Installing A Replacement Top On Your Model T

The old top on our 1915 touring had seen better days. Installed around 1970, it was made using Colonial Grain material, which is correct for a Model A Ford, but not a Model T. Whoever installed it was none too careful setting the bows up properly. The #2 bows leaned to the rear, yet didn’t match each other. Because the #2 bows were leaning to the rear the forward bow barely came forward of the windshield, giving an awkward appearance. The top leaned to one side in the front for some reason. Many of the tacks would not stay in place.

When Classtique had a replacement 1915 – 1916 top kit on special for 1/2 price we pounced on it. That was in 2012.  We got the new top out of the box when it came, checked that it was all there, and packed it away carefully for the day when we had time to install it.

The new top was made from proper Model T material, and it had a really important although non – original feature. The rear curtain rolls up, which is a blessing well appreciated on 100 + degree days here in Texas. With cold fall and winter weather we are not driving the T’s as much so we have time to do a big project or two. This month is the time for the new top on the ’15.

We started by pulling out all the decorative black tacks. While you might think some of these look good enough to save, don’t waste your time. Toss all of them in the trash. It is important to keep track of every nail, staple, and tack. Any time you drop one, stop and find it immediately. Any that you don’t find will insert themselves into a tire and ruin its inner tube.

With the top deck and rear curtain removed we see more nails holding the bow covering, straps and pads in place. All needs to be replaced every time the top is replaced. I use a small putty knife and / or small flat blade screwdriver to lift the head of each nail. All the murphy fasteners and footman loops also need to be removed and saved for later.

Pulling off the cover on the front bow reveals hundreds of holes left by nails, tacks, and previous Murphy faster locations.

Into every hole we insert a tooth pick coated with wood glue. Bigger holes from screws might require several toothpicks.

While there are lots of holes with lots of toothpicks this actually does not take much time. This top bow has probably had two tops in it judging by the number of holes seen.

After the glue dries overnight we snip off all the toothpicks and then use a pneumatic sander to smooth out the plugs.

We realize that some holes were missed and have to plug those too in another round of toothpicks and glue.

Meanwhile the top sockets had some minor dents. There is not really a good way to remove dents from top sockets. We filled them with JB Weld. After the JB Weld is dry it can be sanded to make the repair invisible.

The bows are sanded with 220 wet or dry sandpaper and a foam block, then primed with a filler primer.

After the primer dries the bow is sanded with 320 grit and primed again.

Then the bow is sanded with 400 grit prior to painting the topcoat black. Each time we sand until we just start to see the darker shade below.

There is a lot of time waiting for things to dry between coats so that proper sanding can happen between coats. Painting the sockets took about an hour’s work each day for about 8 days.

Finally the surface of each bow was good enough to call it ready for paint. We used safety wire to connect the sockets to a saw horse while the center of the wood bow is resting on a second sawhorse. That way we know it can stay unattended and not be affected by a strong gust of wind, which is not unheard of in November north Texas weather.

The last coat of primer is slicked up using 400 grit wet or dry paper. We wipe everything down with tack cloth after using an air blower to get rid of dust. It’s a calm day, about 75 degrees with low humidity and no wind. We got excellent results from our rattle can Krylon gloss black automotive paint. With the sockets suspended we can shoot from all angles including underneath. All surfaces get a dust coat, followed 5 minutes later with a heavier coat, then a final coat 30 minutes later to get a smooth gloss.

While wrapping the bows we happened to notice that the footman loop positions on the front bow were not symmetrical. This explains why the car always looked crooked from the front when the top was up! We got out the toothpicks and glue.

With the errant holes plugged we were able to sand down the protruding toothpicks the next day after it was dry. New holes were drilled to match the other side. The footman loop screws are installed so they will be easy to find after the bows are wrapped.

3M spray trim contact adhesive is used to attach the bow wrapping to the bows. Then the covering is wrapped around the bow and stapled in place on the top side where it won’t show. The front bow gets wrapped in top material, the others get black cloth.

Using a tape measure and a square we find center on each bow and make a chalk mark. This allows us to measure to establish locations for the top straps and pads, and finally the top deck and rear curtain.

Some cheap wood trim from the home improvement store is first clamped, then temporarily screwed to the bows to hold them in the position that you want. Two pieces of trim are supporting the front bow at the cowl lamp brackets to keep the bow level with the leather straps taut. If you look closely you can see another piece of scrap wood supporting the rear bow to keep those straps tight. lots of time is spent making sure everything is where you want it before the screws are installed.

You need to eyeball this from all directions. The placement of the top bows is critical to the job. Any mistakes here will be seen forever in the finished product.

We measure to find center of the straps and then nail them in place. The nails are installed about halfway so they are easy to pull if something needs to be moved.

At this point we need to say that nails and staples will need to be removed and reinstalled typically about 50% of the time to correct errors. If you are like me, you don’t do this for a living and so you don’t always get it right the first time. Don’t fret about that. Just keep it in the back of your mind that nails often need to be removed and replaced several times to achieve a decent job.

With the straps nailed in place the wood strips can be removed.

We hit all the nails home and trimmed off the excess strap material.

We started mocking up where the top pads go. We first glued the burlap straps inside the cloth covers, then clamped the pad covers in place where they looked right, measuring to center to make sure all was parallel and symmetrical.

When we are satisfied with the position we start installing nails.

With the straps nailed in place we glue the pads to the straps using the 3M spray trim contact adhesive.  A line is marked where to trim the pad, then it is cut with scissors.

With the pads trimmed on both ends we can glue the pad covers to the pad and to itself. The ends are stapled to the bows.

The Murphy fastener holes for the rear curtain are drilled and then screwed to the rear edge of the seat cushion after carefully laying out their positions. Then the receptacles are installed about 1″ above the bottom of the curtain. Finally the curtain as an assembly can be mounted to the body and clamped to the top bow to mock up the installation.

We clamped the curtain assembly in place, then installed a few nails. We did not cut it off yet.

Next we laid the top deck in place to see how it was going to fit. Immediately it became obvious that the point where the top deck intersects with the rear curtain was not matching up properly. We had to stop and figure out what was wrong.

Working with the dimensions on this drawing from back in the day we figured out that the #2, #3 and #4 bows were all too tall. We had to remove the straps, the pads, and all the nails from the rear curtain.

The bows were removed from the sockets on all three assemblies. The #4 bow needed to be 1 1/8″ shorter to match the dimensions of the drawing. #2 and #3 bow were each 1″ too tall. With 3M painter’s tape on the bows there was no damage to the exposed paint finish after we were done. I did not take photos of everything being assembled the second time to get back to where we were in the process. If you like you can go up about ten photos and then re – read what I did the first time.

Here’s the 1915 – 1922 runabout diagram in case that’s what you need.

The rear curtain came with the cloth not cut out for the window yet. I left it that way until the job was nearly finished to protect the clear plastic.

With everything looking good, we fold the bows so that it is easier to install the weather flap on the underside of the front bow.

We installed a couple clamps so the weather flap could be pulled tight, then stretched and nailed it to the front bow. The nails go near the upper edge of the bow so they won’t interfere with the tacks and nails securing the top deck to the bow.

With the top partly erected we can trim off the excess material and install a few more nails. Then put the top completely up and check fit. I ended up removing and reinstalling the weather flap two more times before I was satisfied with it.

After much time spent positioning and looking at the top deck we settled on the best position and then installed a few nails. Note that these nails need to be very close to the rear of the bow; this is critical. All the nails need to be in a line narrow enough to be covered by the final trim strip. Look at the intersection between the top deck and the rear curtain compared to the photo above right before we trimmed the top bows.

With a half dozen nails securing the top deck to the car on front and rear, it looks really good. We make the decision to trim the top to its final size and install more nails. Start by trimming to within about 1/2 inch of the nails. Eventually we need to trim to within 1/8″ of the nails. Do this carefully because it is critical to end up with a trimmed edge that can be covered by the trim strip.

We laid a piece of 3M painter’s tape next to where the trim strip will be. Marks are laid out on 2″ centers to give a good appearance to the finish tacks.

We start at the intersection of the top and the rear curtain. The lowest tack is as close to the metal socket as possible. We install enough tacks to locate the trim strip while allowing it to stretch all the way across the back of the top making a very straight line. Notice that the trim strip (or hidem welt) is covering the nails installed earlier. It is important to plan where this strip will be and install nails accordingly.

A small rubber mallet is ideal for installing trim tacks.

We started with four tacks holding the trim strip to the top. Then we install the rest of the tacks at the marked locations, splitting the largest distance between tacks each time in order to keep the trim strip in a straight line.

Eventually the tacks are all in place. Diagonal cutting pliers do a nice job when cutting off the end of the trim strip.

The wrinkles in the material will mostly disappear when the car gets out in the hot Texas sun.

The process is repeated in front.

The rear curtain stows in the rolled up position. The straps that hold the curtain are nailed to the back side of the #4 bow.

Studs to hook the curtain straps are nailed in above the trim strip. You can see wrinkles in the top deck from the material being folded to fit in the shipping box. All those wrinkles will disappear when we get the car in the hot sun.

The rolled up window gives us a nice breeze when driving in hot weather. It also helps the car’s aerodynamics. A Model T needs all the help it can get!

At each bow a nail is installed to secure the top deck to the bows

A tack is installed right next to the head of the nail.

When the tack is all the way down you won’t see the nail.

A new set of leather straps and cotter pins will look good with the refinished bows and new top. A leather punch is used to make the screw holes in the leather.

The details matter. When you finish with all the work needed to install your top, take a lot of time looking for any dropped nails, tacks, and staples. Sweep the floor around and under the car. Vacuum the seats and the splash aprons where they meet the running boards. Your tires will thank you.

This is the third top I have installed by myself. It is a decent looking job for an amateur. Can’t wait for a warm day to go for a drive.

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