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Behind the Scenes at Vintage Woodworks

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by John Gunnell  More from Author

"Norwegian Wood" Shop's New Home is New Mexico

Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood? John Lennon asked that in a short, memorable tune on the 1965 Rubber Soul album. For hundreds of wood car owners who’ve had restoration work done by Vintage Woodworks, the answer is yes. For over 35 years, Dennis and Kathy Bickford’s shop in the Norwegian enclave of Iola, Wisconsin turned out prize-winning woodies – particularly Chrysler Town and Countrys – that now reside in collections throughout the world. Recently, the husband and wife team moved Vintage Woodworks to LaLuz, New Mexico

The unique family operated business has specialized in the rebuilding of wood-bodied automobiles for nearly three decades. Dennis Bickford originally studied in college to be an artist. During the 1970s, he served in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Hawaii. When he returned to his home state of Wisconsin, he settled in Iola and decided to try his hand at automobile restoration. A neighboring shop was doing mechanical rebuilds and body work on vintage cars, so Dennis decided to go into more specialized areas of restoration for all kinds of cars and trucks. His services included the restoration of woodies, as well as upholstery work and the cutting and sewing of convertible tops.

With a name like Vintage Woodworks, the shop’s woodie restoration projects were soon basking in the spotlight, and Dennis started building a hard-earned reputation for top-notch revivals of cars made of wood. He also became a woodie owner. He and Kathy bought a 1950 “shoebox” Ford woodie that was a magazine cover car in the 1980s, and a 1948 Pontiac station wagon. They worked together on all types of woodies, as well as the structural pieces under the bodies of wood-framed prewar automobiles. They have built wooden beds and wooden running boards for hot rod pickups, and they have done woodgraining and repaired wood veneering for metal station wagons with wooden insert panels.

Dennis Bickford’s passion for the Chrysler Town and Country really put his Wisconsin shop on the international map. In addition to restoring the wood-bodied 1941-1950 Mopars, Bickford has remanufactured parts for them since he opened his shop in the mid-1970s. Initially, he built special jigs that allowed him to reproduce individual wooden parts or entire body sections. In more recent rears, he has been reproducing mechanical parts and trim parts for these cars as well.

His involvement with these fabulous woodies has led him to learn how they were constructed. For instance, his historical research on Town and Countrys documented the different woods and grains used in originally building them and the various ways in which the factory trimmed them out. Bickford can tell you about the glues that Chrysler used in the 1940s, how different finger joints were used in different model years, or which interiors were available in certain years and not in others. He has become an expert on all types of woodies he’s fixed.

Dennis became an early member of the National Woodie Club, an organization formed to promote interest in woodies. One of the club’s stated goals is “to educate owners and the public on the history, beauty, usefulness and uniqueness of woodies,” and Bickford was very eager to learn about the cars as he got his business rolling. He became a human sponge, absorbing facts about wood-bodied cars to form a better understanding of what was involved in making them look new again.

Bickford took advantage of NWC’s membership list to network with other enthusiasts and to exchange information on the history and construction of woodies, as well as to learn about the techniques others were using to restore or modify the cars. He eventually served on the club’s national board of directors and spent a good portion of every year traveling to club conventions and big woodie shows to meet other experts and see other cars up close and personal.

While in his Wisconsin “digs,” Dennis had up to half a dozen woodies sitting around his shop and storage facilities at any given time. He also dealt with problems that other restorers gave up on when redoing these rare automobiles. Many of the cars shipped to Vintage Woodworks arrived in pieces after other shops abandoned jobs. He encountered situations where people who saved cars from a salvage yard let them sit outside too long. Wood-bodied cars required annual upkeep in normal use and don’t tolerate long-term outdoor storage well.

Cars from all over the country were shipped to the shop, and once he got going and developed a reputation for quality work, Dennis was never without jobs to do. Usually, he had a two- to three-year backlog of projects. There would generally be two or three cars in the shop at any given time, and they were stripped down to the chassis and floor pan state. In most cases, an owner or another shop had completed all the mechanical or body work up to that point. The cars came to Dennis for repair, replacement or refinishing of wooden parts and, in some cases, he and Kathy would team up to trim the interior or trunk.

Dennis learned to custom fabricate and cut convertible tops for woodies other than station wagons. These included Town and Country convertibles and Ford and Mercury Sportsman models and occasionally some other type of vehicle. Once Dennis designed the top – often using his own templates or factory drawings or photos for reference – Kathy would do the specialized sewing required to stitch up a tight, leak-free fabric roof. Only on rare occasions would Dennis agree to install a mass-produced, pre-cut convertible top kit. He preferred doing this job the “old school” way and shooting for the perfect factory look.

Some non-wooden Town and Country parts had to be made from scratch because nothing even close to them exists today. Bickford found companies to make rubber parts, electrical switches, chrome trim items and hardware needed to duplicate the originals. In some cases, the parts have hidden improvements over the originals. They look exactly the same as originals, but they work better and last longer. Dennis has a catalog, and his parts sales have become big business.

When we told Dennis that we thought hot rodders were more interested in Ford woodies than Chrysler Town and Countrys, he told us that one of his customers was Gary Meadors of the Goodguys. “He’s making a Town and Country street rod, and I have a small order of parts to get out to his shop,” Dennis stressed. “And I know of at least two more Town and Country hot rods being built.”

Dennis also does vacuum forming of the mahogany panels that are used between the structural wood members on woodies, as well as parts like firewall insulator pads. When he moved, he was worried that his vacuum press wouldn’t work as well in New Mexico as it did in Wisconsin. “We need to have an atmospheric pressure of 2000 pounds per square foot, and we took away a mile of atmosphere with our new mountainside location,” he pointed out. “However, it turned out that the press works fine here. In Wisconsin, we could pull 25 pounds of mercury per inch, and in New Mexico we can pull 22 pounds, which is fine.”

Dennis said the process of doing a complete restoration on a woodie requires total disassembly of the vehicle and stripping the wood pieces down to bare wood. He said that there are times when simple sanding works, but usually the wood needs to be chemically bleached. A variety of bleaches are available for this job. For more aggressive bleaching, two-part products are offered.

Many woodies – especially parts cars that he bought – came to Dennis’ shop in pieces, after years of sitting outside. Common problems he encountered with such cars included dry rotted wood or infestations of powder beetles or termites. “If you have these problems and are very lucky, you’ll be able to scrape out the soft or rotted wood and fill it from the back side with an epoxy. I use West System epoxy, which is sold in powder form and turns into a gravy-like liquid,” Dennis noted. “As it starts to dry you can build it up, and then, when it dries completely, you can sand it just like wood. It’s really great for selective pieces of wood that get damaged internally, but have good material left on the outside.”

Dennis says that he probably averaged one complete restoration of a woodie each year for 35 years. “I think we’d be close if we said I’ve done three dozen total restorations,” he said. “But I might have also done two pieces for a car in Colorado and a trunk lid for a car in Georgia in between, as well as an upholstery job or a convertible top. If you counted up every woodie I’ve done some kind of work on, the total number of cars would be in the hundreds.

All woodies aren’t the same. Dennis says the 1950 Ford Country Squire that he and Kathy owned in the 1970s and 1980s was a total frame-up restoration that took lots of time and money. “The wood construction on the ’49-50 Ford wagons is the most difficult I’ve ever done,” Dennis admitted. “The Ford parts have lots of twists and turns compared to a Town and Country, which is all straight cut wood that’s finger-jointed together. As I worked on the Ford, I developed patterns for reconstructing its wooden body, and the whole project took me 10 years.”

Each time Dennis did a different kind of woodie, he made jigs and other tooling that would allow him to duplicate the parts he made. After doing the 1950 Ford, he sold the jigs, tooling, fixtures and dies, as well as the car itself and some training to another Wisconsin man who hasn’t done anything with the stuff. Dennis has also encountered other woodie parts that are difficult to do. “Things like the upper tailgates of ’49-’50 Packard Estate Wagons have hard-to-copy shapes,” he said. “They can be done, but take lots of time. On the other hand, I could do a complete Town and Country in three months if I had no distractions.”

Dennis has always been helpful to hobbyists who want to restore their own cars. He has presented seminars, talked to car clubs and freely shared his techniques and tricks with writers and editors who did stories with him. Anyone who needs advice can contact him at Vintage Woodworks.

For More Information

Vintage Woodworks
PO Box 1132
LaLuz, NM 88337

National Woodie Club

10 Tips from a Wagonmaster

As told by Dennis Bickford

1. When doing a woodie, you’ve got to use a finish that’s flexible, because wood moves. You want to use a long oil base varnish or marine varnish. It doesn’t matter if you spray it on or brush it on, but stay away from polyurethanes and interior wood varnishes that will crack.

2. Document what you are taking apart. Use pictures, drawings or notes, but you need to have a record of everything you do so you don’t wind up spinning your wheels.

3. If you can, avoid a very rough car that’s full of mice and animal droppings. We wanted to charge extra when we dealt with such cars. Since we are not a full service restoration shop, most cars came to us as a rolling chassis ready for wood, upholstery or tops, so they were pretty well prepped.

4. Use personal protection gear (PPG) like disposable latex gloves (or latex-free gloves if you’re allergic). If you’re going to spray varnish or paint, use a supplied-air respirator.

5. Before using any chemical, test a small amount to see if it bothers you. I became sensitive to epoxy products. When I used them, my eyes would itch.

6. I used a total dust collection system inside my shop so that all the dust was collected in a filtration system. Every wood-shaping machine was plumbed into the central dust collector, and the system also had blast gates.

7. Must-have tools for working on woodies include a D-A sander, which can be air- or electric-powered. A tool I use a lot to smooth out wood before refinishing is an air-powered straight-line sander. Remember, you’ve got to have a compressor big enough to run such tools. And for sure you’ll need chisels, cabinet scrapers and 3M Scotchbrite pads. But you don’t need a real sophisticated arsenal of tools.

8. A lot of woodies are from before World War II, and the hardware on them is different than modern hardware. They didn’t have Phillips head screws back then. Old slotted wood screws were most commonly used. You can hardly find any of those today and, when you do, they’re expensive. Actually, most people today use sheet metal screws. If you’re building a hot rod woodie, original hardware probably doesn’t matter.

9. I think anyone doing any woodie, stock or custom, should belong to the National Woodie Club. As a member, they will be able to meet like-minded people and get restoration assistance from the club’s technical advisors. I am the advisor for Town and Countrys.

10. Glues are important when doing a woodie. What people tend to do is go with the easiest glue to use. Modern yellow glues are very good, but they move, and that “telescopes” through the finish. It is best to use a polyurethane product like Gorilla Glue. These are also gap filling and fill voids, which yellow glue will not do.

Dennis (center) and Kathy (right) Bickford vend at just a few swap meets each year

Dennis starts a full restoration with a teardown so all wood can be done.

Shoebox Ford station wagons have pieces with lots of twists and turns.

Dennis gives Lee Bestul tips on refinishing woodie parts.

Dennis used jigs to build the Town and Country door he’s showing Ken Boulware.

Jim Rugowski points to a panel Dennis made with his vacuum press.

Here is a jig Dennis made for re-popping 1941 Ford woodie parts.

Woodworking tools and big C clamps are important for woodie restoration.

Finishes used on different parts of wooden cars vary from light to dark.

Dennis has made countless wood patterns, especially for Town and Country parts.

Mounted on back boards are samples of woodie parts Dennis makes.

Dennis usually squeezed three woodies into his Wisconsin shop.

Dennis restored this cream colored Town and Country and then made a convertible top for it.

Even with jigs helping to shape parts, custom fitting was usually needed.

A vacuum press allows Dennis to apply mahogany veneers to insert panels.


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