How to Repair Fiberglass Body Panels
Fiberglass is a fickle mistress. While amazing things can be created using a little bit of resin and fiberglass strands, it remains in a constant state of hardening. Sure, once the initial cure is completed, this process slows down significantly, over time the resin gets brittle. In the automotive environment, this means cracks, breaks and splits in the body of your Corvette. Add to that some of the more “adventurous” owners of many of these cars, sometimes you have to fix stuff that you never thought you would. Take for instance the 1967 Corvette convertible we have here. In the 1970s, this was a cool show car with a deep purple metal flake paint job and an 8-71 blower hanging out of the hood.
Surveying The Damage
Throughout this car’s life, there have been some bumps and scrapes which have caused some damage to the body. One of the worst was a split under the rear deck on the rear firewall between the gas tank and the interior of the car. A previous owner had attempted a repair, which we were able to remove with just the twist of a screwdriver. This needed to be fixed the right way. We also wanted to repair the original stinger hood that had been modded with a giant hole for the blower.
Repairing A Fiberglass Crack
There are several factors that go into making a good repair. The key is locking the new material to the old. While cleanliness is paramount, that is only half of the equation. Even with the surface clean and prepped, a mechanical bond is needed to secure the actual repair. This is best done by drilling a series of holes around the perimeter of the repair to lock it in.
You don’t need any special tools to mix fiberglass resin, but you do need to know how to mix it. Polyester resin is a 2-part substrate that when properly mixed yields a work time of about 15 minutes. The hardener, MEKP (Methyl Ethyl Ketone Peroxide), is added in very small amounts compared to the resin base. Mixing small batches typically means counting drops from a bottle. There is a proper ratio based on room temperature of 76 degrees. The mixture is exothermic, which means it puts off heat as it cures. When the ambient temp rises or falls from that point, hardener is either reduced or added to ensure a proper cure. Too much hardener makes the resin brittle and it kicks too fast, not enough and it might not kick at all. Resin age is important as well. Fiberglass resin (the base) has a shelf life of about 6 months. It can be used beyond that, but more hardener is required.
Only mix what you can use in about 15 minutes. When left in the mixing cup, the exothermic nature will speed up the curing process, rendering your mix into a solid block very quickly. On the car, when it is spread out, this can take an hour. A ratio of 2% hardener to resin is ideal, with 1% being a slow cure for hot days and 3% being fast for cold days. Don’t go outside of this ratio if you want a quality repair. Measuring by weight, 100g of resin would need 1ml of hardener. If you are mixing large amounts of resin, a syringe is advisable for measuring the hardener. For reference, 1 teaspoon equals 5ml.
The type of fiberglass mat you need for your repair makes a difference as well. There are several types of matting available, the most common being woven, chop mat, and loose fibers, all available in different weights. Chop mat, which has no pattern, is just a series of 1-2 inch long strands that have been pressed together into sheets. This is the strongest type of mat, but it does not lay down very smooth and it can come apart easily. This is good for large, flat areas where strength is needed. Woven mat is excellent for a top layer over chop mat for a uniform finish and heavy curves. Loose strands are best for building up a backing area, filling voids and for mixing your own reinforced body filler (think Duraglas® or “kitty hair”). For these repairs shown here, both woven and chop mat were used. The weights of the material have to do with the intended use. For automotive body repairs, the typical mid-weight mats available in any NAPA Auto Parts Store are perfect. If you are building your own body panels, then you will want to do more research.
Repairing A Fiberglass Hole
Finishing the repairs are just like any other fiberglass body work project. Sanding the repair smooth and then using a body filler and high-build primer to finish it. One extra step should be taken, which is to use a sprayable polyester primer. This seals the fiberglass much like a gel coat for a factory-perfect finish.
The process shown here can be used for any type of fiberglass structure, including boats, RVs and campers, even shelters. The key to a good repair is clean preparation, patience, and good quality components such as 3M resins and matting.
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