W108 – Refurbishing Wood Trim

I recently tackled the wood interior trim on my 1971 W108 280SE, and some local chapter folks asked me for a short write up on what I did.

Working with wood is a hobby of mine that started with growing up in the Philippines around wooden boats, having old cars in the family, and just enjoying the warmth and natural beauty of wood. Since I’m not a skilled carpenter, cabinetmaker, wood-turner or fine craftsman, refurbishing and repurposing wood trim pieces also comes from a desire to “not just replace,” unless truly necessary. That can get expensive, quickly.

Being able to bring back a faded, bleached or sun damaged piece of trim is a challenge that I enjoy, and with pre-W116 Benz wood*, it is a “one chance” endeavor, usually, since damage due to water penetration, sanding or grain swelling will likely ruin the piece. The 108’s wood trim has an extremely thin finish veneer, applied over laminates that can be considered “plywood,” essentially. Hitting it with sandpaper will likely destroy the veneer, as the finish will tear out the top layer of grain as it is removed, and there just isn’t that much wood in the finish veneer to survive it, so chemical strippers are called for, and using them judiciously and just enough to lift what needs to be lifted without over penetrating the laminates is what has to be done. (*Note that the newer cars’ wood trim, and by “newer” I mean post-W108 cars, is a totally different proposition; MB switched to a much harder epoxy-like polyurethane finish, which is more durable, but close to impossible to remove as it forms a chemical bond with the wood.)

When I finally got this 108 home in early 2012, I knew that there was a lot of faded elegance in it. Faded paint and sun-damaged wood after 40 years made the car look unloved, but in that, I saw its potential. The door trims were flaky and the dash bow looked like sun-parched desert earth: deep cracks in the varnish, and some typical windshield seal water penetration damage. Not to mention the faded paint, with nicks, scratches and ummm, “patina.” LOL.

How I brought my wood back to looking good:

Step 1: Assess, assess, assess. I probably spend too much time thinking about starting. Some call it procrastination, but I call it a measured step prior to digging in, since I don’t have spare bits and there aren’t any local sources of wood trim.

Door Trim: Before

Step 2: Start removing the old finish. There really isn’t a way to do as recommended on the bottle. They usually say “Test for compatibility in an inconspicuous location before applying”, well, everywhere is visible with these pieces. In the “Before” pic, you’ll see how I started with the flakiest piece on the left, and removed about 2″ of finish. Doing a little at a time keeps the wood’s exposure to the chemicals at a minimum, and ideally keeps the veneer glue from being affected, too.

Door trim: in progress

Step 3: Progress slowly, and thoroughly. I set small incremental goals, vs “git’er done”, so that when I see that I’m approaching the end of a 2-3″ section, I can see the result as a victory, not seeing that there’s another 4 feet of trim left to do. I have a mantra that also helps slow me down, borrowed from the medical field: “Do no harm.” Sometimes just touching these old parts the wrong way just messes them up.

Door trim, stained

Step 5: Choose the refinishing path. There are lots of options, from “WWCCD” (What would Classic Center do?) to “What do I want here?” My goal was to restore beauty, and achieve a finish that I personally liked. I chose a warm reddish tone for the door trims, to bridge the gap in color between the brown exterior and bamboo interior. Prior to staining the wood, I made sure it was smooth, dry and as chemical-free as I could manage.

Door trim, meet dash.

Step 5.5: Check a piece to see if you like it before doing them all. I’m not planning on doing the dash (see mantra above, and leave well enough alone), but I wanted the trims to be close enough. Here is a piece, prior to varnishing.

Door trim: varnished

Step 6: Varnishing. I chose a satin finish varnish, not wanting to have the modern car glossy-wood-trim finish. I like that the wood of this era is still timber-like, and wanted the grain and character to emerge, vs a deep glossy finish that might compete with the wood.

Below are the before, during and after of the dash bow. It went through a similar process, the only difference being the trickiness of removal and re-installation with the piece being wider than the opening to remove it, and the possibility of marring the dash or binnacle finish, as well as possibly cracking the dash bow itself.

So that’s the story of my 108’s wood. I’m happy.

Pretty crazed dash bow.

Removing old finish, slowly

Varnished.

Fitted, once again.

If you’re curious, here are some real experts in the old Benz wood trim trade: Heritage Woodworks and Madera Concepts. There are probably others, too, but these specialize in wood.

Featured image at the top is by automotive photographer Otis Blank. That’s his 108, also featured on the motoringconbrio.com blog. DIY pics are by me.

6 thoughts on “W108 – Refurbishing Wood Trim”

  1. I did the same thing, but I went a step ahead and re-veneer the whole set of the dash and the bow. The window treatments needed only removal of old cover and refinishing.
    I used Original Semi-paste Strypeeze® for removal (2-3 applications for full cleanup) and Spar Urethane for finish.
    Madera Concepts (a very nice group of folks) asked $5,000 (plus shipping and handling!!) to do the whole thing. It cost me $150 for all materials, plus a few weeks of fun experimentation, and a very nice effect so far. My new veneer is still the oak species used for the w108 trim, but I got a very rare “figured” type that has beautiful waves and patterns. Original is too boring as a type of wood and corresponds to typical white oak today in the USA market.

  2. I can see that this in an older post, but hoping for a reply… I would like to know what chemical stripper you used, and what material you used to apply it (cloth rag, steel wool?) Also, what brand of finish? Your before picture of the dash bow looks a lot like mine currently

    1. Aloha Jim,

      I used four-ought steel wool “0000” on this project. Comes in an 8-pack and during the stripping phase I would liberally soak it before gently easing the old finish off the wood surface. It gets loaded up with the gunk and pilled-up old finish, so be prepared to pick up fresh steel wool once you see that you are smearing the finish around vs removing it. If the removal agent sits too long on the wood, it could pop the grain into fuzziness that’s a pain to remedy, so I work an inch or two at a time vs letting too much soak in. On the dash bow, there is a stapled block in the middle that keeps both halves butted together; try to keep that area intact as you twist one end up to remove it. I kept a hand close to it to help ease the twisting/bending across that join (the join is only visible from below so it isn’t too apparent when you start removing it.)

      I’ll have to go back and look at what I used to lift the old varnish and stain then put it in another reply.

  3. Unbelievable. A supurb piece of writing. One can visualize your love of wood through the care you’ve put into restoring your W108. I had my console (1984 380 SL) restored by Heritage Woodworks in North Carolina and they did a pretty good job, but I doubt if it’s up to your standards. Congratulations.

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