Finishes for High-End Auto Woodwork

A discussion of finishes and techniques for putting the gleam into restored woodwork in classic Rolls Royces and Jaguars. May 27, 2008

Due to the ever increasing cost of polyester these days, can anyone recommend another type of finish for (veneered) car interior woodwork? I'm open to any and all suggestions for a high build piano type finish, and have had many years experience with wax/direct gloss from Sayerlack, and more recently ICA. The cost is now more than double what others pay for similar products in England.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor C:
Assuming your process for clothbacked veneer and proper glue are or have been addressed, and - if I understand rightly that you're in England - tell what your process is now and if all you're looking for is a new or different product to use. Reason? I have a system that I've used for over 20 years, but it may be more work than you're used to or looking for. It has held up as well as the OEM's for RR and beamers.

From contributor N:
I use non-backed walnut burl veneer, vacu pressed onto the substrate (over crossbanding) using either epoxy or the urea type adhesive. Finishing is with 2K urethane barrier coat then 5-6 coats of the polyester, cure/sand/polish. It's just growing a bit long in the tooth, and I'm tired of all the arm work (and growing expense), especially when I get 30+ pieces of oddly shaped wood from an earlier model. I'm not in the UK, but am from there (21 years ago) and do Jaguar and RR wood restoration, steering wheels and shift knobs, etc. I have friends over there who pay half what I do for this finish, hence my post.

From contributor C:
Sorry, can't help much. I use almost the same process you do, and I'm paying about 80.00 per gallon for the polyester and it's just as time consuming, though you may try after sanding the last coat of polyester applying a first rate auto urethane for ease of polishing - much easier than the polyester and shines like a mirror.

From contributor A:
What was used prior to 2k? Just curious. I've done a few Jags and a couple RR's and a few customs. Call me an evildoer if you like, but I did them with pre-cat and a broad disclaimer. Basically these cars weren't to be driven much or at all and were garaged... even did one with hot lacquer, and to the best of my knowledge the finishes stood up well.

From contributor C:
The auto industry went through many types of finishes before the commitment to polyester and urethane. First it was nitro metal lacquers which proved not to be good for any realistic length of time, then nitro-copolymers (alkyds, phenolics, etc.), then several types of co-polymer acrylates of the same nature. But nothing gave them the results we're now familiar with. And even now, we can only get 10 to 20 years on cars that are not garaged and well looked after - much as boat interiors.

From contributor N:
True, most of the pre 1973-ish cars I encounter were done in nitro of some sort. What would be your choice/brand if the customer wanted an OE type finish from the 50's/60's era? I have one such job coming up and I know he's not going to be too pleased if it's polyester. I find on some wood, the original nitro finish has actually done quite well for its age - it seems to "patina" nicely, rather than crack and come off in chunks like the modern stuff.

From contributor C:
You might try Delta Lab's bar top lacquer. The chemistry is similar to the old nitros. But there are really no nitros left that are a combination of alkyds and phenolics like the old ones, at least not that I'm aware of. The bar top should get you about 7 to 10 years, and you will have to build 20 to 30 coats to equal what you're used to seeing, but the product is cheap compared to urethane/poly prices. Plus each coat melts into the previous coat - a plus. Plan on the job taking you a month due to slow outgassing of the solvents before you can sand and polish. Outside of that, it gives a beautiful look. Make sure it's totally cured before install, otherwise it will shrink and you'll have to resand and polish again. Found out the hard way - smiles. No more than two coats a day - one in the morning and another at the end of the day. Unless you have a baking oven to drive the solvents off faster. Do not exceed 140 degrees F if you do.

P.S. A baking oven is a professional oven that starts out blowing high impingement air on the work and then automatically raises the temperature set you desire. Do not use a regular oven for baking! You can also buy lignin protecting HALS to apply to the wood so it does not fade as readily, and add UV absorbers to the lacquer also.