Tom Suddard
Tom Suddard Digital Experience Director
2/11/19 3:58 p.m.

We picked up this van for $2000, and are building it into our new tow vehicle. Why so cheap? It had issues, and the most obvious one was rust. The van sported big rust spots around the rain gutters and roof, and it had started leaking, too. We needed to fix it, but we weren't willing to pay much. Here's how we fixed it with an evening's worth of work, basic tools, and some cheap materials from our local auto parts store. One caveat: We did this job a few years ago in a hurry, and didn't take as many photos as we should have. The slideshow above is all we have to illustrate the process. Sorry!

Step One: Remove the Rust

To accomplish this, we started by scraping as much of the bubbled paint and rust from our van as we could using a putty knife and an air blower. Once we'd removed the loose rust, we switched between a die grinder and a paint-stripping wheel to get down to the bare metal.

Step Two: Remove the Damaged Metal

If this were a proper concours restoration, we'd remove any metal that had even a hint of rust on it. But since we're on a time and money budget, we didn't go that far. Plus, few people are tall enough to see the roof of the seven-foot-tall van, so we were just trying to get everything the same color and structurally sound instead of aiming for world-class bodywork. We ignored any parts of the roof without holes–meaning the rust was only on the surface–and instead decided to repair only the perforated metal. Using a dremel with a cut-off wheel, we cut the rust holes back until we reached metal thick enough to weld our patches to.

Step Three: Treat the Remaining Rust

Again, we're not going for a concours-quality job here. We brushed Ospho Rust Treatment onto the remaining surface rust near our repair area. Ospho neutralizes rust, turning it into paintable black primer. To stop the rust on the rest of the roof, where there were 6-8 patches of minor surface rust, we brushed POR-15 on, then sanded it down with 400-grit sandpaper once it was dry.

Step Four: Cut Patches

While the Ospho dried, we went to work cutting patches. An old box fan provided steel of the same thickness, while we used scissors and cardboard scraps to make a template based on the holes we'd cut into the van. Once our template was complete, a set of tin snips liberated our patches from the box fan.

Step Five: Weld Patches In

We didn't own a welder at the time, so we borrowed a friends and welded the patches into our roof. The welds weren't pretty, but they filled the gaps. Next, we ground everything smooth.

Step Six: Hide It

Now that our roof was metal again, it was time to make it look pretty. We spread bondo over the repaired area, then sanded it down with 80-grit sandpaper. Once we had the desired shape, we smoothed it with 320-grit sandpaper and used seam sealer to replace the portion of the factory rain gutter sealant that we removed in order to fix the rust. A coat of primer covered the repair, prepping things for a coat of white paint.

Step Seven: Paint It

We sanded everything down with 400-grit sandpaper, cleaned things well with Prep-Sol, then painted most of the roof with spray cans of color-matched paint and clear coat. Success! Our van's roof was waterproof and white once again, which is all we were looking for. And because we did things right and removed the original rust, this repair should last much longer than most normal backyard fixes for a rusty roof.

Total cost? Two evenings of work and about $50 in materials from our local auto parts store.

Note: We used the cheapest primer and color-matched paint that our local auto parts store carried, and regretted it. The products sprayed poorly, and the red primer ended up bleeding through our white paint after a few days. This is one area where we should have spent the extra money–we figure about $50 extra–to buy quality materials from our local body shop supply store. And if you don't have a good reason to use red primer, don't. Period.

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