I've restored over 25 metal ATC tanks over the past few years. As with many tasks the more you do them the more experience you get and hopefully you will improve your quality and your speed. I have improved in both quality and speed with each additional tank I restore. I have made my share of mistakes in the process of restoring these tanks and this article will get into some of the lessons I have learned.
Before I get started I wrote an article covering the process of restoring a metal Honda BIG RED gas tank. Here is the link to that restoration article.
1. PATIENCE AND PLANNING
The restoration process if done correctly will take time so plan accordingly. I don't put myself under the gun during a tank restoration. I give myself a lot of time to do it right and give me some breaks to enjoy the process more. If you need the tank right away you may want to look into getting another one to use to get you by during the restoration process or plan your tank restoration during a time you don't plan on using the vehicle. It's when I was rushing that I made most of my mistakes. Pushing cure/dry times for recoat and color sanding is just one example. Give yourself the time to do the research, buy the tools/materials, and check your work before proceeding. Also plan for some rework time especially if you are new to bodywork. From start to finish it usually takes me a few weeks (working on and off) to complete a tank restoration.
2. HEAT GUN AND CHEMICAL STRIPPER
Stripping the original paint and decals off of the tank has been an evolving process for me. I first starting media blasting the paint and decals off. This worked but it took it took a long time and I had to keep straining the media due to the larger decal and paint flakes coming off. I then used a chemical stripper first. The stripper worked well for the paint but didn't work well for the decals. I found that a heat gun and a razor blade works very well to remove the decals. Make sure the tank is safe (all fuel and fumes removed) before using the heat gun on the tank.
My process now is remove the decals with the heat gun and the razor blade, remove most of the paint using a chemical stripper, and then media blast the outside of the tank.
3. CLEANING THE INSIDE OF THE TANK
Take your time time to ensure that the inside of the tank is clean before you use a sealer/coating or just put it back in service. If the tank has a lot of rust it will take some time to get it cleaned. Here is the method I use to clean the inside of a rusty tank
- Put a bunch of woodscrews/nuts in the tank then put the cap back on and shake it all around to loosen the dirt and rust
- Rinse the tank with water. I have found that using as pressure washer really helps with flushing the rust and debris out. Repeat this process a few times until the water runs clear when flushing the tank out. Check the inside with a flashlight to see your progress.
- I found that using a magnetic pickup tool helps get out all the screws/nuts that don't come out easily
- If the tanks has a lot of holes and won't hold liquid I will solder the holes before I move on with rust converting the inside of the tank.
- I use apple cider vinegar or white vinegar to dissolve the rust inside of the tank. Fill the tank up to the top and let it sit for a day. I use a rubber stopper to plug the outlet after the petcock has been removed. I will set the tank up above a rubbermaid tote that way if a leak starts I won't make a mess and I can reclaim the vinegar. Other rust solutions are available but the vinegar has worked well for me and is cost effective.
- You may need to repeat the vinegar soak process a few times but make sure the inside of the tank is rust and dirt/debris free before moving on especially if you plan to coat with a sealer. The majority of tank coatings/sealers fail due to improper prep which typically leads to bonding issues between the tank and sealer/coating. I have not experienced this issue with coatings/sealers but I know many who have. It's not fun and costs time and money. Take the time to thoroughly clean the inside of the tank and follow the sealer/coating manufacturers instructions carefully.
- Another lesson learned on this topic is that you can reuse the vinegar for another tank. I used a funnel and a coffee filter to pour the vinegar back into the original containers. The initial use of the screws and the pressure wash flush not only cuts the time of the vinegar soak but also helps the vinegar to stay cleaner for additional uses.
4. SOLDERING VS WELDING
I used to repair tanks by mig welding but I found that I was burning through to easily in many cases causing more rework. I found that soldering has been more successful for me. I don't tend to burn through and with practice I can get the solder to flow well to seal the holes. The solder is also softer when you go to grind it flush with the tank. The solder and flux I use are shown above in the picture. I use mapp or propane gas to melt the solder.
5. PREP FOR TANK COATING
I make sure the tank is media blasted, dents pulled, and all your soldering/welding is complete. Pulling dents and soldering can compromise the tank coating/sealers due to metal deformation and heat. I have not made this mistake but I know others have. Removing a tank sealer is no fun at all - the next segment covers this.
6. FAILED TANK COATINGS
I have bought and worked on tanks with failed coatings. My advise is to stay away from them unless they are really cheap. Why? It takes a lot of time, effort, and expense (lots of acetone or MEK) to remove the coating. Think of the multiple shaking sessions with nuts/screws, multiple rinses with the power washer, and lots of acetone soak time and Acetone isn't cheap. For me this job sucks and I would rather not deal with it. If you want more information HERE IS THE LINK.
7. PAINT BOOTH
I know this is not for everyone but I made a paint booth because of all the reworks of painting outside or in a garage. In my experience if you paint in an area where you can't control the environment expect bugs and dust specs in your paint. For me the paint booth was well worth the investment to obtain consistent results.
I have a few tips on this. Make sure you have a way to locate the decals after the tank is painted. I use magnetic tape measure and take pictures/make diagrams. Buy the decals from a source that puts out a quality product and has good feedback. I have used atctanksanddecals and Blueline graphics in the past. (I am not endorsed by these companies). I once bought a 250ES BIG RED decal kit off of ebay and I thought it was a deal until I went to install the decals and found out that something was off. I ended up finding that the replacement decals were smaller than the originals. Use sticker on or a soap/water solution mix when installing decals as it will let you reposition without it sticking. Here is a link to a post on sticker on.
Another lesson I learned is that I won't put clearcoat over decals. I tried this twice and I didn't like the results. I think it has something to do with the surface of the decal. It may be too smooth and the clearcoat doesn't have anything to bite/stick to. Maybe I'm doing something wrong but I will continue putting the decals on top of the clearcoat.
9. NEW PARTS
If you spend all the time, money, and effort to restore the gas tank make sure the gas cap, gas cap gasket, and petcock are in good condition so gas won't be leaking on your fresh paint job and new decals. When it comes to the gas cap gaskets and petcocks I don't take chances and I will replace them with new. (OEM Honda is still available when this was published).
Some bodywork lessons learned. Many times dents will need to be pulled when restoring a tank. After the dent is pulled be sure that you haven't created a high spot. I've done this a few times and didn't realize I had a high spot until I was wet sanding the urethane primer. At that point I had to remove the filler and tap the high spot down with a body hammer causing a lot of rework. I now take my time to feel and look at the tank in all areas to make sure I don't have any high spots. If I am unsure it will typically get a few taps down just to be sure. I also put the filler way beyond the area that needs it and it makes it easier for me to work it. In the past I found that I would need to reapply more filler because I underestimated the whole area to get the surface flat. I also learned that a skim coat of spot putty over all the filled areas is a good idea before moving on to priming.
11. COLOR SANDING BUFFING
I always put on at least three coats of clearcoat. I don't want to take a chance of burning through the clearcoat. When color sanding I found out the hard way to buy quality sandpaper. I used some cheap stuff only to find the grit was not consistent and I put in some deep scratches that had to get sanded out again. I only use 3M and Meguires unigrit sandpaper and I get consistent results. Also change your water often when color sanding. When buffing I found that buffing twice with the same compound (wiping tank with water/rubbing alcohol mix after first buff) tends to yield excellent results the first time and no need to go back and touch up areas.
12. PAINT MATERIALS
Maybe I am lucky but I have had good results mixing different paint and primer manufactures despite the compatibility warnings. I use a different manufacturer for epoxy primer, urethane primer, basecoat, and clearcoat. This saves me a lot of money. I do spend the good money on the basecoat. I get the Nason paint from my local Napa and at the time this was published was about $120 per quart.
If you are attempting to restore your tank for the first time you may not get fantastic results and that's ok. It's a process that will take some time to fine tune for most. I hope some of my lessons Iearned shared in this article will help make your tank restoration a success.