As a follow up to his piece “Full Custom 101” in issue #82, Rodder’s Journal’s Curt Iseli walks us through chopping his ’41 Buick Super at Cody Walls’ Traditional Metalcraft in Milton, Delaware.

Day I.

Top chop day one at Cody Walls’ Traditional Metalcraft in Delaware. The basis of the project is my not-quite-perfect but still fairly clean, mildly customized ’41 Buick Super. I removed all the glass, rubber and interior (except the front seat) at home; it takes longer than you’d imagine (especially the old, dry rotted rubber) and there’s no sense doing that when you’re paying for someone else’s time. The first order of business (after drying it off from the snow storm I trailered it through) was to take it down to baremetal everywhere we’d be cutting.
The plan was to start by chopping the top three inches all the way around, then make further adjustments as needed. That magic number came from measurements provided by my pal Jake Christmas, who owns a beautiful ’41 Buick (chopped by Miller Metal Works). Using a three-inch-wide cardboard template, Cody marked the pillars and sail panels in pen. Don’t use tape to mark cut lines; the cutoff wheel causes the edge of the tape to burn back, resulting in an uneven guide. The centerline on the A-pillars will help with alignment when everything is welded back together.
Here’s one last look at the stock profile. These cars do have pretty lines. The side trim spear on the rear quarters is close to what it will ultimately have, but still needs tweaking to smooth out the little hook at the end. One-inch square tube cross-bracing inside the vehicle keeps everything in shape when the structure the roof provides is temporarily removed.
Most of the cuts were made with a Rigid metal cut-off wheel. They’re available at Home Depot, and while they’re more expensive than standard abrasive wheels they last longer and won’t break apart and embed themselves in the nearest wall (or person).
Cody had a ’51 Merc in the shop at the same time. In comparison, there’s a whole lot more steel and inner structure present in the upmarket Buicks than in less expensive (at the time) cars like Mercs and Fords. The Buick has a track that allows the quarter windows to slide open a few inches. I plan to install fixed glass just because I’m not crazy about how the windows look when opened, but we were careful to cut the inner structure so that it could be chopped and welded back into place once the roof was lowered.
The entire roof is going to slide forward so that the top and bottom of the A-pillars will align once they’re chopped. If the upper portions of the quarter windows are left attached to the roof they’ll also slide forward, creating a much smaller quarter window opening that can look out of proportion. To avoid that, we cut the quarter windows out entirely and chopped them separate from the rest of the roof.
When you’re paying the bill, you get to make the final slice before the roof comes off.
As the owner of a car that was whole just a couple hours earlier, this sight was a little scary. With the roof out of the way the A- and B-pillars were chopped. We thought we’d wind up trimming more from the height, but when we set the roof back in place I liked the windshield height and basic profile so we stuck with the three-inch chop all around.
With the windshield height established, we trimmed three inches from the sail panels and clamped the quarter window in place. I wanted the radius at each corner of the window to be as close to the factory shape as possible, and I wanted to maintain the stock B-pillar angle. You can see that to make the upper and lower halves of the window opening meet, the radius of the upper part of the opening would need to be tightened up.
The lip around the opening comprises two pieces of 18-gauge steel pinch-welded together. My bench top, lever-operated shrinker and stretcher at home could never handle anything close to that, but the massive, ’40s-era shrinker and stretcher at Cody’s were able to reshape the opening with a few stomps of the foot pedal.
In the first photo you can see that we’re getting close, but for the window opening to flow that upper radius needed to be tightened up even more. This also meant the overall length of the window would get shorter, so we cut out the lower corner and slid it forward. The grinder marks make the radius on the outer part of the opening (beneath the drip rail) look a little squirrely, but it’s actually a smooth transition.

Speaking of the drip rail, I struggled a little with whether or not to keep it. In the late-’40s and early-’50s it would have been carved out with an air chisel and welded smooth. I opted to keep it intact for practical reasons (in the late-’40s and early-’50s it also would have leaked). Also, I don’t mind the definition it provides along the profile of the roof, trailing rearward from the door opening.
Cody (left) and me at the end of day one. The un-chopped driver’s window frame gives some idea of how much we removed from the greenhouse. 

Day II.

Day two began with cleaning up the A-pillars and setting the roof back in place. Note that the cuts in the roof around the backlight are all curved. If you cut everything square, the corners have a tendency to get sucked in from the heat when you’re welding everything back together.
With the roof clamped in place the basic profile began to take shape. At this point the backlight surround was still completely attached to the catwalk and the sail panels were yet to be trimmed away.
A heavier chop would have required some pie cuts in the roof to spread the top halves of the A-pillars so they’d meet the bottom halves. However at three inches everything fell right into place. We chopped the top of the window frame off so that we could close the door and get a better feel for how things were looking.
Maintaining the stock A- and B-pillar angles meant that when the roof moved forward and the quarter windows moved rearward a gap was created in the middle that needed to be filled. You could make this piece from scratch, but between the drip rail and the inner doorjamb it would be very time consuming. Check with your favorite salvage yard and try to find a donor car that can give up an eight-inch long, six-inch wide chunk of its roof, along with the top halves of its window frames. These pieces came from a ’41 Buick fordor that Owens Salvage in Texas had in their yard. Bob Owens is a hot rod guy himself, he’s got a great inventory of early American tin, and he’ll ship anything anywhere.
The new sail panels weren’t particularly big, but they were complex, with compound curves in nearly every direction. Cody started with a poster board template, making hatch marks where the metal would need shrinking or stretching. The crown of the roof was still a little high when the profile shot was taken—something that was dialed in prior to final welding (and further finessed with the hammer and dolly work that came later).
Sixty years ago custom shops relied largely on hand tools to do their work, then turned to big operations like California Metal Shaping for larger, more complex pieces like sail panels and roof sections. These days planishing hammers, English wheels, and even heavy-duty equipment like power hammers are available to any serious fabricator with the means and the space.

A shrinking die in the Pullmax roughed in the compound curves. Once the basic profile was shaped, the piece made several dozen passes through the English wheel, which sandwiches the metal between two wheels, called anvils. The top anvil is fixed, while the bottom one can be changed, allowing you to select the profile needed to create the radius you’re after. Interestingly, while the Pullmax is from 1959, the ornate, cast iron English wheel is a brand new piece made by Metal Ace.
We left the original sail panels in place while we test fit the new pieces. At this point the crown of the roof was still high, and I’m pretty sure I drove Cody insane pointing that out. “Patience,” he said. “It will fall into place. And if it needs to be adjusted, it’s only metal.”
Once we were happy with the shape of the new panels, Cody traced it onto the original roof and trimmed away the excess. From this angle you can see that the main roof section dropped down to meet the remaining metal above the drip rail. Smoothing that transition will require a filler piece. Once horizontal cuts are made along the bodyline where the roof meets the catwalk (below the backlight) the window surround will lean forward. The center couple of inches were left uncut to maintain the window’s alignment.
With the sail panel and the bulk of the roof clamped in place it was starting to look like something. We also clamped one of my skirts on to complete the picture. They’re steel re-pops that were shaped like factory ’41 Buick skirts, but were flat as a pancake. They’ve been cut down to better follow the line of the fender, and Cody ran them through the English wheel to give them a little more shape. 
The sail panel has been TIG welded and ground smooth, and the long, horizontal patch panel above the side window is taking shape. Although the angle of the rear window flows with the roof, the transition at the top of the window surround will need work.
Tack, weld, grind. You’ll notice not all of the contours are dialed in. The shop lighting magnifies the highs and lows, but they are definitely there and will be addressed in the next few steps.
Since the angles of the A and B pillars didn’t change, the window frames didn’t need to be altered too much. They did have to be split down the middle in order to lengthen them across the top though.
Remember the top halves of the window frames I bought from Owen’s Salvage? Here they are (I bought the garnish moldings, too). The fordor doors are much shorter, but all we needed was about three inches of the straight section out of the tops. By the time we removed the rust the metal was very thin and required some patching and repair once they were welded in place. In the future, material will be added along the door edges to tighten up the gaps.
The filler pieces worked nicely, though like the rest of the chop they required a good bit of fine-tuning with a hammer and dolly.
A pneumatic planishing hammer with a deep throat lets you get to all the welded areas to smooth out the highs and lows. Ear protection is a must when you’re operating one of these things (or anywhere near it, for that matter). Once the major metal moving is done, Cody follows up with more hammer and dolly work.
Although this will all be covered with upholstery, the steel inside the car provides additional structure as well as mounting points for the top bows and garnish moldings. The package tray support was removed to allow access for metalworking the catwalk and rear window surround (since you need to be able to get the hammer to one side of the metal and the dolly to the other). A new piece with a strengthening bead rolled down the center was added back in at the end.
The center support was pretty salty, but despite what it looks like it was solid enough to keep (helpful, since it has the mounting holes for the interior divider molding). One of the few barbs in Buick’s original design was the center-of-the-roof-mounted aerial, which has now been filled. Accessing the backside of this spot would require cutting out more internal structure than we wanted to remove, so a small amount of filler will be used to sharpen the subtle feature line that disappears a few inches into the roof.
 
On the subject of filler, this car will have some. Craftsmen like Cody can certainly spend the time to iron everything out to baremetal perfection. I just don’t have the budget to pay him, or the skill to handle it myself. I can, however, apply a skim coat (underscore skim) of filler and longboard to my heart’s content in my garage.
While I was there I asked Cody to nose the hood as well. To replicate the profile of the factory bead running down the center of the hood he made a Pullmax die carved from decking composite.
The corners of the patch panel were rounded and then it was TIG welded into place. It goes without saying that with such a huge expanse of metal, you don’t want to work too quickly because you’ll introduce too much heat and spend the next week straightening out a warped hood. 
Here’s the finished chop. Well, finished for now. We’ll still need to address the vent windows, interior moldings and exterior stainless trim. New glass will be cut by a local shop and installed using all new Steele Rubber gaskets. All of that will be covered at a later date. At this point we’ve got roughly 60 hours in the chop, and I imagine it will take another 60 to finish what we started. If you have any specific questions or comments, drop me a line at curt@roddersjournal.com and I’ll do my best to answer them.