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One-Off Construction Using

GRP/Urethane Foam Composite

An Overview of
How to Work With fierg!ass Over Urethane Foam

"he automotive application of GRP/foam
composite was pioneered in the 70s by the
author's former design firm, Quincy!ynn
"nterprises, #nc$ %he original composite was
comprised of polyester resin and glass cloth
laminations over a core of rigid urethane foam
boardstoc&$ 'odern variations use an epo(y
resin and carbonfibercloth over urethane foam,
li&e the composite used to build G''s )ltralite
e(perimental passenger car$ *ut despite the
strengthtoweight advantage of newer materials,
nothing matches the original polyesterresin/glasscloth/urethanefoam composite for
+uic&ly producing a tough, lightweight product at roc&bottom costs$ ,nd it's a
surprisingly simple system to use$
%he following description ta&es you stepbystep through a fiberglass/foam composite
buildup$ %o illustrate the process, we've included photos ta&en at various stages during
the construction of %ri'agnum- a highperformance threewheeler built at Quincy!ynn
"nterprises$ %he techni+ues, however, will wor& e+ually as well in other applications$
A #ow-Cost an$ Forgiving %ateria!
, typical automobile body will re+uire about ./00 worth of plywood, urethane foam, and
standard polyester fiberglass 0the same material used to build boats, &it cars, and
production 1orvettes2$ %he body is first built of ine(pensive foam boardstoc& 0typically,
3 ( 4 foot panels of 5inch thic& material2 cemented in place over station formers$ %he
foam core or buc& can also serve as a lowcost, fullsi6e styling moc&up$ 7igure about
.890 for enough plywood and foam, and about three or four days of assembly time to
build a typical automobile bodyinfoam$
#f the design does not wor& well in three dimensions, it can be modified by stac&ing on
e(tra foam and reshaping it$ :r you can discard the first attempt and start over with only
minimal loss in materials cost$ ,nd assembly is virtually painless$ )sing a ra6or &nife,
urethane foam cuts li&e butter, and it sands so easily you can rub two pieces together and
watch it melt away$ 7iberglass is applied to encapsulate the foam only after the design
has been fully refined$ ;moothing out the fiberglass to prepare it for paint is the most
laborintensive part of the process$ *ut even here, modern plastic bodyfillers and spray
on primer/surfacers li&e <7eatherfil< and <"liminator< ma&e the =ob far easier than the
original sandedgelcoat method used when the system was first developed$
&egin ' Attaching P!'woo$ (tation Formers
, body pro=ect begins with the chassis supported at rideheight$ >ormally, the wheels
must be removed so they do not interfere with the smooth curvature of the foam panels$
Plywood station formers are then attached at appropriate locations along the length$ %he
correct placement and number of station formers will depend on the body design and the
location of convenient attachment points on the chassis$ ;tation formers normally become
part of the finished body where they serve as cabin bul&heads, a firewall, and/or bodyto
chassis attachment points$
Tri-Magnum needed only four station formers to
carry body contours smoothly from front to rear.
Normally, wheels must be removed before foam
panels can be installed. Station formers are
bolted in place so the body can be removed later
Use (tringers to "race the (hape of Foam Pane!s
;ome builders may prefer to calculate the shape of foam panels from drawings$ ,
+uic&er, handson method is to attach temporary stringers across station formers at each
brea& in the shape 0to become foam panel mating points2$ *ody panels can then be traced
directly onto the foam using the stringers as a guide$ 1ut foam panels oversi6e then shape
them to fit as they are installed$ )se a solventbased contact cement to bond the foam to
ad=acent panels 0waterbased cements do not wor& well on urethane foam2$ #t's best to
wear a particle respirator when wor&ing with e(posed urethane foam 0before it is
fiberglassed over2 to avoid inhaling airborne particles caused by sanding$ ,t commercial
sites, these dust respirators are re+uired by :;?,$
Using a felt marker, trace along the edges of
stringers to outline panels on the foam. ut the
foam with a ra!or knife. Normally, mating edges
must be sanded and shaped for a good fit against
ad"oining panels.
Assem!e Foam Pane!s in Ovious (e)uence
%he correct se+uence of assembly will depend upon your particular design$ %ri'agnum's
foam body begins with lengthwise panels installed at the widest point of the body$ @ith
other designs, it may be better to install the floorboard first and wor& upward$ @here
interior structures are essential for strength, install them and secure the seams with a lay
up of fiberglass mat on the inside$ @ith %ri'agnum, most of the passenger compartment
was assembled and fiberglassed before the roof panel was installed$ :ften, however,
interior details are easier to install after the body has been fiberglassed$ %he idea is to
build a bodyshell and stabili6e it with fiberglass before tac&ling all the details$ %he
correct construction se+uence depends on structural considerations and on which items
will be inaccessible later on$
#ssemble panels in obvious se$uence. ut the
foam oversi!e then sand and shape the edges to fit
against ad"acent panels. ement the foam panels
in place using a solvent-based contact cement.
%o not use a water-based adhesive. &ater-based
adhesives do not work well with urethane foam.
Tri-Magnum's passenger compartment is detailed
before closing up the body. The center has been
cut from the second station former to make room
for the occupants' legs. The foam panel in the
center is temporary. (t is used to hold a conve)
curvature in the roof panel. &ithout this
temporary panel, the roof panel would sag across
the windshield area. *emove the temporary foam
panel after the e)terior has been fiberglassed.
# final panel across the roof closes the body.
Notice that the roof panel overhangs along the
side. This e)cess material can be $uickly trimmed
with a ra!or knife, or filed flush using a body file.
+lock-sanding along seams will bring panels
A$$ *etai!s to the Foam &o$'
%he foam body begins to loo& more li&e a finished product as details are added$ %he one
inchthic& foam boardstoc& provides plenty of material for deeply rounding the corners to
eliminate the paneli6ed loo&$ )rethane foam is easily shaped with a ;urform file or a
sanding bloc&$ ;ome of the details may re+uire strengthening with a layup of fiberglass
as they are installed$ 7or e(ample, %ri'agnum's wheel well eyebrows were e(tremely
thin and they e(tended +uite far from the body$ 1onse+uently, they were reinforced with
fiberglass so they would hold their shape and stand up to the occasional assault of a
dropped tool$
Tri-Magnum's wheel well eyebrows are made from
,-.-inch thick foam panels, which are cemented in
place. # mat lay-up over the top secures the
easily damaged eyebrows. Use this techni$ue of
strengthening the foam with a fiberglass overlay
at any point that needs reinforcement.
(n the ad"acent photo, the workman is adding a
foam fillet to finish the inside of a rear light bay.
#lthough one should avoid creating air pockets
inside the foam structure, in this case, a small
pocket will e)ist between the fillet being installed
in the photo and the foam panel on the e)terior of
the body.
:utline doors and windows with a felt mar&er then sand recesses and cutlines into the
foam using a sanding bloc&$ @indows are left intact to avoid releasing tension that might
be holding a curvature into ad=acent panels$ %he intricate detailing possible with urethane
foam is apparent in the following photographs$
*ecessed mating flanges for gla!ing /windows0
and accessories, as well as door-canopy trim-
lines are sanded into the surface of the foam
before it is fiberglassed.
%eep scoops, long fairings, and intricate shapes
are all possible with urethane foam. #nd even at
this stage, styling elements can still be modified
by overlaying additional foam and reshaping the
App!' a Fierg!ass (kin to +ncapsu!ate the Foam
!ayups of fiberglass transform the fragile foam body into a realworld automobile body$
:verlaying fiberglass onto the outside and inside surfaces of the foam creates a rigid
sandwich structure that is much stronger and lighter than a conventional singlewall
fiberglass shell$ , typical e(terior layup consists of two layers of A ounce fiberglass cloth
and polyester laminating resin, applied one layup at a time$ #n order to avoid uneven
surfaces, do not use mat on the e(terior$ ,pply similar layups 0two cloth2 of fiberglass
over the bac& side to completely encapsulate the foam$ "(tra cloth layups and mat
reinforcement may be used on the bac& side, along inside corners, and over areas where
the foam has been sanded especially thin$ @hen fiberglassing is done, cut hatches, doors,
and windows from the body, then detail the interior$
Use an ine)pensive bristle paint brush to apply
cataly!ed resin over the glass cloth.
1iberglassing can be done in sections, as shown
in the photo to the left. The foam is entirely
encapsulated with two lay-ups of fiberglass. (n
other words, there should be no e)posed areas
of foam or plywood.
Use a portable reciprocating saw to cut doors,
hatches, and windows from the body. Tri-
Magnum's clamshell canopy is stabili!ed by
glassing a steel framework to the inside. The
framework is glassed in place before cutting the
canopy free of the body. (f the canopy were not
stabili!ed by a steel framework, it will not hold its
shape once it has been cut free of the body.
A$$ Returns, Gutters, an$ Attachment fi-tures After Fierg!assing the +-terior
#t is possible to progress to this stage in little more than three or four wee&ends$ >ow,
however, progress will seem to slow to a crawl as details such as nutplates, flanges, rain
gutters, and other interior elements are built into the body$
Tri-Magnum's seats and rain gutters are built into
the body by cementing foam in place, shaping it,
then fiberglassing it over. The thickness of the
foam does not have to be uniform throughout the
body. (t can be thicker in some areas and thinner
in others.
To build a lip around an opening, tape wa)ed
Masonite to the back of the fiberglass, then
fiberglass out onto the wa)ed surface. &hen the
fiberglass sets, remove the Masonite and apply
fiberglass over the back side to strengthen the
flange and seal off any e)posed foam. +e sure to
remove residual wa) from the fiberglass by
sanding and wiping with acetone. (f wa) deposits
are left on the fibeglass, subse$uent lay-ups will
not adhere well, and may delaminate later on.
(mooth the (urface an$ App!' Paint
%he process of leveling and smoothing a fiberglass body is the most laborintensive part
of construction$ !iterature on fiberglassing describes various techni+ues for producing a
gelcoat finish$ ,t Quincy!ynn, however, we used conventional autobody repair
techni+ues and filler materials instead$ %he fiberglass body is first smoothed with a
;urform file to remove large fiberglass drips and surface irregularities$ #t is then covered
with lightweight plastic body filler 0such as <*ondo<2 and leveled using traditional body
wor&ing techni+ues$
1ataly6e a small amount of body filler then apply and smooth it with a plastic s+ueegee$
1over about two s+uare feet at a time$ @ait until =ust after the filler sets, then level the
surface with a ;urform file before going on the ad=oining area$ %he small, halfround files
wor& best$ Bo not wait until the material has completely hardened$ )se the ;urform file
when the body filler is still soft enough to let the file bite easily into the filler, producing
small, curled strips of material$ #f the filler granulates or rubs off 0instead of cutting
cleanly2 it is not yet hard enough$ #f the body file s&ips across the surface without biting
into the material, the body filler has become too hard$ :nce fully hardened, the surface
will have to be leveled with a sander, which is a much slower and more laborintensive
process$ #mmediately after the surface has been leveled with the file 0before the material
fully cures2, use a sanding bloc& with CA grit paper to remove the file mar&s$ ,fter the
filler has cured, smooth out the surface with 500 580 grit sandpaper$
%he leveled body is then sprayed with a polyester primer/surfacer, such as <7eatherfil< or
<"liminator$< #t can then be painted with any of the traditional automotive grade paints$ ,
polyester primered finish is not +uite as hard as a traditional gelcoat finish$ ?owever,
results come much more +uic&ly$
2hoto to the left shows the Tri-Magnum body after
it has been filled and leveled. #t the stage shown
in the photo, the body is nearly ready for paint.
The dark areas of the lower portion of the body
have already been sprayed with 3liminator.
3liminator must be finish-sanded before applying