• RESTORING A VINTAGE BLUEMEL STEERING WHEEL

    RESTORING A VINTAGE BLUEMEL STEERING WHEEL

    Standard Triumph like many other LBC manufacturers utilized steering wheels manufactured by Bluemel Brothers Ltd. of Wolston, Coventry.

    Bluemels of Wolston
    A factory was built in 1898 by Joseph Cash of Coventry on a smallholding to produce filaments for electric light bulbs from artificial silk but production ceased after only two years and the three Bluemel brothers purchased the works in 1902 and moved their successful business manufacturing umbrellas and walking sticks from Stepney. They expanded their product range to cater for Coventry’s fast developing cycle and motor industry with a range of celluloid parts including mudguards, chain guards, handles and tire pumps. From a small start the workforce had grown to some 200 at the time of the last Bluemel’s death in 1938. Wartime production of small engineering components saw numbers rise to a peak of 800 and in 1949 Bluemels introduced steering wheels made from Bakelite® as a new product range. Sadly, the business underwent a series of takeovers in the 1960s and 70s and after making its highest profits of some £2 million in 1977 it went into receivership in 1985 blaming a lack of markets. The land subsequently became a 40-unit business park which in 2004 became a housing development.



    Attachment 59589
    Where is Wolston


    Attachment 59590
    Triumph offered two steering wheels for the side screen cars, TR2 through TR3B, a standard fixed wheel and an adjustable wheel. The rim of these wheels consisted of a steel hoop upon which was molded a black Bakelite® grip. When you consider the general age of these cars, it is not difficult to understand that most of these wheels deteriorated over time and needed to be replaced or restored. The photo to the left shows the standard steering wheel, as supplied in Don Elliotts beautiful 1958, TR3A (TRusty).


    Attachment 59592




    Adjustable Steering Wheel











    These Steering Wheels were made of Bakelite®.

    Bakelite®, named after Baekeland, its Belgian inventor, has been described as one of the most gorgeously tactile materials ever made; it is hard and glossy yet capable of being molded. It's clear that Bakelite® was made in several different grades; that used around 1950 for interior components of motor cars (dashboards and steering wheels) seems to age and discolor very little. Many artifacts made of Bakelite®, including steering wheels, distributor caps, knobs, etc; seem to lose their gloss and end up brown and porous. It doesn't seem to have anything to do with the age of the item, so why does this happen and what can be done about it? First, let's look into the technology. Bakelite® is a thermoset plastic, that is a plastic which starts out molten as a liquid but once solidified, does not revert to its liquid state when heated. In crude terms it consists of a resin (which has the glossy appearance) plus a bulk filler material, usually wood-flour. The shiny surface you see and admire is the top layer of resin, but this is often very thin. Once rubbed away through atmospheric action, over-enthusiastic polishing or by cooking in the sun's rays, it is lost, and nothing will bring it back. You are then left with a pitted mixture of resin and wood flour, being very fine sawdust, which is not a particularly glossy material. It is this wood flour that looks brown and porous once exposed.

    Cleaning should precede any physical restoration of plastic moldings. De-grease first, if necessary, with methylated spirits and a hard cloth. The restoration techniques you use will depend on whether the top layer of resin is intact. Let's assume first that it is. Bakelite® and other plastics which are only lightly soiled should be cleaned with polishing compound, a mild abrasive, which is extremely effective. It will remove any film and leave a smooth, glossy surface.

    The paste should be rubbed on with a hard cloth, then removed and buffed up with a soft cloth. If the surface is already rough and porous the technique described above will not help. The remedy is to cut away the discolored layer with a cloth wheel and grinding paste if you have a buffing machine. Otherwise use an abrasive polish. Then let this dry, wipe off the residue and inspect the bare material exposed. If it has retained its pigment, polishing with a good liquid wax polish will suffice. This needs to be repeated every twelve months. If the bare material is discolored, you need to add new pigment. For black there is an intense black stain in car accessory shops called Back to Black. Otherwise you can use shoe polish (work it well into the pores of the Bakelite®) and buff it off several hours later. Several applications may be required. Then finish off with liquid wax polish. There are some people who prefer to avoid the hard work and paint low-gloss Tung oil varnish on badly dulled Bakelite® (this usually takes about three coats and gives a very fine finish, not as shiny as lacquer). You need to use a lint-free cloth to apply the varnish and for details and crevices, use a tape recorder head cleaning swab. These have foam rubber heads instead of spun cotton. This method, which aims to restore the finish by filling the microscopic pits with a clear substance, is valid if the Bakelite® has not lost its color. If it has started to go brown, on the other hand, sterner methods are necessary. Small cracks and chips in the Bakelite® can be filled with soft furniture restoration wax, boot polish or car body. Clean breaks can be joined with epoxy. It is possible to repair broken Bakelite® in a way that is very hard to detect. The first thing is to make solid joints and if you are lucky, you can piece the bits together and glue them in place with superglue (cyanoacrylate). For pieces under mechanical stress, such as a steering wheel, superglue will not work. In this case you will need to use a modeler’s drill (Dremel) to make holes for inserting short pieces of stainless-steel wire to pin the joint in several places. Slow-setting epoxy glue is then used to make the joints. When nearly set surplus epoxy can be trimmed away with a sharp blade or rotary rasp. Some hairline cracks will remain, and these can be filled with the self-curing black resin body-filler paste available at auto accessory shops. Once cured use very fine wet-and-dry paper (as used for car body work) to smooth the joints until they can no longer be seen or felt.

    Attachment 59591
    Unfortunately, my steering wheel (Photo to Left) was so far gone that a simple surface touch up was not possible. The following photos demonstrate the relatively simple but labor-intensive process for restoring a badly damaged steering wheel.
    This is my adjustable style Bluemel Steering Wheel before I started the restoration. According to the original build record the car was ordered with this option in 1959. When buying the car in 1986 I thought that the leather steering wheel cover was standard. It really didn’t look too bad from a distance. However, underneath the entire wheel was badly weathered and there were several deep cracks, some all the way down to the steel hoop.


    Attachment 59594
    Close up photo showing cracks and crazed surface. All of this loose material needs to be removed and metal surfaces need to be cleaned bright before new material is laid on.











    Attachment 59596
    In the original design, the spokes are held in place by a thin metal sleeve which is wrapped around and crimped and then molded into the rim plastic. This damage would later require some skillful TIG welding.











    Attachment 59594
    Deep cracks in rim. Much steering wheel damage is caused by drivers using the wheel as a “helper” to extricate them from the car. This not only causes eventual demise of the wheel but also severe wear on the steering column support structure behind the dash. These cracks need to be opened and widened to provide a “foot” for the epoxy repair.






    Attachment 59597
    Before restoration can begin all loose material needs to cut away. A Dremel and cut-off wheel or rotary rasp is perfect for this job. Using rotary rasp to remove loose material from deep crack. This tool is also used to drill longitudinal holes to which the repair will adhere.











    Attachment 59598



    TIG weld required to reattach ferule and spokes to rim.
















    Attachment 59599
    Following surface preparation, the steering wheel is now ready for several thin layers of hard setting epoxy. We used epoxy putty called PC-7, which is available from The Home Depot. Prior to applying epoxy, the entire wheel should be cleaned with wax and grease remover and then lightly sanded with 220 grit paper. After sanding and following instructions for the particular epoxy, the holes and deep scratches may be filled. You should be particularly aware of the temperature limitations and “pot time” of the epoxy. I did this repair in the winter in an unheated basement. The first attempt resulted in a failure of the epoxy to cure hard. Later I warmed up the wheel in my powder coating oven and this resulted in a rock hard surface. Take your time and apply thin layers of epoxy putty, allowing plenty of time for curing between layers. You want to end up with a repair that is just slightly proud of the surface. Later this layer will be sanded, beginning with 220 and then finer (up to 800) grit paper.




    Attachment 59600The wheel described in this article required six thin layers of epoxy putty until the final surface is just proud of the surrounding undamaged area. Be sure to maintain the proper contours especially those of the finger grips.









    After filling with epoxy and sanding with 220 paper, we applied three thin coats of medium-build polyurethane primer, sanding lightly between coats with 400 grit paper. Attachment 59602
    Notice the irregular surface. This is the nature of the medium-build primer. Following multiple sanding and reapplication of additional primer, this surface will blend in with the surrounding area. What remains now is strictly labor. Careful wet sanding with 220, 400, 600 and 800 grit paper and finally 5 coats of high gloss polyurethane and the wheel is finished.





    I’m now the proud owner of a beautiful Bluemel’s adjustable steering wheel, looking as good as it did when originally manufactured in 1958. After using modern materials and lots of elbow grease this gem should last at least another 50 years!
    Comments 1 Comment
    1. Popeye's Avatar
      Popeye -
      Thank you! This is one step of my restoration that I am leaving for later - but will eventually tackle over some cold winter days. Appreciate the guidance and photos (and the history lesson).