel and grinder but all in all has gone quite well. It’ll need a skim of filler to tidy it up properly. I used the A panel as a template to line everything up – top tip!

Here’s the panel clamp up for alignment – I marked the line where the wing joins it so that any plug welds can be hidden when the wing is fitted

This is the inside edge of the A panel – once welded the flange will be folded over to close the join.

Folding over the flange

I folded the edge over with a panel beating hammer and dolly. The trick is not to overwork the steel, the more you bash it, the harder it becomes. It’s took a while to finish this off but eventually I managed it. Below is the A panel fitted, with plug welds to join it to the firewall and all the way down the A post to the sill. A bit of seam sealer will be needed inside the gutter as this is exposed to the elements.

The top (apex) of the A panel is not yet welded. I think it will be better to braze it, rather than seam weld. The flap of metal sticking out will be folded around the top of the firewall.

Lastly, I dressed the join where the sill slots into the toe board and have seam welded it. This was tricky to weld and turned out a bit ‘blobby’ where I attempted to run a nice fillet along the join. There’s a big gap here, it would not have welded very well ‘as’ is’

After a bit of bashing with the hammer and the join is nice closed up

Here are the 2 old A post sections, complete with hinge mounts.

Flushed with success, I did the same on the nearside, although I haven’t welded the A panel in yet as I ran out of gas (or I might have forgotten to turn it off) . You can see below all the holes are ready for plug welding. This all went relatively easily – especially after the nightmare of the windscreen. Next jobs – fit the bottom hinge brackets and see if the doors still fit (I’m sure they won’t), join the top of the firewall to the bonnet hinge flange, and check to see if the windscreen will still fit in its new aperture. I’m less worried about the screen fitting than everyone else is, because my son works for a glass company and he said he can make me a new laminated screen to my measurements if needed..