Restoring a car is no easy task, but most of us who have done it before can agree on how rewarding it is as well as appreciate how much you learn throughout the process. Restoring a car gives society a chance to see a piece of history driving down the street; people may not know this, but a huge appreciation is owed to those who are willing to endure through a car restoration.
If you have decided to restore a car, then congratulations! You’re in for a great reward. However, it’s easy to get overwhelmed with the thought of restoring a car and wonder if you have enough knowledge to do it in the first place. If you have the means and the motivation to pursue such a project, then you are completely capable to doing it with a little help.
Because I have restored several cars, I’ve been able to come up with a list of helpful tips for everyone who is restoring a classic car. Though these tips are not car specific, they can apply to any type of car restoration you may be working on. If you read through these tips, I can guarantee that you will feel enlightened and may feel a bit more prepared.
1. Budget Time
The first thing you need to consider when restoring a car is how much time it’s going to take you. Projects like this always take longer than you expect. The amount of time it takes to restore a car depends a lot on how much money you have, how often you’re able to work on it, and your skill level.
You’ll also need to be considerate of other household members, especially your partner if you have one. A car restoration does require a lot of time and your partner may not appreciate that very much. Have an open conversation with other members in your household and express how much time is needed to complete the project and what they expect from you. While it’s definitely okay to take the time to restore a car, don’t let it consume you to the point that it takes too much time away from family and loved ones.
2. Budget Money
I understand that this is an obvious tip when it comes to restoring a car. But there’s a little more to it than just being mindful of your budget during such a project.
Whether or not you have a classic car in decent shape or an old rust bucket, it’s going to require money, more money than you expect. So before you go into a project like this, make sure you have the resources to fund it. Again, be open with your partner about how much money that will be required to finish your car restoration. Money is one of the top reasons couples get divorced, so don’t that that creep in the middle of you two.
Every time I do a car restoration, I make a budget for every month. I have an “x” amount of money I get to spend on my car restoration at the beginning of each month and it has worked wonders. Though it will take me a little longer to finish this way, I don’t stress about money and it’s a middle ground between me and my wife.
3. Network With Knowledgeable Friends
If you have any friends who are knowledgeable about cars, especially about the specific car you are restoring, it’s a good idea to keep in touch with them and let them know ahead of time what you’re planning on doing.
The world of car enthusiasts is a group of interesting people, in a good way. We love to talk about cars and some of us even enjoy working on them for free (but maybe offer a drink or two to them to compensate). Networking with knowledgeable friends like this can really provide some valuable insight as well as needed manpower to get your project done.
If you don’t have any friends like this, try joining a local car club. This will be a guarantee you’ll make a few friends that would be willing to help you out a little on your car restoration.
4. Find The Right Space To Work In
This car restoration tip is probably one of the most underestimated thoughts from people when they invest in a car restoration project. Restoring a car requires a lot more space than most people expect.
My current restoration project, a 1966 Ford Bronco, is currently taking up my whole garage (and I have a two car garage). Which means I’ve had to kick out my two daily drivers to the driveway temporarily until my project is finished.
What’s even more surprising is that a two car garage still doesn’t seem like enough space. As I take off old part and stack them in one corner, I’m collecting new parts that haven’t been installed yet and have them piled in another corner.
My point is, you’ll need a lot more space than you think you will. Obviously you can make any space you have work, but having the right amount of space you need to complete your project makes the process much smoother and clean.
5. Buy A Project That’s Running
If this is your first car restoration, I recommend you purchase a classic car that is already running. Sure, a non-running classic car could have as simple of a problem as a bad carburetor, but it could also mean a blown engine that needs to be replaced. Yes you will pay a little more purchasing a classic car that is already running, but you probably would spend that same difference on getting the car started plus all the hard work.
The exception to this tip is if you’ve done a classic car restoration before and/or you understand engines pretty well. If you’re in that category, then you could definitely save a lot of money buying a non-running classic car and fix it up yourself.
6. Assess Body Condition
If you’re in the market of buying a classic car to restore, one of the biggest components you should consider is the condition of the body. Body work is usually the most expensive fix on a car restoration.
The main things you should look for are rust and dents. Check in less obvious places for rust such as underneath the car, door hinges, floor panels, etc. Rusted through holes cannot be fixed and that part will need to be replaced.
I’m not necessarily saying rust and dents should turn you away, just understand and know exactly how much body work you’re going to need to have done once you purchase the classic car. If you’re experienced with body work, then rust and dents may not be a big deal to you.
7. Wait 24 Hours Before Buying
While you’re out and about looking for potential classic cars to purchase and restore yourself, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and let your emotions make the decisions for you.
A good rule of thumb to always follow is to wait 24 hours before buying a classic car after you’ve looked at it for the first time. Even if you’re 100% positive you’re going to buy it, still wait for a day so you can mull it over in your head.
The 24 hours will give you time to contemplate the needed fixes to complete the restoration. This will also give you time to add up an expense list so you can get a ball park of how much you’ll need to spend to restore it. I’ve made mistakes with purchases because my emotions got the better of me and I ended up regretting it later. Let yourself be sure you want to buy it before you actually buy the classic car.
8. Hang A Picture Of End Goal
Whether you had to buy a classic car to restore or you already had one ready to work on, get an idea of exactly what you want it to look like when you’re done.
Spend a few minutes on the internet (Pinterest is a great place to find ideas) to find some pictures of the end result you want your car restoration to look like. Once you find what you want, print it out and hang it somewhere you will see it every day. This will serve as motivation and a reminder to you that you have a beautiful machine that needs attending to.
9. Get The Shop Manual
If you don’t have the shop manual that goes specifically to your classic car, you’ll need to get one. You may be one of the lucky ones that still has the original one, but that’s not very common so it’s more likely you’ll need to find one on the internet.
Luckily, you can usually find these for free. Simply google the shop manual you’re looking for and you should be able to find a PDF somewhere or a member on a forum that’s giving theirs away from free.
Having a shop manual can give a lot of information that would normally require a lot of time doing research to find. It can give you specific part names, sizes, and other information that’s vital in restoring your classic car.
10. Buy All Needed Tools
You may hear some people suggest to only buy the tools you need when you need them. On the contrary, I’ve seen a lot of time saved when you have all the tools you need before you get into your car restoration.
You can spend a lot of time stopping in the middle of your project to go to the store to get a tool you need. While you will still be doing this throughout your car restoration, getting as many tools that you know you need all at once will save you a lot of time and trips to the store in the future.
Some tools you will need are a socket/ratchet and wrench set, tarps, ventilation mask, angle grinder, creeper, floor jack, and welder. Click here to see the specific tools I recommend.
11. Label Wires
Wiring and electrical components to any machine can be a little overwhelming when you have to deal with them yourself. You’re not alone, most people dread having to deal with electric wiring in their car restoration.
My tip to you is to always label wires using scotch tape and a marker, even if you think you’ll remember how to reassemble it. Car restorations always take longer than expected, so more time will pass and you won’t remember how to put the wiring back together. This will help ease some anxiety you may have about the wiring components.
12. Use Labeled Baggies For Small Parts
If tape and markers aren’t an option for labeling, use labeled baggies for small parts you have to take off such as bolts, hinges, nuts, etc. Again, you may think you’ll remember where those parts go, but you won’t when it comes time to put them back.
I had a friend who made the mistake of putting all of his nuts and bolts in a bucket during an engine rebuild. He ended up using the wrong bolt when he was putting stuff back together and ended up cracking the engine head.
Make it easier for yourself and label everything as much as you can. This will make the reassembling process so much easier and will save you a lot of time during your car restoration.
13. Removing The Body Isn’t Always Necessary
A lot of people assume that when you do a car restoration, that means you have to separate the body from the frame and restore each individually. This isn’t necessarily true.
A lot of this depends on the condition your classic car is in. If it’s in decent shape, you can actually get away with keeping the body on the frame and still manage to restore and treat both the body and the frame separately.
If the condition of your classic car is anything less than a little rough, that’s when you’ll need to separate the body and the frame and focus on each individually.
14. Treat The Frame
Whether or not you need to take the body off the frame, you’ll still need to treat the frame. Unfortunately the frame is something that’s highly susceptible to rust since it’s underneath the car. Attending to it will ensure a longer life-span for it which means less problems for you in the future.
Because frames are susceptible to rust, you’ll need to either pressure wash it or wirewheel the rust chunks off of it. You don’t need to necessarily get it down to bare metal, but you do need to get the majority of the surface rust off first to prevent it from spreading any more.
Once you’ve pressure washed or wire wheeled it (or both), it’s a good idea to coat it with POR-15. Not only does it give your frame a fresh new look, it also adheres to rust which prevents it from spreading while also providing a good protection from any other elements that could affect the frame itself.
15. Do Most Of The Sanding Yourself
Before I started on my 1966 Bronco restoration, I added into my budget to have the body sand blasted by a professional. I looked up the prices and found that it was going to be really expensive.
If you’re wanting to save some money, do the body sanding yourself. While it will take a lot longer than simply having it sand blasted, it is entirely possible to do it yourself and will save you a big chunk of money that you can spend elsewhere. Luckily we live in a day and age where you don’t actually have to take sand paper and sand with your hand. I use a polycarbide abrasive wheel attachment to my angle grinder and it works wonders.
Please note that this will make a huge mess in your work space. Cover anything that you don’t want paint dust to get on. Always where a heavy duty respirator so you don’t get sick from the dust.
16. Wait For Shipping Sales
Having the internet is a wonderful thing, especially when it comes to buying parts for a car restoration in the comfort of our own homes. You can search several different stores online and know you’re getting a good price for whatever you’re buying.
The biggest hangup with online shopping, though, is the price for shipping. If you’re buying something heavy, large, or awkward shaped, shipping can be very expensive. Sometimes the cost of shipping is more than the actual part you need to buy. Luckily there’s a way around this. Most online auto stores will have shipping sales, usually about every 2-3 months. Make a list of what you need to buy from that specific store and wait until the shipping sale happens. Then you can buy everything you need and an even bigger discount.
17. Use Promo Codes
Another great perk about the internet is that you can usually find discount coupons for almost any website. I never buy anything online until I’ve done a little research to see if there’s an additional discount I can get.
Before buying any part online for your car restoration, look for any promo codes. Promo codes are essentially online coupons that can be applied to your online purchase. All you need to do is google “[online part store name] promo codes” and you’ll be able to see a list of available discounts in the top search results.
Most online stores have promo codes for a 5% discount or free shipping which may seem insignificant, but it can add up if you end up using a lot of them. Click here to see other ways you can save on your car restoration.
18. Do One Project At A Time
When it comes to a car restoration, it’s very easy to get distracted by other projects while you’re working on another project. Sometimes you have to fix one thing in order to continue your work on another thing.
My tip to you is to make a to-do list every month. Make your to-do list in order of what needs to be done and stick with that order as best as you can. This will help you focus on one project at a time which will make it all seem a lot less overwhelming. Instead of saying “I have to get this whole thing sanded,” you can say “I just need to get this side panel sanded today.”
One step at a time will be a lot more doable. Don’t expect yourself to accomplish a huge fix in a small amount of time. A classic car restoration will take time and a lot of patience.
19. Be Considerate Of Neighbors
Unless you live out in the middle of nowhere and have no neighbors, this is a car restoration tip you absolutely need to adhere to. Restoring a car can get messy and it can get very loud while your sanding, grinding, and hammering on metal. It’s a necessary need during the process.
Your neighbors may not appreciate it as much. Your neighbors may also not love that you have an old or rough looking car in your driveway or garage with the garage door open. Car enthusiasts recognize it as beauty, other people see it as junk depsite how much you might like it.
Be considerate of neighbors and avoid awkward conversations by keeping your car restoration covered up when you’re not working on it, maintain a clean space, and work on it during normal hours (aka not at two in the morning).
20. Check Local Classifieds
During your car restoration, you’ll probably find yourself in a place where you need a very specific part but can’t seem to find it anywhere, including online. Or maybe the only place is from the car manufacturer but it will cost an arm and a leg to get it.
You’d actually be surprised at how many parts you can find on local classifieds specific to the car you are restoring. Such local classifieds may include Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or a website specific to your location.
I was able to find a very rare part I needed for the transmission on my ’66 Bronco from a local classifieds ad. Don’t automatically assume no one has anything you need because you just might get lucky and find exactly what you need from the classifieds.
21. Sell Old Parts
You’ll notice that as you get further into your car restoration, a nice pile of unwanted parts will be stacking up in the corner. Before you throw those out, look online and see if any of those parts are worth something. Again, you might be pleasantly surprised.
I was able to sell about $5,000 worth of stuff while I was restoring a 1968 Firebird. I never dreamed I would have gotten that much from parts I didn’t need any more, but I did. It was really nice having that extra five grand to go towards finishing that restoration. You’ll be surprised with what people find valuable in what you thought was junk.
22. Don’t Paint Yourself
While you’ll be getting the hang of doing a few things yourself on your car restoration, there are a few things that you simply should have a professional do. One of those things include painting your car restoration.
It’s tempting to watch some YouTube videos and think you can easily do it yourself if you set it up well in your garage. The truth is, painting a car does require a lot of practice and skill to get it right. Painting equipment is quite expensive anyway, so you might as well have a professional do it right.
I attempted to paint my own 1968 Chevy Pickup restoration myself and it didn’t work very well. I even rented a paint booth. I ended up paying a professional to do it. It’s good to do things yourself, but some things should be left to the professionals.
23. Clean Up As You Go
Studies have proven that people work more efficiently when their work space is organized and clean. Restoring a car can get very messy, especially if you don’t do an occasional clean up and organize.
Make it a goal every month to clean up your work space a little. Take some time to clean up some of your tools you’ve been using so they’re not completely coated in grease when you’re done. You will feel much more organized and become more productive if you’re working in a clean environment.
24. Make Little Goals
One key tip to restoring a classic car is making smaller, do-able goals. Expecting yourself to accomplish large goals in a small amount of time or with little funds is unrealistic and will only leave you frustrated.
As I mentioned before, make a list of goals or a to-do list every month. Be realistic about what you can accomplish during that month. There are a million little things you have to do with a car restoration, so start with what needs to be done first and work your way through your monthly lists.
There’s something about seeing a list with check marks by it that gives a strong sense of empowerment. This is an overwhelming project, so anything that can uplift you is worth a lot.
25. Take Pictures
There’s a lot of value to taking pictures during your car restoration. The first reason to take pictures is so you can look back and recognize the progress you’ve made. It’s really fun looking at pictures before you started versus where you’re at in your restoration progress and how much you’ve accomplished.
The second reason to take pictures is to help you remember where things go while you’re taking things apart. Having pictures to reference to will save a lot of time and frustration when you’re reassembling everything.
The third reason to take pictures during your car restoration is for you to place them in a photo album for others to see. If you plan on attending any car shows, spectators love seeing photo albums with pictures of the restoration you did yourself. There’s something about transforming a beautiful piece of history that people love.
When is the best time of year to buy a classic car? The best time of year to buy a classic car is during the winter months, mainly October through January. Sellers may not want to maintain it’s winter storage and because less people have the classic car itch during the winter, sellers are willing to sell for a lower price.
What cars are the easiest to restore? Many may argue about which cars are the easiest or best to restore, but time has shown that the early Mustangs, Camaros, and Chargers are the people’s choice with restoring. Most of this has to do with accessibility to parts as well as how inexpensive the parts are compared to other restorations.