Interior panels Part 1 – Cutting – driver side wall panel

Since Moby first settled into the garage, I kept finding myself staring at these two ugly speaker holes cut by a PO (see below). There are plenty of blemishes on this bus (it is a 40 year-old vehicle after all), but these holes really bugged me.  Perhaps it was because they were constantly in my vision and, literally, hovering over my head, or it may have been the constant rain of tiny particles of fiberglass insulation.  No matter the reason, I set my sights on replacing the front ceiling panel.

Several attempts at finding a replacement panel from donor buses failed due to the fact that these buses are not the driest places around, and the panels are very susceptible to water damage.  I even thought about finding speakers that might hide the holes, but in the end, I really did not want a speaker hanging over my head either.  So I lived with these two holes, waiting for a replacement to rise up from the multitude of online VW classifieds or show vendors.  That is until this past winter!

Last fall after growing tired of waiting, I decided to forge ahead and make a new ceiling panel that mimicked, to the best of my ability, the original.  A simple plan really; one panel, one piece of plywood, and maybe a couple of days.  Oh, how wrong I was!  One panel became ALL panels, one piece of plywood became five, and a couple of days…?  Well in my defense on the last, I did spend an inordinate amount of time hunting down the perfect replica wood finish recipe I could find or create, but more on that failure in a future post.  All said and done, this project was completely worth the time and effort. Combined with the new curtains, she’s a new bus inside and a fantastically beautiful habitat in which to wake up.  With the interior cabinetry removed over the winter, it was the perfect time to get all this done.

The original panels are 3mm thick plywood and can be replaced with a number of materials, such as luan, masonite, ABS pastic, etc…  However, if you want an original looking panel, 1/8-inch baltic birch plywood is the best option.  Lumber supply stores catering to wood craftsmen generally carry baltic birch in 5×5-foot sheets at reasonable prices.  Mail-order is also an option, though shipping gets a bit pricey, but I strongly recommend seeing before buying as to insure the best grain patterns and fewest blemishes.  5×5’ sheets are an adequate size for all but one bus panel, the driver side wall panel found under the side window behind the folding table.  For this 5 ½-foot panel, a 4×8-foot plywood sheet is required.  Unfortunately, as far as I could find, baltic birch is not manufactured/imported in this size and I ended up using a 4×8’ sheet of 1/8-inch regular birch plywood.

Plywood quantities: Three 5×5’ sheets of 1/8-inch baltic birch are needed.  The first 5×5 sheet will provide: front ceiling panel, side ceiling (1 of 2; these panels run along the pop top opening), and panel strip behind the spare tire.  Second sheet:  rear ceiling, side ceiling (2 of 2), strip between the sliding door and sink, and strip behind the closet.  Third: sliding door, rear hatch, and the panel behind the closet

One 4×8’ sheet of 1/8-inch birch plywood is needed for driver side wall panel.

Because the large 4×8 piece of plywood took up too much space in the garage, the driver side wall panel was first up on the cutting block.

(FYI: I did not make the two panels that go behind the closet as Moby’s were in very nice shape).

Panel thread

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A big surface is required for working these huge sheets of plywood. I found a 4×8′ piece of 3/4-inch thick ply, two saw horses, and some sunny weather worked well. Whatever is used for a working working surface, be sure to use something you do not mind damaging.  Several clamps hold the 1/8-inch ply to the “table” in this photo.

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Having old panels to use as templates makes this project pretty straight forward otherwise, a lot of measuring and fitting is required. The very first step is choosing the best grain/surface for each panel. I found the side with the nicest grain pattern and fewest blemishes for each panel and used a pencil to mark the opposite side.  I then laid out the panels (see above) on the new sheets while keeping an eye on grain direction (extremely important for the ceiling panels) and quality. If there were blemishes, I tried to position them in a section of panel that will be cut out, rarely seen, or hidden when installed. In the case of the 4×8 sheet, there was only one workable side and, unfortunately, the grain was opposite in direction to the OG panel grain (but only the careful observers will notice after installation).

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The OG panels were slightly warped, and, since it is critical that the templates not move, I attached the panel to the working sheet with clamps.  To flatten out other areas where clamps did not work very well, I used heavy objects.

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This step is optional. Using a very sharp pencil, I traced the dimensions of the panel on the working ply. Do not forget to trace all the cutouts (ashtray, dome lights, etc…). I did this for two reasons: one, to have a reference if the template moved, and two, the pencil line served as a secondary guide during later cutting. Here you can see the perpendicular grain patterns between original and replacement plywood.

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Plywood is highly prone to splintering when cut with a saw and I came across plenty of methods to reduce the problem. The most common of these is taping the the line before cutting, but, through past experience, I found that this method only limits the degree of splintering and does not eradicate the issue. After experimenting a bit, I found the most effective solution is making a preliminary cut with a utility knife.   With a fresh, sharp blade, the knife is adequate to cut the entire panel out of the very thin ply and produces the best results, but this takes a long time and is very difficult to control on curves and corners. Around each template, I scored the wood three times while pressing fairly hard on the knife in order to cut through the top laminate and about halfway through the middle layer; effectively eliminated splintering when using the cutting tool.

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All the cutouts (rear ashtray here) also received the same pencil/knife treatment.

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With the panel outlined and scored with the utility knife and the template still in place, it was time to drill all necessary screw holes. Press down firmly so the new plywood is well sandwiched between the template and the work surface. If there are any gaps between the sheets of plywood, the risk of splintering increases. Drill using light pressure until the bit drills a tiny bit into the work surface.  This insures the hole is completely drilled through. For the folding table bracket (above) and table catch screw holes, I used a 1/8-inch drill bit.  The electrical box and smaller retaining screws that hold the panel in the bus received a 7/64-inch bit.

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Template removed, traced/scored panel revealed.

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Close-up shot. Time for cutting!   I kept the cutting blade close to the outside (scrap side) of the razor score, i.e. opposite side of the razor score from the finished panel, while cutting along the middle of the razor line. In the above photo, I cut along the the bottom of the line.  If the blade crosses the razor cut, the new panel will splinter.

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Many tools seem to work well for different people. The key is using a very fine-toothed blade.  For this panel, I started out using a oscillating dremel (not the rotary version) and was very happy with the results. After this panel, I switched to a reciprocating saw because it was a bit faster and provided more control for curves and cutouts.  The new panel is on the right; note the blade is running along the razor line and not cutting the top veneer.

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The first cut was not the best in the world, but this is one of those projects where improvement comes with progress. By the time I was done, I could cut a straight and true edge in no time!  But do not worry if the edges are not perfect, almost all of them are hidden after installation.  Be patient, take your time; there is no need to hurry this task.

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It is not a labor of love until you bleed.

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I wish I took a picture before I cutout the holes for the electrical hook up and ashtray. This photo displays the scrap cutout from the ashtray and the four 25/64-inch starter holes drilled as close to the razor score as possible in each corner (for some reason I placed it upside down presenting the crappy backside). These holes (size determined by the saw blade used) make it easier to corner with the saw as well as providing space in which to insert the blade prior to cutting.

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A file came in handy for smoothing the corners and straightening the edges. A power sander with 80 or 120-grit sandpaper worked well for the outside perimeter.

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All done. New panel above old.  Terrible sun reflection on the old one.

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5 thoughts on “Interior panels Part 1 – Cutting – driver side wall panel

  1. Pingback: Interior panels Part 2 – Cutting – Rear ceiling, side ceiling, and rear strip panels | Zero to Sixty . . .Eventually

  2. I have some panels I need to cut for my Sundial camper…thanks for the tips on utility knife and scoring it first…before cutting

    • Glad you found these posts helpful! Scoring made a big difference, the difficult part if keeping the saw blade on the scrap side of the score. Hope you have fun with the project., What year Sundial?

      • 1967 Sundial. L87 Pearl White. Sat for 20+ years and still had over 175K miles on it. Seller said I have an old engine, you want it ? No engine number on it, therefore a factory replacement motor.

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