by Schuyler Grace, firstname.lastname@example.org
So, your vinyl dash top, or crash roll in LBC parlance, is looking a little more "rustic" than you would like, and you've grown tired of loosing quarters, bolts, small children, etc. in its canyon-size cracks. Basically, you have four options:
The first option is, of course, the best if you are a stickler for originality; however, it requires substantial luck to locate such a beast and a bankroll to match your good fortune to actually purchase it. Option two seems to be the standard way to go, but the experiences of others have led me to believe that really good results are difficult, if not impossible, to achieve following this route. Provided you have the upholstery skills (or know someone who does), recovering the stripped frame can yield a perfect copy of your original dash, but trying to get the padding just right while wrapping covering material around compound curves isn't something I want to even think about trying.
To spruce up my Spitfire, I chose covering over all of the nasties with new vinyl fabric, leaving the old covering and padding in place as a form for my work. The process was fairly simple, and the finished product looks great and has received many complements. The dash has also held up well in two years of unpampered use, while apparently forestalling further deterioration of the underlying material. Another benefit is that the process is reversible (for the most part), so the covering can be replaced whenever it begins to show its age.
This process should work with almost any padded dash, provided the dash isn't a complete basket case. Even large cracks and holes can be filled, but you must have enough of the old covering and padding in reasonably good shape to allow reestablishing the original dash contours. Also, the dash will be slightly oversized after recovering, so tight clearances at the windshield, windshield posts, and dash face will be even tighter. None of these turned out to be a problem with my paint spattered, severely cracked Spit dash.
The materials required are as follows:
Begin by removing the dash from your car and any trim from the dash. Next, use a single-edge razor blade to pick away any loose bits of old vinyl and rotted foam padding. Don't get too carried away with this, though, because the less you have to work with, the more difficult it will be to get the proper contours when refilling the cracks. It is especially important to trim the edges where the vinyl has cracked because these will tend to curl up and telegraph through the new covering.
Now, you must thoroughly clean every square inch of the old dash to give the adhesives a good bonding surface. I just laid everything out in the driveway and went to town with the scrubbing brush, a bucket of suds (detergent, not beer), and the garden hose. You'll be surprised how much crud has accumulated in the crevices of your "clean" dash. When you finish, completely rinse the dash and set it out in the sun to dry. Drying may take an afternoon or a day or two, depending on how much water the foam soaked up, but you definitely want as little water as possible trapped in there to rust away the dash frame. After the dash has had time to thoroughly dry, wipe it down with solvent to take care of anything the bath didn't get and trim away any newly discovered high spots, flaking vinyl, and disintegrating foam.
Filling cracks and holes in the old dash is probably the most critical part of getting a good looking finished product. I used RTV silicone because it stays flexible and doesn't seem to attack the old vinyl or foam. You don't have to be terribly careful, either. Just overfill each of the cracks, making sure the silicone penetrates to the bottom of the crack and extends out to the edges. After it has had time to fully cure, carefully trim away the excess silicone, following the surrounding contours. Very small imperfections in your crack repairs won't telegraph through the new covering, but you should pay particular attention to high spots and irregularities around areas like the front edge of the dash and the ashtray recess, because they will be the most noticeable in your finished dash. If you aren't happy with the results so far, simply add or trim away more silicone, or pull out the bad plug and start again.
This is the messiest part of the process. Upholstery adhesive and epoxy are nasty things to work with, and they get everywhere if you aren't careful. It also helps if you are ambidextrous, have a prehensile tail, or are equipped with opposable thumbs on your feet to hold onto everything while the adhesives set. I spread an old comforter on the bed, and it made the perfect (clean, soft, and disposable) work surface. It will also peel off of the dash when you accidentally manage to glue the two together, but newspapers will just make a mess.
Start by laying out the vinyl fabric face side down and placing the dash top-down on the vinyl. If you are using vinyl that has a "direction" to its grain pattern, make sure it is oriented the way you want the grain to run. Then, use a fabric pen to mark off the indented areas of the dash around the ashtray, vent holes, etc. and trace the outline of the dash on the back of the vinyl,. Next, wrap the vinyl around the dash and trim off any excess fabric. Be careful not to move the dash around too much at this point so the indentations you marked stay in place, and leave plenty of extra fabric around the edges for gluing. A good rule of thumb for trimming the fabric is to leave two or three inches of excess all around and then, add a couple more for good measure. Remember, you can't uncut the vinyl, but you can always trim more off.
Now, you can begin the fun part by turning the dash over (top up), placing it next to the vinyl, and spraying everything down with upholstery adhesive, following the directions on the can. Try to avoid spraying outside of the dash outline and inside the areas you marked for the indentations on the vinyl, as well as the indentations on the dash. A little overspray won't matter, just don't go nuts in these areas. After the adhesive pre-cured according to the label directions, flip the dash over and place it on top of the vinyl, lining it up with the marks you made previously. Double check to make certain you have enough excess fabric all the way around and begin stretching the vinyl over the dash and smoothing out any bubbles and wrinkles. Work from the center out and try not to get too many sticky fingerprints on the new covering. After you are happy with the way the top looks, set the whole mess aside and let the upholstery adhesive do its thing.
Once the upholstery adhesive on the top has had time to cure, you can begin working the fabric around the front and back edges of the dash. Simply apply more adhesive in these areas, let it pre-cure, and stretch the vinyl around. Use enough tension to keep everything smooth and wrinkle free and hold or lightly clamp the fabric in place as you work along, until the adhesive sets up. At this point, patience and diligence pays off, and you can't make any uncorrectable mistakes because the adhesive never really sets up to the point where you can't peel the fabric off, and the fabric will mold to almost any contour. One word of caution, though--if you have any inside curves (such as the ashtray recess), upholstery adhesive will not be adequate to anchor the vinyl. In these areas, you will have to use epoxy. The only place I ran into this problem with my Spit was around the ashtray and the vents, but some dashes may require epoxy around instrument bumps or under the front lip of the dash. If you pull the vinyl taut and it doesn't touch the surface underneath, epoxy is required.
At this point, you should have all the visible surfaces of the dash covered, and it's time to take a break, clean all the goo off of your hands, and pop the cap off of a cold one while the adhesive sets up. Be sure to check on the dash from time to time and press down any areas that are becoming unstuck. If you didn't stretch the vinyl too far, you should have only a few minor places around the edges to fidget with, and a little pressure and/or squirt of adhesive will take care of them.
You've made it this far, so you're ready for the only real pain-in-the-rear part of the recovering job-- neatly stretching the vinyl around the dash edges and gluing it to the underside of the dash. This can can make or break the final appearance of your dash, so take your time and keep the epoxy off of anything that you don't want glued. Start out by picking a section to work on and trial fitting the fabric. (I did the front and back first because they were the most visible, and the ends are pretty much hidden by the windshield pillars.) You will have to trim away excess and cut "V" slots into the fabric in certain areas, but don't trim too much. Then, mix up some five-minute epoxy, spread it in a fairly thick layer on the underside of the dash where you will be working, and press the vinyl fabric into it while checking for wrinkles and bubbles where the fabric wraps around the edge. Don't try to do too much at one time, because you are going to have to hold the vinyl in place while the epoxy sets up.
By now, you should have something that's beginning to resemble a dash--and a pretty nice looking one, at that! To finish up, start by removing any stray upholstery adhesive from the top of the dash with a clean rag and naphtha or rubbing alcohol. Then, working one indentation at a time, spread epoxy onto the surrounding area, press and hold the vinyl so that it conforms the indentation's contours, and allow the epoxy to cure. Again, take your time and don't try to do too much at once, because these little details are what make the finished dash. After the epoxy has cured, cut out the required holes with a single edge razor blade by making an "X" that extends almost, but not all the way, to the corners of larger holes (the ashtray, for example) and a slit or small rectangular opening for the vents. (Bolt holes can be punched through from the top with an awl.) Then, stretch the fabric flaps around to the bottom of the dash and glue them in place with epoxy. If any raw edges end up showing, you can color them to match the vinyl with a permanent marker, and...
IT'S A DASH!
Reinstalling the dash can also be a pain because it is now slightly oversized. It will fit, though, and patience will pay off here as it did while you were recovering the dash. If you force things, Newton's first law will pay a visit in the form of puckered vinyl, a popped out windshield, or gouges in the dash. I had the most trouble refitting the dash vents and getting the nuts started, but once they get going, they tighten right down.
When you are finished, take a few minutes to sit back and admire your work. Not bad for a weekend project! It only cost about $40, a few pints of sweat, and a handful of gooey fingers, but you did it yourself and ended up with a dash that looks every bit as good as new.
I hope this will inspire at least one or two of you to try recovering your old, cracked dashes. It's not as difficult as it might seem to get professional results that will make you proud. But it helps not to know that such a thing is impossible--I didn't find out until after I finished, and I couldn't believe how well it turned out for something that couldn't be done.