How to align body pan­els with pre­ci­sion

It’s easy to fall into the trap of think­ing that a good paintjob is one sin­gle job, when in re­al­ity it’s a se­ries of smaller jobs that most al­ways have to be done in a spe­cific se­quence. Get­ting proper panel align­ment and gap is one of those jobs, and get­ting proper re­sults means start­ing well be­fore you start prim­ing and paint­ing. As you’ll see, gap­ping pan­els is a sim­ple op­er­a­tion that can be done at home with a mod­est as­sort­ment of tools, and even if you’re hav­ing a body shop do the ac­tual paint­work, it’s an area where you’ll be able to save money and cre­ate a bet­ter out­come.

Panel gap­ping is some­thing you’ll want to ad­dress fairly early in the body and paint process. Once ma­jor ar­eas of rust and col­li­sion dam­age are fixed, panel gaps should be checked and set. This will po­ten­tially ex­pose other hid­den prob­lems well be­fore they become re­ally ex­pen­sive, thus sav­ing you time, money, and headache. The last thing you want to be do­ing af­ter paint is grind­ing, twist­ing, shim­ming, and drilling!

Alloy Mo­tors in Oak­land, Cal­i­for­nia, spe­cial­izes in mus­cle car restora­tion, and Mopars in par­tic­u­lar. Shop op­er­a­tor Ge­off Gates is a big fan of Mopar A-bodies, which means our ’68 Ply­mouth Valiant is right up his al­ley. Gates was gra­cious enough to take our Valiant in, and show us step-by-step how to get an old clas­sic like this ready for paint, with the fo­cus on how to do it at home with only a mod­est in­vest­ment in tools. Gap­ping pan­els and set­ting align­ment is a bit of an art, but there are some neat tricks to make it sim­ple, and that’s what Gates is go­ing to show us here.

“One of the things that can take a medi­ocre job into the realm of show qual­ity is the lit­tle de­tails. Panel gaps are one such de­tail,” says Gates. “We’re not go­ing for show qual­ity here on the Valiant, but half-inch door gaps are just too much for us to let out of the shop.” Gates notes that Chrysler in the ’60s wasn’t known for their su­pe­rior fit and fin­ish, and the Valiant wasn’t even close to be­ing a pre­mium model, so the gaps on these cars were never that great from the fac­tory. “With a lit­tle bit of work, we can get all the pan­els on the car to line up right and make the gaps a bit tighter, and cer­tainly more even,” says Gates. “Now is the time to get that work done, when the heavy met­al­work is fin­ished, and be­fore the body­work starts. Af­ter all, some of the magic in gap­ping the pan­els may re­quire a bit more of both!”

There aren’t a ton of tools here, just a few sock­ets, wrench, drill, 2-inch grinder, and a DA. The Porta Power is for heav­ier work, but you can get them cheap from Har­bor Freight, or go in with some bud­dies and share one.

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