Steering wheel hack

07 dec 2020

I've been running a stock steering wheel since I built the car, and it's awful. All of the plastic broke off the spokes when I tried to clean it in 2010. Though dismayed, I pressed on mainly because the car at that time was a unibody up on jackstands and I figured I had more pressing work.

Ten years later I decided I finally needed to do somthing because the ancient plastic continues to melt in my hands as I drive. It is dissolving and shrinking, hands get visibly blacked on a run to the store and on a long two-day event it looks like I just crawled out from under the car.

The wheel is 17" across and 6" deep, and like everything else, unique to this chassis. Also I just like a large wheel, and most aftermarket wheels are small diameter for no good reason I can discern. Also it being the 2020 pandemic winter during which we do long slow tedious projects ("lowered expectations") I figured this was a good time to get around to it.

Even new, the wheel rim wasn't great. It's very skinny, and not round in cross section with a concave groove, but otherwise it's overall geometry was fine.

The hack -- so-called because this isn't a restoration, nor replacement, and it's not all that pretty -- was to build out the stylied shape with PC7, a very thick putty epoxy, then wind JB Weld-impregnated soft cotton string around the entire rim to build it out fatter, and hide most of the imperfections from the repair/reshape.

The first issue was to clean it. I used purple garage floor cleaner, a nasty excellent degreaser and a moderate scotchbrite bad. That grey foam is not dirt, it's the plastic itself, repeated washings do not improve. A wee bit past the end of it's design life...

I thought about this method to build out to round for sometime before I tried it. Worked first time and was easy: I created a circular trowel from a scrap of plexiglass with a hole saw, troweled on PC7, let it cure 24 hours. After curing I roughed it out with a flexible body sander and 80 grit (not shown).

The first photo shows the basic process. The second process shows the wet string completely wound. Yes, it would be illuminating to see a few in-between steps, but this was impossible, as my gloved hands were covered in sticky epoxy, flatly impossible to operate the phone camera.

I had this idea of passing the twine ball with one hand through the rim, coating the string with epoxy with the other. That fantasy lasted a good 30 seconds as everything just stuck to my hand in a hopeless tangle. What did work was to embrace the chaos. I mixed up a batch of JB Weld on an old IBM card (lol), wound 20 or so feet of string on my fingers, then slapped the JB Weld onto the same fingers, and simply mashed it into a sticky mess. The string, started on the rim and laid out carefully tightly, was fed through my fingertips, saturating the string but wiping excess, and the epoxy acted as a lubricant, allowing the string to pay out of the tangled wad. I only had to stop a couple of times to untangle a would-be knot.

Each hank of sticky string start overlapped the previous end. When complete I mixed up some more JB Weld and coated it smoothly (not shown here)

The point of this pass was diameter build up. I intentionally used soft cotton string so that if ends became exposed, as they did a couple of times sanding, they would be soft, fine enough to get lost in the next coat of epoxy. The string was for consistent building, not texture or strength.

The string is visible here, epoxy cured. Sanding was easier than expected, using the big body sander and 80 grit. I applied a second coat after sanding revealed low spots and voids. That sanded easily. I did not do a third pass.