Steering wheels are made from a wide variety of materials. Whether they’re plastic, chrome, leather, or a combination of these, they often show signs of wear and tear over time that detract from their visual appeal.
Obtaining a new steering wheel can be expensive. Instead, it makes sense to restore the old one yourself.
1. Remove the Old Covering
Even worn or peeling steering wheels can look great with a little work. Whether made from wood, plastics, or a composite material, they can still be attractive and provide a nice touch to your classic car interior. It’s also not a difficult restoration project to undertake if you follow the steps below.
If your steering wheel is wood, the first step is to sand it with fine-grit sandpaper to smooth it down. You’ll also want to remove any pits or cracks that are present in the wood. After sanding, clean the surface with a degreaser and let it dry. You may want to add some wood polish for the best results. If the steering wheel is plastic, you should use Super Prep plastic cleaner and apply some Plastic Magic adhesion promoter.
Once the surface is clean, it’s time to start restoring the wheel’s appearance. This is not a quick process, but it’s one of the most important things you can do to improve your steering wheel.
Start by removing the old cover. Generally, this is done by hitting the cover with a hammer and pulling it off. You may have to hit your steering wheel harder to get the cover loose if your steering wheel is older. If you have trouble getting the cover off, try some penetrating oil.
If a pin holds on your steering wheel pushed through the hub, you may need to drill out the pin before using a puller. Once the pin is removed, you can then slide the wheel off the spline. To re-install the wheel, you should make sure it’s dead straight on the spline, or you’ll have a crooked steering wheel every time you drive.
2. Clean the Surface
Steering wheels are made out of a variety of materials. It is important to know what kind of material your wheel is before you begin cleaning it, as different types require different cleaning methods.
If the steering wheel is made of natural leather, you must use a special leather cleaner product and a soft brush to clean it. You should also be careful not to use too much water, or you may damage the leather and stitching. If the steering wheel is made of plastic or resin, you can usually use a regular spray cleaner and a microfiber cloth.
The first step in cleaning the wheel is to remove any loose dirt and debris. You should then wipe the surface of the wheel with a clean cloth or towel and some mild liquid soap. Once you are done, wipe the wheel with a dry towel to ensure it is completely dry.
Once the steering wheel is clean, you can use a leather dye to restore its color. It is important to apply the dye in thin coats and let it dry between applications. You should also test the dye in an inconspicuous area to ensure that it will not discolor or damage the wheel.
If there are any cracks in the wheel, you can repair them with body filler. This will help to keep the steering wheel from becoming too rounded, and it will also give it a smoother appearance. If the cracks are very deep, you will need to use a heavy-duty filler and sand it until it is smooth before re-dying it. If the cracks are very fine, you can use a thinner filler such as epoxy putty or POR-15 2K Urethane.
3. Repair Cracks
Steering wheels have been made from a wide variety of materials in the past – from hard plastic to wood, chrome, and leather. Some have different materials on a metal core, and special procedures are often required for these.
Even without cracks, old steering wheels can look worn and tired. But, with some do-it-yourself spirit and the right products, a vintage truck owner can restore a steering wheel to its original condition.
For a plastic steering wheel, first, clean the surface with Polyvance’s Super Prep plastic cleaner (wear gloves for this step). Then, mix the PlastiFix liquid and powder according to the instructions on the label. Apply a thin coat of the mixture to each of the cracks in the wheel. Use a needle to get the mixture into narrow cracks. Fill in all of the voids and cracks that you can see – later, you will be able to find the ones you missed.
After the epoxy filler has cured, you can file and sand it to match the wheel’s existing black rubber. For large areas of missing covering, you can trowel or brush more filler to build up the area. Then, after it has cured again, you can apply a few coats of urethane varnish or paint. When done, your restored steering wheel will be as good as new and ready for the road. The same method can also be used for metal or composite steering wheels, but it may take more effort to sand the paint down and remove any pitting in the surface. A metal steering wheel can be re-finished with POR-15 Top Coat or 2K Urethane, but it is best to wait until the cracks in the steering wheel have been repaired.
4. Prime the Surface
The next step is to add some moisture by applying a good linseed oil coating to the steering wheel’s surface. This will help smooth out any rough areas and prepare the leather for the filler to be added in the next step.
Once the linseed oil has had time to soak into the surface of the steering wheel, it is a good idea to wipe down the entire surface once again. This will remove any flakes or other debris that may have fallen off during the previous steps and can disrupt the final result.
If the steering wheel looks pretty good and only has a few small areas to fill, you can start working with leather filler. Apply a small amount to these areas and then work them in with your fingertips to really pack them down. This will provide a nice, even surface for the rest of the wheel to be covered with and will also help close any cracks that may have appeared.
This process takes a lot of patience but can be done relatively easily with the right materials and tools. You will need to thoroughly protect any other components or surfaces that can be affected by the chemicals used during this process. Covering them will prevent damage, staining or discoloration.
Depending on the condition of your steering wheel, you will need to decide whether it needs to be totally restored or just touched up with new paint. If the old wheel is in very bad shape, you might want to look into a professional restoration. They specialize in bringing these wheels back from the brink of death and can give you a Concours quality wheel at a fraction of the cost of purchasing a new one.
5. Paint the Surface
A good paint job can make a tired steering wheel look like new. Before you start painting, you need to make sure that the steering wheel is completely clean and free of any dust or debris. You can use a vacuum cleaner or a damp cloth to wipe it down, and pay special attention to any nooks and crannies where dirt may be hiding. Then, you should let the steering wheel dry thoroughly before beginning the spray-painting process.
If the wheel has cracks in it, good sanding is needed to smooth it out and make the surface even. This can be a tricky task, as it requires an artisan who can navigate the curves and contours of the wheel to preserve its shape while making the surface smooth enough for the upcoming clear coat.
Wooden wheels are even more complicated, as the artisan must also work with a material that is notorious for staining and discoloring. In these cases, a rubbing alcohol pad and some shoe polish can help to make the leather flexible again and less susceptible to staining and discoloring.
Once the wheel is sanded and cleaned, an adhesion promoter must be applied to the surface. This special product helps the paint stick to the wheel so that it won’t just slide off. It is available in both sponge and spray forms and can be used on plastic/vinyl steering wheels or leather.
The worn-out, dirty appearance of a classic truck steering wheel can detract from the vehicle’s beauty. While sending the wheel off for a professional restoration is possible, this option can be expensive. Fortunately, with a little bit of time and effort, the steering wheel can be restored to its original condition at home.