Headliners are tricky. Most pre-1980s cars had vinyl headliners held in place with steel rods (bows) and were glued in place to the sides of the roof, and sometimes even under the front and rear glass. Installing a new stock-style headliner takes a lot of trial and error, most enthusiasts take the car to a professional for this type of job. In the end, you get a headliner that looks stock and costs you in the pocket. Late model cars use formed fiberboard or foam headliner bases. This allows the designers to mold in shapes and keep the visible fasteners to a minimum, which is always a plus. There are several methods for putting together a custom headliner; some are more simple than others. To illustrate one such method, we built and installed a custom headliner for a ’63 Buick LeSabre wagon.
Being a 4-door, the wagon measures over 20 foot on the exterior. Such a large car is going to have a large interior, the roof measures out at 4 1\4 foot wide by 8 1\2 foot long. One of the nice things about a factory vinyl headliner is the lack of visible fasteners and joints. The Buick had the upgraded headliner option, which was a masonite composite perforated hardboard. This headliner was installed in 3 pieces, with chromed plastic trim covering the joints. We wanted a smooth, seamless headliner, and because of the size of the roof, increased the difficulty of this task. Most custom headliners are made with wood or formed bases, such as fiberglass or shaping foam. These take a lot of time to design and install, the fiberglass is messy, especially upside down. We have an alternative.
I discovered this technique in 1995 while “customizing” my first car, a 1983 Toyota (please spare the jokes, I was 19), the factory headliner was made from expanded metal sandwiched in foam. I have never seen this done by any custom shops, so you heard it here first. We ordered two 4×8 sheets of 20-gauge expanded metal and had the metal shop cut it to size. Because you can’t get expanded metal wider than 4×8 (without having it custom made and means big $$$$), we sectioned three pieces together by welding it. Using expanded steel for the headliner base requires several hands, the wagon took three people to install, a fourth would have been nice. The trick is to bow the metal in the center (towards the floor), and set the two edges in the channels on the side of the car. Next, the center is slowly lifted till it pops up, following the contours of the roof. This is the tricky part, using trial and error, fitting and trimming. We managed to get the measurements right the first time.
Once formed, the headliner metal was removed, trimmed for length and wrapped with foam and vinyl. The plan was for the headliner to have no visible fasteners and the length of the headliner made that tough. The factory dome light was long gone, so we made a new dome light pod from wood and body filler to fit a billet aluminum dome light we picked up from Autoloc. This provided the support in the center of the headliner we needed. It doesn’t take much to keep the metal in place; one well-placed mount does the trick.
In all, the entire process took a few days to design, trim and install. We spent a total of $189 on this project:
What we got was a killer looking custom headliner with no visible seams or fasteners and the satisfaction that we did ourselves. Most customs and hot rods have considerably smaller headliners, which would make this job easier and cheaper than our long-roof.
1. The factory fiberboard headliner was crumbling. It actually caused a dangerous situation, when a section came down while driving the car. The vinyl headliners are not quite that bad. The roof is quite large.
2. This is how you get the width down without wrestling the full size liner. A strip of expanded steel was placed in the channels on the side of the car, bowed down in the center.
3. Once the center is popped up, the tension holds it in place.
4. We sectioned three pieces together, with the long joint in the center, and one joint at the tail. We used a MillerMatic 211 MIG welder cranked all the way down.
5. Welding expanded metal is tricky, the thin metal burns easily. We found the trick for this is to hold a hammer or other shield on the other side of the welding area. This keeps the shielding gas over the weld, which makes all the difference. If you burn through, just take a breath and move on to the next one.
6. ‘60s cars had lots of trim. The headliner was trimmed out with 20 or so separate pieces. We soda-blasted each one and powder coated it green, to match the green on black interior design we have for the wagon.
7. Since our wagon had a hardboard liner, it already had an aluminum channel in place to the edges. If your car has the typical loose vinyl style, then you will need to make these. A simple bend in some flat steel or aluminum does the trick. To make up for the thicker headliner, we opened up the bend in the channel on the wagon with a trim tool we picked up from Gearwrench.
8. Using the factory trim, we marked the edges of the metal for coverage.
9. The upper line is where the trim starts and the second line is where we decided to cut it. This arbitrary, as long as you don’t cut it short. A set of tin snips from Gearwrench made quick work of the metal.
10. Once trimmed, the metal was pulled out and laid on some cardboard on the shop floor. Then we sprayed upholstery cement onto the metal and the foam. After letting it dry for a few minutes, the foam was laid over the metal and smoothed out. You want to use a quality glue, sprayed through a paint gun (a cheap siphon feed is best), and NOT an aerosol can. Aerosol glue is not good enough for this kind of task; the material will fall within a few days. You can usually buy it by the cup full at the local upholstery shop.
11. Next, we laid the vinyl onto the headliner, folded half of it back and sprayed some more glue down. The shop was kind of chilly when we did this, so we used a heat gun on low to warm up the vinyl and glue before moving on.
12. Working with a large piece requires two people, one to hold the bulk of the material, the other to stretch and press it in place.
13. You can’t just lay the vinyl out and glue it down, you have to heat it and stretch it to get the wrinkles out. The tension from stretching also helps it keep its shape.
14. The rear section had a compound curve, which was not hard to wrap, but you could get wrinkles really easy if you didn’t use heat and lost concentration.
15. Once the front side was done, we flipped it over and wrapped the edges. This is not absolutely necessary, but wrapping the edges will alleviate any loosening that could occur otherwise. It also looks nicer and saves your hands from some potentially nasty cuts.
16. Inside the car, we measured from the windshield to the stock dome light mount as well as to the side of the car. We made a note of these measurements for positioning the new light.
17. The metal backing was drilled for the new dome light. Once drilled, we noted the locations so we could find the holes with the headliner in place.
18. This would have been really tricky if the wagon did not have a tailgate. You have to be careful here, not to gouge any of the upholstery- the seats and the headliner. It took three people to get the headliner positioned.
19. You want to start in the center when installing the trim. This keeps the center locked in place, and the rest of the headliner with it.
20. We made a custom sculpted dome light pod using wood and body filler and wrapped in vinyl. The pearlescent green vinyl looks great, though we may end up changing it later on to better match the seats. It does break up the large expanse of black on the headliner though. The Autoloc dome light adds a nice touch of flash.
21. With the headliner in place, we measured to the center and trimmed it out with a razor blade and pulled the wire through.
22. Next, the pod was mounted to the roof. Note the helping hand in the back, supporting the backside of the headliner, the trim has not been installed yet.
23. We wired the light to the factory wires with a couple of crimp caps. In hindsight, we should have trimmed off some more wire, stuffing the excess wire back under the headliner was a chore.
24. All done for the dome light. This will support the center of the headliner and keep it from drooping.
25. The freshly powder coated trim was reinstalled around the perimeter of the headliner. As you can see here, the rear trim is quite convoluted; there are 4 separate pieces here.
26. The finished headliner looks great. The green trim really stands out against the black perf vinyl. Eventually, the rest of the interior will be re-upholstered in a mix of green and black, with brown accents, such as the dash (which is stock and absolutely perfect) remaining as is.
A life-long gearhead, Street Tech Magazine founder and editor Jefferson Bryant spends more time in the shop than anywhere else. His career began in the car audio industry as a shop manager, eventually working his way into a position at Rockford Fosgate as a product designer. In 2003, he began writing tech articles for magazines, and has been working as an automotive journalist ever since. His work has been featured in Car Craft, Hot Rod, Rod & Custom, Truckin’, Mopar Muscle, and many more. Jefferson has also written 5 books and produced countless videos. Jefferson operates Red Dirt Rodz, his personal garage studio, where all of his magazine articles and tech videos are produced. You can follow Jefferson on Facebook (Jefferson Bryant), Twitter (71Buickfreak), and YouTube (RedDirtRodz).