Inside an Old-Timer's Toolbox - BodyShop Business

Inside an Old-Timer’s Toolbox

In the early days when a bodyman faced a repair problem, he couldn't just buy what he needed. He had to conceive a tool that would repair the problem- and then forge it himself.

The mystery surrounding construction of the Great Pyramid of Pharaoh Cheops has intrigued men for millennia. How could such a massive, intricate structure have been designed and erected 5,000 years ago – long before the invention of the level, surveyors transit, tractors and power rock-cutting saws? Even before horses were introduced into that part of the world?

The answer lies much closer to home than the architecture of space aliens, as some have speculated. This gargantuan undertaking was – as archaeology and aerial photography have lately proven – a great declaration to what men can do when faced with seemingly impossible challenges.

Early Hand Tools

Fast forward 5,000 years to the age of the village blacksmith, a.k.a. the “smithy.” This stalwart entrepreneur and craftsman was accustomed to hard work and could be found in nearly every village of past centuries.

Among other things, he’s the one who repaired disfigured horseless carriages in that early automotive era when no one else possessed the mechanical aptitude to know where to begin.

Our trade is deeply rooted in that respected blacksmith, who also fashioned nearly every metal utensil found in and around the typical household – from cherry pitters to colanders, garden tools to guns, and from repairing and sharpening plow shares to hammer welding any and every tool as the need arose.

And keeping early automobiles on the road and restoring their looks became the blacksmith’s path of choice in the new era of commercially mass-produced products.

Today’s collision repair technician or painter can purchase a wide range of tools to facilitate virtually any automotive repair circumstance. But some of us remaining in this industry have been around it long enough to remember an age when the right tool had yet to be invented, perfected and mass-produced.

When a repair problem faced the early bodyman, like the blacksmith, he had to mentally conceive a tool that would repair the problem and then fabricate it from metal plate, pipe or angle iron or from the scrap pile behind his shop.

As recently as 20-some years ago, I remember thinking how much less cleanup I’d have if I could sandblast small rusted spots without blanketing the whole shop in silica – and eyeing my wife’s little round vacuum cleaner attachment with the bristles.

I envisioned drilling a hole in the top of that attachment, inserting my sandblaster nozzle through the hole and being able to blast a confined area and vacuum the sand away at the same time. Though I knew my mental invention would work well, pulling this off without risking the wrath of an otherwise perfectly amiable wife deterred me. But someone else soon marketed that identical idea, and I bought it from him.

Back in the old days, there was no Internet, no jobbers, no catalogs and no tool trucks. If you needed some sort of tool, you made it. Such tools were a combination of inventiveness, creativeness and sheer determination. Let’s take a closer look at a few of them …

Early Body Shop Anchoring & Pulling Methods
Recalling his body shop experiences in the late ’30s, the grandfather of a present-day Seattle-area shop owner Jeff Butler – of Haury’s Lake City Collision Service – related a typical method of anchoring vehicles for frame and structural pulling at a time when the only other alternative was a sturdy tree and a length of chain.

“We’d straddle the car over an unoccupied stretch of railroad siding track, install wood blocking between the train rails and car frame rails, cinch it down snug with chain-binders and pull the damage using a ‘coffin hoist’ or a ‘chain fall’ from further up or down the rails.”

Some industrious shop owners even installed train rails or I-beams in their shop floors long before the invention of the frame rack or dedicated bench.

Bill Brewer – a friend and retired former employee of mine, whose body shop experience began in the mid-’40s – tells of working in shops where two metal vertical poles were cemented into the ground (like two trees) – one permanently, the other removable. When pulling was required, the one pole was removed, the vehicle was positioned between and the removable pole was reinserted, providing anchoring for high to low pulls on both ends of the vehicle – a prototype for the multi-pull, drive-on benches we use today.

Brewer also tells of man-handling heavy, bulky hydraulic rams that would push 20 tons and pull 10, all in the same ram. “Snatch-blocks,”borrowed from the logging industry, and down-pulling attachments outmoded pulling rams, but they definitely served a purpose in our past.

Another friend whose career in this industry started in 1943 in his father’s shop, Bob Amy of Auto Body Specialists of Portland, Ore., supplied much of the information and pictures for this article. Amy says that before hydraulic equipment was common, screw-jacks were commonly employed in pulling out damaged panels and parts. The Model T Ford “screw jack”(which Henry Ford had invented for changing tires) was also commonly used for this purpose.

“We’d arc weld pipe fittings on the ends of Model T jacks, screw in pipes with whatever configuration of fitting would accomplish our end and crank away,”says Amy, pointing out that the first Kansas Jack pulling tool was a hand-cranked, screw-type jack.

Somewhere along the line, portability became important for frame and structural pulling equipment. To meet the challenge, varied configurations of the basic “damage dozer”were fabricated in shops, and eventually, purchased from tool manufacturers who were beginning to realize the profitability in manufacturing tools for the autobody trade.

Thirty-plus years ago, I – like many others – welded up my own damage dozer from a fairly unsophisticated variety of heavy scrap metal parts. Advantages of the basic damage dozer, relative to previous heavy pulling equipment, included its portability, the ease of anchoring it to frame vehicles, its ability to make quick, multiple pulls (albeit one at a time) and its ease of disassembly for limited-space storage.

But with all the advantages the stand-alone damage dozer provided, it pretty much went the way of so many other great shop inventions when unibody vehicles replaced ladder frames. Even when pinchweld anchoring clamps were introduced and used with it, the damage dozer did more damage on unibodies than it was worth.

Manufacturers soon produced Quadra-Clamp-type economical pinchweld clamping systems for unibodies, but these were only a stop-gap measure and soon joined thousands of damage dozers collecting dust against shop walls.

Today’s dedicated-bench/drive-on frame rack with full anchoring, multi-pulling and complete measuring capabilities is a compilation of the best of many incremental improvements invented by bodymen throughout the previous decades and, as such, represents the most recent twist in the quest to straighten metal better, faster and more efficiently.

Interestingly, hanging gauges and tram gauges – the only measuring and gauging tools besides the tape measure for most of the past century – still come as standard backup equipment on some of today’s frame machines.

Early Hand Tools
Hammers have been around since before the Ark. But as methods of carbon-enriching steel were developed before and during the age of the auto, good tool steel for body hammers, dollies and other tool construction became fairly common.

Body and fender reworking required an acquired touch and a well-balanced hammer to massage out dents without creating more damage in the comparatively hard, heavier-grade metals of early automobile construction. This metal would put off a distinctive “ring”when caught between a good quality pecking hammer and dolly.

As many have reminded us, the automotive sheet metal in modern vehicles is softer and of thinner gauge than in years past and “is made for plastic fillers” to efficiently “cover a multitude of sins.” But before plastic filler products were invented (soon after the end of World War II and for years thereafter until their dependability was perfected), dents were worked out with a variety of contoured hammers. They were finished with a pecking hammer, dolly and the “Vixen” file to locate remaining low spots to “peck” out.

Excessively damaged metal and welded seams were time consuming to repair. They had to be leaded, re-shaped with a Vixen file and sanded to contour – a common, yet expensive, procedure, even in that day when labor was relatively inexpensive.

Many sizes, shapes, weights and balances of body hammers and dollies have been invented, as their need arose – many of these modified by bodymen to perform certain tasks. For example, the many sizes and configurations of the flat-bladed “duckbill” hammer were invented to access tight areas, such as damaged drip rails and sharp creases.

Many a “bastard file,” originally manufactured for woodworking and hose-hoofing, was heated and offset-bent in the middle to make a “slapping file” or “slapper.” When properly used, this allowed the bodyman to control and flatten fairly large sheet metal surfaces without stretching the metal. (The teeth of the file dug slightly into the metal to keep it from growing/stretching).

It wasn’t long before bodymen were welding hammer-head-sized sections of bastard file on ball-peen hammers – the birth of the shrinking hammer still found in many toolboxes today. Dollies of every imaginable shape and size also were invented as needed to form to the increasingly complicated shapes of automotive panels.

Bodymen also displayed their innovative nature in the production of not-so-typical early body tools. In an era when “pecking and filing” out dents was a skill that not all bodymen were able to master well, one tool invented for single-panel repairing – the “bulls-eye peck” (nicknamed the “Lady Delight”) – was purported to make it easier for bodymen to “peck” in exactly the spot desired (see No. 6 in photos).

The metal “hole” end of this tool was placed over the roughed-out body portion needing peck-and-file attention. With a quick squeeze of the hand, the pecking hammer-type head hinged to the unit was automatically guided to the back side of the metal within the “hole.” At least that was the theory. But double-paneled sheet metal eliminated the accessibility this tool required.

A similar but much heavier-duty pneumatic “air hammer panel shaper” (see No. 8 in photos) came with several large arms, allowing access to a number of single-panel repairs recesses. On one end, one of several dolly head configurations was attached; on the other end was another dolly that vibrated from an air hammer head, flattening whatever got between the dollies.

In the final analysis though, I could usually hammer and dolly out an area faster than the time needed to set this tool up and operate it – and with far fewer blood blisters (wearing gloves was not an option with this tool)!

Inventive bodymen also ground used hacksaw blades into various fishhook shapes for removing interior panel clips, etc. Today’s manufactured tools for the same purposes vary little from those handmade tools of decades past. Today’s “Slim Jim,” used to unlock doors, is an extended version of this early, basic tool invented by early bodymen.

Refinishing Booths & Equipment
Though various configurations of paint booths have been available for many years, few had the luxury of a separate room dedicated to refinishing (with the exception of production refinishing shops). Most early shops weren’t originally designed and constructed for body repair, weren’t well-lit and definitely weren’t spacious – which isn’t to imply that they weren’t productive for their time.

In the first shop where he worked – during the mid-’40s in St. Louis, Mo. – Bill Brewer worked as a “gang painter” (when two painters refinished the same car at the same time).

“This shop specialized in medium-quality complete vehicle refinishing for $49.95 including labor and materials, which wasn’t the cheapest auto refinishing around at the time,” says Brewer. “The materials alone amounted to only around $8, and between us, we’d paint eight completes each day – one each hour.

“It was a good place to work, though we weren’t issued coveralls and the only lung protection we had was a commercially made narrow strip of aluminum, perforated with holes, that sandwiched a cotton liner between it and the face.

“Sometimes, for extra protection, we’d double up on the cotton liners, but the fumes were still potent. Our booth was of cinderblock construction with furnace heat ducted through furnace filters at one end.”

Thirty years ago, I was repairing and refinishing vehicles in the same room, exhausting dust and paint fumes through a 12-inch square fan and praying it wouldn’t rain since the roof leaked in more places than it didn’t. My “shop” didn’t have any partitioned-off room dedicated strictly to refinishing the cars I repaired. Too many times, I spent the following day removing water-damaged fresh paint and re-refinishing the whole vehicle for lack of a watertight, contaminant-free refinishing area.

My first “paint booth” was a studded-off portion of concrete floor with sheetrock covering its inside, an insufficiently small squirrel-cage fan for exhausting fumes and several furnace filters for intake air. We’d all laugh to see it now, but at the time, it was typical – even better than typical, considering that many shops were still painting cars in the work area, some with dirt floors. (I’ve been told of a hole-in-the-wall shop 25 miles from my shop that still has a dirt floor and no booth at all – and I’m told they do some insurance work!)

Necessity Is the Mother of Invention
Starting out in body work in an era when housewives had to kneed yellow coloring into otherwise white margarine, Brewer worked at shops that were still buying grinding disc blanks, spreading them with glue and sprinkling grinding grit on these each night so they’d be dried and ready to use the following day.

It’s a historical fact that necessity has always been the motivation behind invention. It’s also a historical fact that the collision repair industry, possibly above all others, has attracted some of the greatest inventive minds of all time.

“Possessing the ingenuity to repair something terribly disfigured and destroyed – without making it worse and without having to throw lots of new parts at it – is what has set this industry apart from so many others,” says Amy.

Today, many engineers and machinists are regularly employed in the invention and manufacture of virtually every tool imaginable in the collision trade. And, for the sake of economics, today’s collision repair specialists are often more adept at replacing parts and panels than repairing them. But with the ever-changing challenges of new automotive construction materials – a much greater array of variables than our predecessors ever had to deal with – there’ s no shortage of places for today’s collision repair technician to exercise innovative talents.

Writer Dick Strom and wife Bobbi own and operate Modern Collision Rebuild, a 10,000-square-foot shop, in Bainbridge Island, Wash.

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