Restoring the Wooden Skeleton of Saoutchik's 1948 Talbot Lago T26 100114
Laak Woodworks Is Defining Speciality Woodworking
In the winter of 2016, Brian Laak, owner of Laak Woodworks, was hired to restore the wooden skeleton of the 1947 Talbot Lago T26 Grand Sport 110114.
It is to no surprise that Laak Woodworks, based in Berthoud, Colorado, has been chosen to complete this skilled endeavor.
Brian Laak is more than a master woodworker, designer of custom cabinetry & furniture, and a long-time business owner. He is an expert in wood, metal and moving parts.
In addition to his two-decade dedication to woodworking, Brian used to be an aircraft mechanic maintaining WWII era Douglas DC3’s for Province Town Boston Airlines and an VW/ Audi/ Porsche mechanic at Laywood Motor Cars. Not to mention, Brian has been collecting and restoring vintage motorcycles for over 35 years and has created a niche in the restoration of classic English Triumph motorbikes.
Laak Woodworks and it’s small crew pride themselves on such a caliber of patience and high precision that catalyzes their expertise of interdisciplinary trade skills into the creation of functioning art. In addition to our internal team, Laak has created an invaluable network of the highest quality suppliers and contractors in the Colorado Foothills.
To understand the complexity of this restoration, one must first understand the history of how these unique automotive machines were made.
THE HISTORY OF THE COACHBUILDER & WOODEN SKELETONS
For the first half of the 20th century, automotive manufactures actually only made the chassis and power train. The chassis would then be delivered to a Coachbuilder who was responsible for designing and building everything that is visible to the viewer's eye. This includes the body, cabin, interior, doors, and fenders.
For luxury limited production vehicles, like the Talbot Lago T26 110114, a coachbuilder would first create sketches of the body design and color rendering for clients until they found common ground. Upon approval, larger drawings of the top and side views of the body would then be sketched to assist in the process of building a life-sized body form, also known as a maquettes. Maquettes would often be built out of wire frames and were used to give the coachbuilder and sheet metal craftsman a better visual aid when building the actually metal body.
The coachbuilder would then build another set of life-sized maquettes from wooden bucks. These bucks would mimic the complex curves of the metal body and would be used for hammering and final sculpting of the pre-shaped sheet metal body.
The coach builder would then go about building an internal wooden skeleton atop the chassis that would be wrapped by the sheet metal body panels and invisible to the finished car. This was a process that began early in the 1900’s transitioning away from building external car bodies entirely out of wood. The skeleton actively and intentionally absorbed, transferred and dispersed vibrations, movement and energy throughout the vehicle. They also allowed cars to withstand extreme forces of wind, weathers, temperature, moisture, and wood flexing (that occurred with higher speeds or uneven roads).
Ash has typically been the wood used to build carriages and coaches for a few reasons:
· It has the best strength to weight ratio
· It is hard yet supple
· It is water & insect resistant
· It doesn’t break along grain lines
The process of building a wooden skeletons faded quickly in the 1950’s as it was replaced by a uni-body design. A uni-body was a sheet metal body that was built mostly as one large unit rather than a series of panels. The uni-body was necessary for the mass production of cars. But when the auto industry adopted uni-bodies it greatly limited a coachbuilders ability to customize a vehicle as they could no longer remove and replace body panels as they see fit.
THE CHALLENGES OF RESTORING THE T26 SKELETON
“The only way to restore a coach built car body properly is to carefully disassemble it, in order to restore it in the same sequence in which it was first built. (Cooper)”
Laak Woodworks faces multiple challenges as we are rebuilding the wooden skeleton of theTalbot Lago T26 110114. Let’s start with a few of the simple issues and work our way into the multitude of complications. In the next sections and in following weeks, we will describe are solutions to these problems on different parts of the car.
Challenge #1: Coachbuilding was a Proprietary Trade
Vintage coachbuilding is a dying art and before that it was a secret art.
Although never officially stated, coachbuilders, like Jacques Saoutchik, remained incredibly secretive with many of their plans and manufacturing techniques. There are almost no photos of the coachbuilder’s workshops or their coaches as they were originally being built. Even with the dawn of the internet, there are very few resources detailing the exact processes used to build or restore coaches from this era. That leaves the majority of problem solving on the T26 to be solved with our personal ingenuity, creativity and trade skills.
Challenge #2: Damage Control
Since it's debut exposition at the Concour d’Elegance in 1948, the T26 110114 has been held at the wheel by many owners from around the world. Over its lifetime, the car has received a series of major modifications and restorations. This includes a removed and later reattached roof, the replacements of most of its original parts with alternative parts, and the maintenance of the wooden skeleton by multiple skilled yet differently styled craftsman. In addition, the car has faced periods of being left idle for long periods in harsh weather conditions leading to substantial deterioration including rusting and wood rot.
The broadest challenge of this restoration is rebuilding a wooden skeleton that is going to flawlessly fit into the salvaged sheet metal body. As stated in the History section of this page, the T26 wooden skeleton and bucks were created side by side with the sheet metal body which allowed, to some degree, the metal to be shaped by the design of the wood.
In this case, Laak Woodworks needs to create a skeleton that is strongly determined by the pre-existing shapes of the metal body panels. It is crucial to both the form and function of the vehicle that we create a skeleton that closely partners the metal panels. David Cooper, who was responsible for documenting the restoration of similar Talbo Lago, mentions that his team realized that the skeleton needed to fit into the metal panels with only 2mm of forgiveness.
When examining the wooden bucks of the doors of the vehicle, we can see that former restorers of the T26 worked diligently to save some of the original wood structure by sawing off rotted portions, joining new wood to the sawed off joints with glue or metal nails, and embedding the restored parts resin to protect against further deterioration. Though these modifications seemed skillfully crafted, Cooper makes another point that we have come to agree on:
“While the goal of saving the original [parts] whenever is admirable, a new wood part built from one portion old and one portion new, spliced and resin impregnated is in no way the same as the original part. Furthermore, the integrity of the vehicle and the function of the wood skeleton are compromised.”
With this knowledge in mind, we will only be using what remains of the old skeleton, bucks, and metal body as references to build new wooden pieces from scratch.
Other restoration teams have been able to use laser scans and 3D modeling to produce highly accurate digital blueprints of entire car and all of its major components and build a wooden skeleton based off of the scans. From research, we have to presume that the cars being restored with this technology had metal body frames that held their true form which allowed them to create accurate digital maps.
Our T26 metal frame no longer holds the same curves that are desired in the end product and the shaping of the metal will only happen after the production of the new skeleton. It also has thicker layers of resin that have bonded with the metal leaving the surfaces uneven. This means laser scanning and 3D models are not an option and that our estimates for curves must be handmade. Through the use of contour gauge duplicators, high-precision estimates, and thorough research in the sparse amounts of original production information available, Laak Woodworks will recreate the skeleton and doors by hand.