Be prepared before you start working on your classic car
By | Last updated: September 16, 2021
Classic Car Restoration feature

Classic car restoration is a very broad term that can mean almost anything, depending who you ask. Deciding what it means to you is crucial to making sure your restoration project goes smoothly and doesn’t end up as a never-finished pile of parts.

Decide exactly what you do and don’t want to do and how far you do and don’t want to go before you start and your restoration will run smoothly. Or at least more smoothly than it will if you don’t.

To help you out with that job, here are 10 things you need to know about classic car restoration and how you can deal with them in the best way.

Lead photo by Dee Dalasio/Shutterstock.com

1. Cut Out the Rust

Rust is number one on the list because rust is the biggest reason for starting a restoration in the first place. If the car wasn’t rusty, you’d just drive it. There are different levels of rust, though, requiring different techniques to get rid of them.

The best way to get rid of rust is to cut out all of the rusty panels. Using a tool like a reciprocating saw, a cut-off wheel, or even, if you’re in a big-budget garage, a plasma cutter that just vaporizes the metal, are the easiest and best ways to cut out the rusty bits.

It’s a bit of a scorched earth policy and you’ll need to use a welder to replace the missing metal, but it will prevent any spread. If a panel is too far gone, many companies sell entire replacements that let you cut out the large piece and replace it all at once.

2. Rust with Less Fuss

If your rust is not through the metal anywhere, there are easier ways to take care of it. A wire brush on a grinder or drill is a quick and easy way to remove rust and scale. Follow it up with a power sander or die grinder to take it back to bare metal and your classic car will be looking good again in no time.

Another way to combat rust is a chemical removal often called Naval Jelly. No, it’s not from your belly button, it is a mix of phosphoric and sulphuric acids in gel form. Brush it on and it chemically transforms light rust into a primable or even paintable surface. Other rust removal products do a similar job to remove light rust.

3. Hold Onto Everything

You are about to remove dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of parts from your car. Lots of those parts are large, but most of them will be tiny. Screws, bolts, nuts, clips, and other fasteners. Losing just one can ruin your entire restoration project. Hold on to them and keep them organized using a parts bin. Offered open or sliding drawers, or even portable tool-box style kits, keeping your hardware sorted and easy to find will save you hours of searching down the road. Having a range of small zip bags you can fasten and then tape to the part they go with is also a great way to go about it.

4. Inside Out

If you’re planning on restoring the interior of your vehicle, and you should, don’t just give everything a vacuum and call it a day. An old car has seen decades of use and abuse including food spills and even worse. Sometimes that means old fabric, leather, and vinyl are not repairable. Replacement seat covers and fabric are available for many vehicles. Same goes for old and tired headliners. To remove the covers from your old seats, you’ll need to remove and replace the steel clips. They’re called hog rings, and using hog ring pliers makes the job more straightforward

5. Engine Management

Some serious parts will need to come out. Like the engine and transmission. To get them out, you’ll need an engine hoist unless you happen to be an Olympic powerlifter. Once the engine is out, an engine stand is the right way to hold the engine in place so you can flip it, add or remove parts, and do everything else that is part of your restoration.

6. Shine That Chrome

Exterior trim that is severely damaged probably needs to be replaced, but thanks to the aftermarket you can probably find everything you need new. Or you can find vintage parts that are in better shape than yours. If your trim is just a little faded and pitted, though, you can restore it quickly and easily. For the easiest items, chrome polish and some elbow grease are enough to bring back the sparkle and get rid of oxidation.

For deeper pits and more damaged finishes, a dual-action polisher is what you need. The spinning and orbiting polishing motion makes quick work of all but the deepest pits, blemishes, and even rust on your original chrome trim. Use that along with a buffing compound designed for metals like chrome and you can bring your old parts back to life.

7. Brakes That Won't Break

Even if your old brake lines aren’t rusted into powder, you’ll probably want to replace them. After all, if you’re doing the work on the rest, why leave one of your most important bits of safety equipment untouched? It gives you the chance to upgrade an old single-cylinder brake system, where one bad line means all your brakes are gone, to a more modern (and safer) dual-circuit system. You could also take the time to install an entire modern braking system. A big brake kit will replace your factory brakes with beefier and newer parts, and you can even replace your old drums with new power discs.

When it comes to making new lines, many older vehicles are actually sold as a complete pre-bent kit. All you need to do with a preformed brake line is bolt it in place and bleed the system. To do it yourself, you’ll need a roll or two of brake line tubing and the appropriate fittings. You’ll need a brake line tube bender to get it to fit into all of the factory locations, but you can usually use the same bender for your fuel lines as well.

Brake lines need to be flared at each end to guarantee that the fittings and line connections won’t leak or come off when you use your brakes. The only way to do this is with a line flaring tool. You’ll also need a brake bleeder kit to get all of the air out of your new lines and the rest of your system.

8. Run the Wires

While wiring will almost always need to be replaced, that doesn’t need to be an impossible task. You’ll probably need some electrical tools like a good multimeter that let you trace wires and find short or open circuits. You’ll also need wiring kits that include your wires as well as relays for the large draws and connectors for everything else. Modern weatherproof connectors are easy to find and affordable. Especially when compared to the alternative. The really easy button is to buy a complete wiring harness kit. These are available for many cars (like these for classic Corvettes) and have everything needed for connectors and wires, all laid out in a way that’s as easy as possible to install.

9. Glass from the Past

Removing your windshield and rear glass is really the only way to make sure that your window frames are rust-free. It’s also the best way to paint your vehicle, because masking around the glass always shows. A windshield removal tool can help you get out that old glass if it’s glued in place. Some vehicles have their glass held in by fasteners that are even easier to remove. Be careful, and use a windshield rack or glass stand to hold the removed glass and avoid shattering it. To reinstall your windshield, use a pro-grade urethane adhesive sealant to make sure that you don’t get rained on while you drive.

10. Paint

Your paintwork might not need anything to be ready for your restoration to be finished, but chances are you have at least some small dings and scratches that need to be addressed. It might be as simple as finding a touch-up paint pen to get those stone chips taken care of, but you might need to strip and repaint completely.

For a complete repaint, you’ll need to strip your car to bare metal. Media blasting, where you use forced air to blast the paint with particles, can take care of most of the paint in the shortest time possible. You can also use sandpaper to remove the paint, starting with a coarse grit (around 60) and then working your way up to around 600. You may need to apply body filler to cover smaller dents, and that can be sanded at up to 2000 grit when dry. Use a sanding block, not your bare hand, or you’ll leave runs and low spots in your metal finish.

Automotive paint is applied using a spray gun and an air compressor. First the primer coat, then the paint, and usually a clear coat that adds shine and gloss. High-grit sanding between coats is an essential part if you’re planning on making your restoration a show car.

Download the eBay Motors App

To make life easier when it comes to getting everything you need for your car or truck, consider downloading the eBay Motors App.

More than just a parts catalog app, the eBay Motors app gives you access to one of the largest selections of parts and accessories in the world. You can also buy and sell vehicles and connect directly with automotive enthusiasts right from your phone.

Take advantage of the My Garage feature to easily store your vehicle’s specs so you can quickly find and buy the parts you want. You can store multiple vehicles in your profile, which means you don’t have to re-input the same information every time you use the app. Plus, eBay’s fitment feature ensures you will find the parts that will fit your vehicle.

Another great feature on the app for vehicle sellers is the ability to upload a picture of your license plate, which eBay then uses to grab all the pertinent details of your vehicle for selling, including uploading your VIN number.

Download the eBay Motors app today.


From time to time, TTAC will highlight automotive products we think may be of interest to our community. Plus, posts like this help to keep the lights on around here. Learn more about how this works.

19 Comments on “Classic Car Restoration: 10 Things You Need to Know...”


  • avatar
    ravenuer

    Sounds easy, heh?

    • 0 avatar
      indi500fan

      I did a full nut and bolt on a 67 Camaro after I retired.
      Did pretty much everything except the engine machining, windshield install, and chrome plating.
      This is a car with massive amount of documentation including assembly line instructions and parts support.

      It’s still a BIG job.

      • 0 avatar
        Tstag

        There’s the key, you did it after you retired. I did it in my early 30’s just before I got married, then had kids, then sold the damn thing. Classic cars are lovely, just do it when your older, and wiser. I’ll do one again one day, after the kids are old enough to be useful and when I’ve got some time on my hands to enjoy it.

    • 0 avatar
      RHD

      At least this “article” is all Ebay links this time, instead of the usual Amazon links. It pays the bills, I guess, to the detriment of real journalism.

      Now if I can just get enough little touch-up paint bottles to re-do my Datsun Roadster. I thought it would actually require an air compressor and paint sprayer. My bad.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I thought this was going to be a real article. Oh well.

    Here’s my list:
    It’s going to cost 4 times your budget
    If you find a good shop or mechanic, stick with them
    If the good shop or person you find is expensive, pay it
    Don’t rely on your buddies for help, otherwise it could be sitting dead for years
    Once your massive investment is finally ready to take to shows, remember that there will always be better cars out there – never expect to get a trophy.
    Kids and women with purses will not be careful around your car.
    If you didn’t do it yourself, don’t trust that it was done right, always double check before driving off.
    Keep at least one fire extinguisher in your car at all times.
    Drive it – you will enjoy it more.

  • avatar
    Lou_BC

    There used to be places where you could dip the body, frame, or any part in a electrolysis bath that would strip rust and paint. It typically would require a few days. They then could tank the part to rust proof with zinc.

  • avatar
    texan01

    The biggest thing on buying and restoring a classic car… Buy the best one you can afford.

    A $300 basket case project car is not worth the headache and costs if you can find a much much nicer car for $3000.

  • avatar
    aja8888

    Rule #1 – Don’t buy Chinese replacement parts for your classic.

    Rule #2 – All aftermarket replacement parts are made in China.

    Rule #3 – Take up a different hobby.

  • avatar
    ajla

    Lol, you guys are such downers.
    Take your time, have a place to park it, don’t be poor, take your time, and it’ll be fine.

  • avatar
    Kendahl

    It can be hard to decide how far to go. A friend claims to have invented the “domino theory of car restoration”.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Don’t forget the ball joints. Even the pro resto shops fail to replace them, and we’ve all seen the mega buck, restored classics with a front corner digging in the pavement, wheel came loose and cranked hard into the fender.

  • avatar
    ToolGuy

    Magic words for rust removal:

    – “3M Scotch Brite Bristle Disc” (available in different sizes and grits; try the 4-1/2 inch green one on a nice angle grinder and your life will change)

    – “3M Scotch-Brite Roloc Surface Conditioning Disc” – 2 inch size for your die grinder in coarse, medium and fine [the off-brand ones are fine]

  • avatar
    Garak

    A 3D printer is great for broken or missing plastic bits, especially if you have some 3D modeling experience. There’s a horrible amount of assorted clips, fasteners, buttons and knobs that just aren’t available anymore on more obscure cars.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    Rust isn’t the only or #1 reason for a restoration, nor does rust always prevent you from driving it as-is (safely). It’s just damage like any other and you start with the most damage-free example (in your budget). Zero rust if possible.

  • avatar

    There still are. Pro-Strip Indy is excellent. The guy who owns it gave me a wealth of knowledge on painting. He restores old airplanes and really knows the trade.

    Driving school South Morang

  • avatar
    PotLizard

    11. Wait until all the Boomers have died off, the market for old cars has crashed, and the only people left that are interested in these old cars anymore are a few Gen Xers. Then buy one, cheaply, that was already restored.

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