Plate perfection: The art of license plate restoration

By ‘Rotten’ Rodney Bauman

While I don’t necessarily recall the exact statistic, it’s been said that the average worker-bee changes career courses seven times in his or her lifetime. Although I could have been a doctor, a lawyer or a famous underwear model, I’ve made a career of straightening body parts of old cars. Early on, I was warned of the “occupational hazards,” so the trick knee, junk rotator cuffs, tennis elbows, carpal tunnels and the recent double hernia are nobody’s fault but my own. Now in my mid-50s, I find myself still swingin’ heavy hammers, and just between you and me, I could really use a break.

A typical workday here at our shop would likely include rolling around on a concrete floor while absorbing all the not-so-good vibrations from pneumatic tools, such as a DA (dual-action) sander, or worse. In the body and paint departments, even on hot days, a respirator is a must for survival. But the strap-on device will elevate the human body’s operating temperature as recycled breath has negative effects of its own.

It was right around 3 p.m. on one of those typical workdays, during peak summer heat, when I had to walk away. I pulled off my respirator, elbow braces and sweat-filled latex gloves. Then I grabbed a cold beverage, sat down on a stool and let my macular-degenerative eyes wander around the shop where all manner of unfinished projects began to confront and all but gang up on my guilt.

So, I took a ’63-issue California license plate off the wall and got to thinkin’. Perhaps I could straighten it up a little. I wouldn’t need a respirator or those uncomfortable elbow braces for such a small job, so it seemed like an OK idea at the time. I proceeded to clear the welding table, made myself a place to work, and about an hour later, the progress was quite encouraging.

That tiny bit of success got me to thinkin’ some more. I’ve never had any desire to restore license plates before, but these days, it’s good to have extra tricks in the bag. So, as long as we’re all together here, I’ll show you how it’s done.

Here’s another good example of how specific-purpose tools can be fashioned from ordinary household items. As it turns out, pencils can take a tapping. This particular pencil is a perfect match for the rounded ends of the characters






We’ve passed the lettering chores along to McPeak Painting & Pinstriping. Come to find out, McPeak also restores old license plates from start to finish. After all we’ve been through, we’ll keep that in mind for next time.


Having restored a license plate, we came away with new respect for the professionals. This type of work takes a lot of time, with an extra helping of patience thrown in for good measure. As with any other auto-restorative process, speed comes with experience. We’ve gained a little of both. There’s another trick for the bag.



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