How to Apply Tolex to a Guitar Amplifier Cabinet
- Aug 26, 2020
- in Guitar Kit Builder - Amplifiers
In this article we're going to cover how one experienced amp builder covers cabinets in Tolex or textured vinyl. This article is by Casey4s, who's been active in Harmony Central's Do-It-Yourself (DIY) forum. Guitar Kit Builder encouraged him to share his experiences and photographs of installing Tolex, and he graciously agreed. “Tolex,” by the way, is a 1940s-era brand name that belonged to the General Tire and Rubber Company of Akron, Ohio. It is a flexible vinyl material that was used to cover Fender amplifiers during the 1960s. The fabric covering that Fender uses today is not Tolex, but rather textured vinyl. It remains the most common form of covering for Fender amps; usually black but sometimes in other colors too. Photo 1 below shows a close-up of four styles currently used on Fender and other amplifiers. These are 1950s Tweed (top left), early 1960s brown and blond textured vinyl (top right, bottom left) and mid-1960s to present black textured vinyl (bottom right). The procedure covered in this article should work well for all Tolex-type materials. Be sure to read through this entire article before beginning any project so you know all the steps to come and materials needed.
Photo 1 - Amplifier Coverings
This article is simply how I do Tolex projects. This is not intended to be the definitive method, but rather what has worked for me. With a bit of practice, and the steps outlined here, you too should be able to get excellent results.
For the project photographed here I'm using a simple homemade cabinet (Photo 2), but you may be starting with a purchased cabinet, or an existing cabinet that has had the covering removed.
Photo 2 - Basic cabinet construction
This cabinet uses simple butt joints (Photo 3) that have been screwed and glued together for strength. Before you can start to apply the Tolex, your cabinet must be prepared. Fill any voids caused by screws or other fasteners with some kind of wood filler or plastic wood. The same goes for any other irregularity in the surface or edges, such as small gaps in box joints, or damaged places. It would be a good idea to avoid knots in your lumber if you are building your cabinet from scratch, but that is not always possible. If you have questionable knots in your cabinet you can secure them with "Super Glue" prior to final sanding.
Photo 3 - Basic cabinet is "butt joined" with screws and glue.
I use 50/50 Bullseye Amber Shellac and denatured alcohol, or black spray paint to do the inside of the cabinet. This is mostly for cosmetic reasons and is not a necessary step, but I think the cabinet looks neater and is easier to keep clean with some kind of treatment on the bare wood. Depending on the source of your cabinet, the inside may already be finished and you can skip this.
The exhibit to the right illustrates a number of approaches to covering a cabinet, using one, two or four pieces. Each of these has its pros and cons and depends on the size of the cabinet, the size of the Tolex I have on hand and the aesthetic qualities desired. I like to do most cabinets and amp heads with two pieces - one piece for the two sides and top, and a second piece for the bottom. I'll be using the two-piece method for this project. Our first step is to determine the length of the first piece. Let’s say you have a sample cabinet 18"h x 20"w x 10"d. This piece will need to be 62" long. That’s the two sides + the top + 3" on each end for overlap (to be trimmed later). For this next step you'll need a chalk line - a small, eye-shaped case filled with blue or orange chalk and string used in construction trades. It has a metal tab on one end for pulling chalk-coated string out, and a reel on the side for winding the string back in. Alternatively you can use a ruler and a long straight-edge. Lay the Tolex piece out on the floor (Photo 4) lengthwise and use the chalk line or straight edge to mark three lines along the length of the Tolex:
- A line 3" from one edge
- A second placed the depth of the cabinet (10" in our example) from our first line
- A third line 3" from the second line
You should now have three parallel lines running the length of your piece of Tolex.
Photo 4 - Use a chalk line to make long measurement marks on the back of the Tolex.
Photo 5 - Bottom piece being checked for fit. This cabinet will have two seams on the bottom and none on top for a smooth appearance.
Use a metal straight-edge to guide your cuts and check for fit (Photo 6).
Photo 6 - Checking how the main piece will wrap the cabinet. Making sure to leave an adequate flap to fold inside the box during gluing
ADHESIVES & TOOLS
At this point our pieces are ready for gluing so it's time to talk about adhesives and some other items we'll need.
I previously used standard contact cement to apply Tolex, and that is what I used in the project shown in these photographs. I've since changed to a new product (described below) but let me tell you why. Standard contact cement requires ventilation due to the fumes, and I used two box fans in a "push pull" configuration. I also had to use mineral spirits for clean up of brushes and my hands. Thankfully we have a new product to use that avoids these hassles and is also easier to work with.
The adhesive I now recommend is a water-based contact cement. This product is a neoprene-based water-soluble product that cleans up with soap and water. No nasty solvents are required for clean up and ventilation is not needed during use. My understanding is that more than one manufacturer makes it, but I have only worked with the product available from Custom Pak Adhesives, part number CP-1386. According to Custom Pak it is not available in stores and must be ordered from them. Cost at this time (Nov. 2010) is about $28 a gallon, in a milk-jug type of container. You can reach them at www.cpadhesives.com or 800-454-4583.
Here's how to work with this product. It is very thin as compared to standard contact cement, and is easily applied with a bristle paintbrush. Apply the product to both materials to be glued as you would with contact cement and wait until it is "tacky" before putting the two pieces together. The main thing to remember is to let the carrying agent (in this case water) flash off before mating the two pieces. Using a hair dryer can speed up this process. Depending on your conditions this can take anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes. I find that it gets tacky fairly quickly (but depends on local temperature and moisture) and it lends itself to adjustment of the piece very well. If you "goof" when you put the pieces together it is a simple matter to remove it and place it again. I did an entire cabinet with a 1½" cheapie, Home Depot paint brush. The product was so easy to apply that a roller was not needed. Coverage is excellent, I don’t think I used more than a pint to do the entire cabinet including back panels. One of the biggest differences in working with this product is that the Tolex®, which is vinyl, does not stretch because of the interaction with the glue. That means that it does not have a tendency to "pucker" or bubble up, which is a common problem when applying Tolex® with standard contact cement. Since it does not stretch it therefore does not shrink when the product finally cures and sets. This is especially important for doing nice corners, or seams.
The adhesive will have its full cure in 24 hours but you can work with it immediately after applying. I was able to keep working the entire time and didn’t need to walk away and wait for the product to setup to continue on to the next piece. By the time I had covered the next piece of Tolex® and cabinet surface with glue, the last area I worked on was set well enough to continue. This alone is a valuable asset because there is very little time wasted.
Clean up is much easier than with standard contact cement because it is water soluble. There are no nasty solvents, and no toxic fumes. The glue has very little odor and it is not unpleasant. I kept a small pan of warm water nearby to rest the brush in when I wasn’t applying glue, this helps a lot but it is difficult to get all of the glue out of the brush, so I recommend disposable type brushes. The glue comes off of your hands with soap and water. The Tolex® itself can be cleaned up as you go along with warm water. For areas where you have seams, or are doing corners sometimes glue will ooze out and need to be wiped off. Warm water works the best. Try putting pine-sol in it if needed. Because it is neoprene-based it can be a little difficult regardless. There are some other items to have on hand when you start gluing. Wax paper is great to cover anything that you don’t want the cement to stick to.
You will also need a good sharp razor knife, or box cutter, a metal straight edge and pencils or markers that can be seen on the Tolex. Keep some masking tape on hand as well.
GLUING THE PANELS
Lay the Tolex face down and apply the glue (Photo 7) with a brush to the area in the center that is marked for the top panel. Then apply glue to the cabinet top. You must apply glue to BOTH PIECES to be glued together. Cover the whole area, but not too heavy, let it dry to where it is tacky, as described above, before putting the two pieces together.
Photo 7 - Start the Tolexing process on the top of the cabinet by applying adhesive to the center section of the wrap-around piece.
Do not put the two pieces together when the glue is still wet. Use the lines to make sure the piece is aligned properly. Smooth the material with your hands, being careful not to stretch it too much. Now glue the sides (Photos 8 and 9), one at a time, in the same way. Then glue the bottom in place. When everything has set up, fold the 3" flaps in on the bottom piece (Photo 10) and glue them in the same manner. Now trim the side panels where they overlap the bottom piece so you have about a ½" overlap, and glue in place.
Photo 8 - Continuing to do both sides after the top
Photo 9 - Three of the sides are now glued into place
Photo 10 - Now the bottom piece is glued into place
TOLEX ON CORNERS & SIDE FLAPS
The following examples were photographed on a practice corner instead of on the cabinet shown previously, to make things clearer. If this is your first attempt, or if you are not satisfied with how your past corners have looked, I highly recommend making a "practice corner" out of a couple of pieces of wood scraps attached at a 90-degree angle, and covered with scrap Tolex. Start the corner by cutting the overlapping Tolex material along the line of the corner (Photo 11). Marking a cut line may help you to do this more accurately.
Photo 11 - Cut the overlapping Tolex along the corner line
This will leave the two flaps of material free to bend (Photo 12).
Photo 12 - After the corner cut
Now fold the flaps in (Photo 13) and box fold the corners at a 45-degree angle. You can cut with a razor along this line (Photo 14) through both pieces to make a butt joint with no gap. Trim away the excess material (Photo 15). Check the fit to make sure it's ready for gluing (Photo 16). Then lift the flaps (Photo 17) and apply the adhesive, allowing it to get tacky as before . Then glue in place and use masking tape to hold in place while drying (Photo 18). The finished corner should adhere tightly and look neat and professional (Photo 19).
Photo 13 - Fold the flaps in
Photo 14 - 45 degree corner cuts
Photo 15 - Trim the excess material
Photo 16 - Test fit before gluing
Photo 17 - Lift flaps and apply adhesive
Photo 18 - When adhesive is tacky, folder flaps into place and secure with masking tape until dry
Photo 19 - The finished corner looks neat and professional
Lastly, cut pieces for the back panel, and glue up in the same basic manor as the main cabinet. If this is a first attempt at Tolexing, and you haven't practiced otherwide, it might be wise to do the back panels FIRST to practice with the glue. Make sure as you make the panels to allow for the thickness of the multiple layers of the Tolex material, and in the case of the speaker baffle, the thickness of the grille cloth. Photo 20 shows the Tolexed back panel in place.
Photo 20 - Back panel has been Tolexed and installed
HARDWARE & COMPLETION
With the back panel completed you're nearly done. Let everything set up overnight before attaching the corners, handle or other hardware to the cabinet. Hopefully you'll end up with a beautiful custom-Tolexed cabinet that you'll be proud to use and show off.
Photo 21 - A great looking custom Tolexed cabinet