Possibly the biggest undertaking yet on this truck was making the new custom bed for Project Pilehouse. To quote Ron Covell in a metal shaping class at Eastwood headquarters; “I think those bedsides were the single largest pieces I’ve ever seen bead rolled in my life!”. The bed was definitely the largest part of a vehicle I’ve fabricated from scratch.
So when the time came to start designing the tailgate for the bed next, I initially thought “oh this will be simple, it’s small and will be just like the front panel of the bed”. I was sorta right, but the difference is that an added layer of difficulty was added when I decided I wanted the tailgate to actually function AND be as clean and “sanitary” looking as the rest of the bed. You see, I’m a bit jaded when it comes to my opinion on styling on custom cars, and I often tend to want to do things the “hard way” so they look better than what I see the majority do to their projects. This means I am also normally working out of my comfort or skill level. I know what I DON’T want and what I think will look “right”, but making it all a reality can take some help from others here at Eastwood.
On this tailgate project I first established what I didn’t want, no ugly chains or straps and hooks, and no obtrusive latches or handles that would detract from the cleanliness of the rear of the truck. I also didn’t want it to look like a piece of plate was welded into the opening and I had a “wall” of flat metal on the back of the truck. I started by cutting a piece of cardboard and spent a day or two drawing on the board and standing back and staring at it before erasing it and drawing something different. It seemed no matter what letters or designs I put on the tailgate, nothing seemed right. The truck is a “Custom” and isn’t really a Dodge, Chevy, etc anymore, and beadrolling “PILEHOUSE in the tailgate panel seemed a little too over the top. In the end I went back to the K.I.S.S. theory and mimicked the design on the front panel of the bed for continuity. No lettering was necessary, I’d let the small custom touches do the talking!
Once I had a design laid out, I measured the tailgate opening and cut out 1″x1.5″ box tubing for the frame of the tailgate. These matched the size of the bed supports they’d be butting up against and would also keep the tailgate from becoming a giant boat anchor on the back of the truck.
I first decided I wanted NO visible latches or handles on the tailgate. This meant latching the tailgate was going to be a little bit of a feat on its own. I enlisted the help of Product Designer and Eastwood R&D guru Mark R. here at Eastwood. He’s helped me work through the engineering difficulties on most of my off-the-wall ideas on Pilehouse; luckily he likes a challege. Mark and I worked through a few ideas until we came up with the idea of putting keyed slots in the uprights of the outer uprights of the tailgate frame that would allow you to remove and lift the tailgate up and fold it down. The tailgate “latches” would be a perfectly cut opening on the bottom of the top tube of the tailgate on either end that would slip over the bed supports. Sounds simple right? Sorta.. lets show you how we did it!
We started by measuring the height of where our hinge pin needed to sit so we could see how long the slots in the side supports needed to be. The height of those slots were also determined by the height that the tubing needed to sit when the tailgate was closed PLUS the panel gap needed on the bottom and the sides, PLUS the sheet metal thickness of the outer “skin” we’d be adding later. We decided to use drill bits and round bar stock to set the height and gap on the tailgate uprights. If you keep these round bar or drill bits taped to the vehicle or at least nearby throughout the project you can quickly set pieces up each time you test fit them. With the height of the hinge point and the slot length traced out, Mark took the uprights to the mill and machined the slots. He also added a small indent on the bottom part of the frame so the hinge pin could slip fully seat through the upright.
I then took a piece of round DOM tubing that matched the upper rails on the bedsides and cut it to length to match the width between the bedsides. Next we cut out the underside of the tubing so it would fit tightly over the bed supports. This also gave us the final height the the tailgate frame uprights needed to be. We wanted the uprights and top cross brace to fit inside of the top tube for structural rigidity. I left the tailgate uprights tall so they would support the top tube and I clamped the side supports so they were square and gapped correctly. I then used the TIG 200 to partially weld the bottom cross bar and the two outer uprights together. This gave me a “U” shape we could begin to build off of. I then cut the outer supports down and welded the upper crossbar to the uprights.
The next issue that presented itself was the interference of the recessed design of the outer metal skin with the center uprights on the tailgate frame. The panel facing the outside of the truck would be rolled with our new forming dies to give a “pressed” look and the center of the panel would be offset to the inside. We decided to work around this by having Mark mill a channel into the center of the uprights so they would clear the panel. With everything test fit I welded the support braces in place and we had a complete tailgate frame.
With the frame built we test fit it into the opening with our round bar for our gap and made sure everything sat as it should. We then marked and drilled the holes for our pivot points at the bottom of the tailgate. We decided to use grade 8 bolts that we cut the heads off of for the hinge points. Butt welding these directly to the box tubing was asking for failure over time, so Mark machined up mounting blocks out of steel that snugly fit inside the box tubing and were drilled and tapped to accept the bolt. We used a drift to tap the blocks down into the box tubing until the tapped hole was lined up with the hole we drilled in the box tubing. I used the professional spot weld drill bit to cut an opening in the backside of the bed supports that I could plug weld the mounting block in place through with the MIG 175.
Now that the tailgate frame was mounted and functioned correctly we were ready to move on to making the sheet metal skin that would actually be visible when done. I started cutting two pieces of 18 gauge with an extra 1/2″ of material on each side so we could fold the edges over and weld the two skins (inner and outer) together. I then realized I had to take the material thickness of the two pieces of 18 gauge out of the opening in the bottom of the top tube to allow them to slip up inside of the sandwich of round tubing, box tubing, and sheet metal. This was solved by a few passes over the opening with the flap disc on the angle grinder. We then test fit the panels onto the frame to make sure I liked the look of the simplified design before we continued.
The bead roller was mounted in the vice and we installed our new offset forming dies. These dies allow you to create a “pressed or raised” look in a panel depending on how you set the dies. I set the gap between the dies (determines the size of the “ramp” in the bead) pretty tight so we had a steep, deep pressed design like the bedsides. We ran both panels through the bead roller and then notched the corners of each panel to clear the pivot on the bed. We also marked and broke the 1/2″ edges on the panels.
Here’s everything test-fit together and this is the home stretch where everything really starts to come together that you had been working on! After checking my gaps I noted some spots on the corners that needs a little hammer and dolly work and removed the panels to prep them for final assembly. I cleaned everything with a red scuff pad and then wiped it all down with PRE to prepare for primer. I chose our black self etching primer to apply to the entire frame and the insides of the outer panels that would all be hidden. I laid 3-4 medium coats to assure I had every inch covered completely with primer.
I then assembled everything one last time and butted the edges of the skins where they were broke for welding. I set the panels up so there was little or no gap where the panels met so I could metal finish the sides to hide the weld seam that would be visible when the gate was open. I did small runs jumping around the seams until I had all sides welded solid and the two outer skins were one.
I then used a 36 grit sanding disc on the pneumatic 1/4″ angle grinder to knock the welds down and blend them into the metal. I then went back and touched up any pits or low spots in the weld seam with additional weld and sanded the entire area with 80 grit paper on the palm DA sander. This gives a nice brushed finish that highlights any major high or low spots.
With the skin welded together and to the frame I test fit everything one more time and made witness marks of where the top tube sat when fully seated over the tailgate and ran a handful of short welds that connected the bottom of the tube to the top of the tailgate skin. I did this for a couple reasons, one was to secure the round tubing to the gate, the other was so the tubing wouldn’t flex or bow from lifting up on the tailgate when opening. I didn’t want to weld the entire seam as it was a little overkill and I wanted to avoid putting too much heat into the skin since I can’t get behind the panels to hammer and dolly any heat shrinkage out. I will be adding a small bead of of our flexible, paintable seam sealer to these seams to give a finished look when the truck someday is painted. I plan to add some small high tensile wire tethers to the sides of the tailgate to allow it to sit open.
The result is an ultra clean tailgate that matches the rest of the bed and I’m pretty excited as this is one of the last major exterior panels of the truck that we needed to make (I can almost see a light at the end of the tunnel!). I can’t wait to see this all in paint and the questions that will surely come at a cruise-in or show… “How does the tailgate open or latch?”.
Next I need to decide on a bed floor, metal bead rolled, or a traditional wood slat floor? Weigh in on your opinion in the comments!