Making Budget-Busting Bomber Seats from Swap Meet Junk
No doubt about it, bomber seats look hot in both traditional and rat rods. There were hundreds of seat designs used in a variety of aircraft both during and after WWII (some more adaptable to automobile use than others), but they are all known in the street rod community as “bomber seats”. However, some are too large, or too upright, or just too uncomfortable to sit in for any length of time. Original seats used in combat aircraft can sell for $700 or more, since they are highly prized by aircraft restorers as well as rodders. And finding two matching seats can be daunting, since fighters only came with one seat and bombers usually had different seats in each position.
It’s easy to see why bomber seats are so desirable. They were usually made of aluminum to save weight, and were sometimes lightened further with holes or slots. They were often assembled with solid rivets and painted with anti-corrosive coatings like zinc chromate. They have a “serious racer” look to them that works well in stripped-down coupes and roadsters with a dry-lakes vibe. To satisfy the demand, many aluminum fabricators are selling custom replicas of WWII seats, often modified to make them more ergonomically successful in auto use. Of course, you get what you pay for, and these works of art can also cost a pretty penny.
There are also off-the-shelf bomber-style seats that use styling cues from real aircraft seats, but are not exact replicas of any one design. They retail for around $200 each and are designed to work in a variety of street rods. But what if there was a way to get the look of aircraft seats for less than $50 per seat, with your own interpretation of trim, shape and finish? You can do it without specialized metal forming equipment like English wheels, lathes or planishing hammers. Let’s get started!
This is an aluminum circle-track seat purchased at a swap meet for $25. You can find similar seats for about this price at swap meets and online. The cover was torn and nasty – no problem since you’re going to sell it or toss it anyway. There are many companies making similar seats, the most common being Kirkey. You will need to have an idea of what you want your seat to look like so that you can tell if this raw material is usable.
Off comes the cover. These seats are made from thick, stiff aluminum and have an irregular shape designed to keep the driver firmly supported in hard left hand turns. We’re going to make it more user-friendly for street rod use.
Plastic windlace is used on the edges to protect the fabric cover. You will not need this, so peel it off.
The edges will often be bent at different angles on each side of the seat. Use a heavy rubber mallet to flatten the arms and bend them to match from side to side.
We’re going to show you how to make two different seat styles – one a layback and the other a more upright design. We’ll start with the layback. First, use thin masking tape to lay out a symmetrical design that will provide side support without being as intrusive as the race seat.
Once the tape looks good, mark the new edge with a Sharpie pen or pencil. We’re using a Sharpie so you can see it better in the photos.
Use a sabre saw with a fine-tooth blade to cut down the arms and cut off the headrest. Keep the cut-offs in case you need them later.
Use an angle grinder to gently smooth and round the edges.
Here’s the layback seat in upright form. You could use it like this, but you may want to lean it back for use in a channeled roadster or a coupe with a chopped top.
Cut the weld loose where the manufacturer welded it together.
Bend the seat back until it lies at the angle you want. Try it on for size.
Make a cardboard template of a filler piece to go in the cut.
Cut filler pieces from the scrap from the top and arms.
Have them welded in with TIG, MIG or gas. You can stop here and have a comfortable layback aluminum seat, or add more detailing as shown in steps 19-37.
For a more realistic aircraft seat, we’ll start with the same seat, but without the laid back angle. Most aircraft seats were pretty vertical.
Many aircraft seats didn’t have much side support, so we’re going to cut the arms down even further. Once again, we’re using masking tape to lay out the arm designs until we like what we see.
Out comes the sabre saw, and off goes the extra aluminum. Save those scraps.
Here is the modified seat style. There is plenty of room here for personal interpretation.
Decide what size holes you want, and cut circles out of black paper. Tape them in place to test pattern designs…you can get ideas from a box of dominos!
Most aircraft seats have a support flange that runs across the back of the seat area to stiffen the back and base junction. Race seats really don’t need this, but we’re going to add one just for looks. Start by making a poster board template. Leave a flange top and bottom to rivet it in with. Take your time and make an accurate template – it will save you time and metal scraps later.
Once you like the shape, mark the outline onto a sheet of thin aluminum. The exact thickness isn’t really important, as this is just for looks.
Cut the aluminum out with aviation snips or a sabre saw.
Bend the flanges up to match the angle of the seat back.
Use the cardboard “holes” you made in step 19 to decide where you want to ventilate the support flange.
You can cut the holes using a sabre or hole saw, but you will have to clean up the edges with a file and grinder. We prefer using a chassis punch. You can buy sets from tool dealers, but they usually only go up to 1-1/4” diameter or so. We bought a used 2-1/4” Greenlee chassis punch through an online auction for $35. These punches make extra-clean holes that require no finishing or clean-up. They have only three parts – a cutting tool with a threaded hole, a die to support the metal as it’s being cut and a hardened bolt to go through it. Start by drilling holes the size of the punch bolt.
The cutting tool goes on one side of the hole, and the die on the other. As you tighten the two sides together, the cutter punches a clean, flat hole in the aluminum. You can probably think of many uses for this tool (such as on other interior panels).
The big holes are punched, and 1/8-inch holes are drilled along the edge to attach it with “pop” rivets. WWII aircraft seats were assembled with solid rivets. If the holes in the rivets bother you, fill them with liquid steel.
Once you’re happy with the location of the holes in the back, mark the centerlines with a pencil or a Sharpie pen.
Use an automatic center punch to mark the centers.
Drill a small hole (about 1/8-inch) to start the hole, then move up to a larger drill bit the same size as the chassis punch bolt. Starting with a small bit will make sure the hole starts exactly on the punch mark.
Back to the chassis punch – cutting through the thicker aluminum of the seat back will require more force than the thin flange. You may need to snug the cutter in a bench vise to keep it from turning.
Our seat now looks suitably ventilated. You can leave it in bare aluminum for a vintage racer look.
. We decided to go for a weathered patina, as if our seat had just been liberated from a military surplus store. First we sprayed on a coat of zinc oxide. WWII seats were coated with zinc chromate, a toxic coating designed to prevent corrosion and kill mold in tropical climes. Zinc oxide looks the same but isn’t as dangerous. No seat is worth dying for, so we ordered yellow zinc oxide spray cans from Aircraft Spruce and Specialty. You can also get it in green, but we wanted yellow for contrast.
Cover the yellow with a thin coat of flat green camouflage paint available at most hardware stores. This is a pretty good match for old military green paint.
Once the paint has dried overnight, use fine sandpaper to “wear” areas of the seat back to bare aluminum or yellow zinc oxide. Think about where wear would naturally occur.
A sanding block can be used to rapidly age the seat backs and sides.
The finished seat is ready for a pad. A foam pad can be wrapped in cloth or old Army blanket-type material. We used a light green so that it would show up in the photos. Here it is sitting in our unfinished Bonneville “T” roadster. Not bad for 40 bucks!