My absolute favorite thing about my day job is installing 12-volt electronics where they do not easily fit and making it look like they came that way from the automobile manufacturer. In this case, it was installing the new Alpine X009-U 9″ head unit into the dash of a 2003 Ford F-350. As you can see in the images below, the X009-U is virtually the same height as the Ford double DIN radio and climate controls combined… and quite a bit wider!

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Since the X009-U will need to be custom installed into pretty much every vehicle out there, Alpine graciously supplies a trim ring that can be molded into the dash. This makes it a tad bit easier on the installer and gives him/her a nice starting point. Said trim ring can be seen in the previous two images.

First thing is to cut a VERY large opening in the dash panel to house this behemoth of a head unit’s trim ring. I then like to hold the ring in place with superglue, in a few key places. This will hold the ring in place while I permanently glue it in place with Norton Speed Grip 2-part plastic epoxy:

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Once the epoxy is set up, I then grind/sand any extra off that squeezed through to the front. I make sure to maintain the shape of the trim ring to the front of the OEM dash panel. In the next image, you will notice that I had to build up a section under the head unit buttons to make for a seamless transition from the Alpine trim ring to the OEM dash panel. For this I use Evercoat Fiber Tech, which is a Kevlar reinforced filler. I then use Evercoat Rage Gold for any “fine tuning”:

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Once I was happy with shape of everything and filled any little pin holes etc., I sprayed the entire panel with several light coats of texture to get back to the OEM textured finish. For this texture I like to use SEM Satin Black Chip Guard:

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Once the texture coat dried, I applied a OEM matching top coat to give its final finish:

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Now that the dash panel was basically finished until final install, it was time to find a good place for the climate controls. Luckily there is a pocket below the dash panel that is of little use. Although the pocket itself isn’t near large enough to house the climate control, the surrounding area is:

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The first thing to do was hack the pocket out of there with an air saw:

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It was immediately clear that I was going to need to build this area out a little to make room for the climate controls to be rear mounted. So I made a perfect frame out of a solid piece of 1/4″ ABS. This would give me a framed-in area to rear mount the climate control and also give me a place to build onto to get the shape I want for that area of the panel. A quick test fit before trimming it a little on the corners and then tacking it in place with super glue:

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Just like the head unit trim ring, I used the Norton Speed Grip to permanently bond it in place:

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Again, I rough sanded the Norton Speed Grip and then used the Evercoat Fiber Tech to build up the transitions to the OEM panel. This is after rough sanding and using some more Evercoat Rage Gold filler for the finishing work:

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A quick coat of texture in the modified area, some sanding to blend to the panel, just to check to make sure my shaping was good etc:

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I then used the same 1/4″ ABS and Norton Speed Grip to make mounts for the climate controls to screw to the backside:

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A quick test fit of the climate control:

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A complete texture coating of the panel:

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And finally the OEM matching color and mounting of the climate control:

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Now that all the panels were finished, it was time for what I consider the hardest part… securely mounting the head unit in the dash. This is typically very time-consuming since there isn’t really any mounting points for the new radio. It needs to be EXACT so that when the dash panel is secured back onto the dash, the head unit sits perfectly into the opening I just created. The first thing is to cut out supports that are in the way etc. The new head unit is huge, so it needs space! Then it’s a matter of coming up with a mounting system that I can attach into the dash and is adjustable so I can fine tune the fitment as I go. So there is a lot of putting the dash panel on, take it back off, adjust the head unit a little, but the dash back on, take it back off, adjust again, put the dash panel back on…. you get the idea. I did not take any pictures of this as it’s behind the scenes and boring. So you will just need to take my word for it when I say this thing isn’t budging.

Installed images:

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This is my first FD cluster I have done. A FD cluster is different from most clusters since each gauge has its own opening in the facia. All of the other clusters I have done have one large lens that the gauges sit behind. Keep in mind that I use the term “gauges” loosely. OEM gauges are not like aftermarket gauges where each is in its own separate chassis. OEM gauges are simply just the faces(dial) and needles(pointer) slapped onto one large plastic housing with the electronics/mechanics underneath the faces. Then typically a black facia over the front of the dials to divide them and make them look like separate gauges. Then of course the clear lens over the front. So the unique design of the FD cluster allows for more of a “drop in” of aftermarket gauges. The OEM sizes are somewhat close to the size of aftermarket gauges, but not near exact enough for me. Unfortunately this customer sent me a carbon fiber facia, so I couldn’t really modify it to fit the gauges how I would have preferred. Ideally I would fill or enlarge the OEM gauge openings to fit the aftermarket gauges exactly. I would then re-texture the whole facia and give it back the OEM look/finish. I just finished another FD cluster where I did exactly this… so stay tuned for that post. In the meantime, enjoy some images from this carbon fiber facia cluster.

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Just another S14 cluster build… well, not so fast. This just isn’t any old customer. It’s Peter Tarach, editor in chief of Modified Magazine. Peter and I have known each other for several years now. I help him, he helps me… it’s a good relationship! So naturally when he asked about a cluster for his track S14 I was more than happy to oblige. However, this cluster wasn’t just going in the car, it was going to have its own little write-up in an issue of Modified Magazine. Now as I typed this a few months back, it appeared that Modified Magazine was going to be closing their doors… and they did. I’m not sure what that means for getting this cluster featured in maybe whatever magazine Peter works for next, but that’s not what it’s all about. It’s not even about the money. It’s about seeing how satisfied people are when they receive one of my products. It’s an honor for me to have one of my clusters or interior pieces residing in a customer’s dashboard. Whether they are a well known drifter, a 16-year old kid with his very first ride or in this case, Peter Tarach. So I wish the best of luck to Peter and his new ventures… along with the rest of the staff at Modified Magazine.

I guess it’s time to get down to business. The first thing I ask any potential cluster customer is what they want in it. I have to make sure everything is going to fit comfortably. I refuse to cram things in. It has to look natural with an adequate amount of spacing between gauges. In this case Peter already had a Stack race display that he wanted retrofitted into the cluster. “Cool” I said, those things are sick and have an ultra-clean style to them. He also wanted his 45mm Omori boost gauge and 52mm AEM wideband mounted in there. Naturally this threw up a red flag for me. Not only were the gauges different brands, but they were different sizes. This really “gets my goat”. So I politely suggested to him that we ditch those two gauges and replace them with a couple Speedhut gauges. After all, this is going to be in Modified Magazine. I can’t have a mish mosh of equipment floating around in there, LOL. I suggested Speedhut for a couple reasons. For one, I’m a Speedhut dealer and am very familiar with them. I could just order them up and he would not need to worry about it. I wanted to make it as easy as possible for him since I just told the guy that I didn’t really want to use the gauges he just sent me. Second of all, Speedhut gauges are completely customizable. Which meant I could match the look and illumination of the Stack display. Peter, being the good guy that he is, agreed to all of this. Not to mention that Speedhut was kind enough to hook us up on the gauges in exchange for the obvious exposure they would receive in the magazine article. Now that we were set on the equipment, it was up to me to make it all come together inside of an S14 cluster.

In case you didn’t already know, I prefer to retrofit the aftermarket equipment into the OEM cluster housing. It ensures that the cluster will simply bolt back into the dashboard just like it came out. But most importantly, it maintains a nice OEM style with the flair of the aftermarket equipment inside of it. I also try to reuse the OEM cluster lens… I think it helps finish off the look. I offer an optional 7-step polishing process to restore the lens back to new. So first thing is to gut the OEM cluster housing. This is the cluster in stock form:

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OEM lens removed. As you can see it’s in need of some love:

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OEM cluster surround removed. This piece will need to get trimmed/gutted to perfection in order for this to all come together… more on that later:

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Back half of the OEM cluster that houses the actual gauge faces, electronics and circuitry on the back:

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Everything removed from the back half:

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Now that disassembly is complete, it’s time to start modifying everything in order to accept the new gauge plate. I use a 3/4″ piece of MDF for the plate. This allows me plenty of thickness to flush the gauges… which I feel gives a much more finished look over simply surface mounting them. The OEM cluster surround needs to be opened up to remove the horizontal flat section where the OEM gauge faces use to reside. This means grinding/sanding perfectly right up the surround wall. It also needs to be perfect on the backside so the new gauge plate butts right up against it without any gaps or weird undulations.

My tool of choice when modify virtually any plastic is a die-grinder. I use a burr type bit to rough cut the majority of the plastic away:

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Next I use a 1-1/2″ drum sander on the die-grinder to rough sand it down to match the exact contour of the interior wall of the cluster surround:

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Close-up of the precision sanding:

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Next up is to modify the back half of the cluster. Not only will this allow the new aftermarket gauges to physically fit, but it also serves to “sandwich” the new gauge plate between it and the front cluster surround. First thing is to grind all of the nubs and high spots off the back of it:

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Grinding off the extra plastic on the back allows me to easily run it through my scroll saw. The saw is used to rough-cut away the horizontal flat section… thus leaving just the wall:

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Next I use the same drum sander used earlier to finish off the rough spots. It doesn’t have to be perfect since it will never be seen, but there’s no need for it to look like a hack-job:

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As discussed earlier, I use a 3/4″ thick piece of MDF for the main gauge plate:

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It butts up against the back of the surround nice and flat since I took the time to make sure the surround was sanded carefully and true:

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As seen in the image below, the 3/4″ thick gauge plate is far too thick for the back half of the cluster to snap back on. So I simply use a router to make a rabbet cut around the perimeter of the plate:

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With the rear half of the cluster modified, it’s time to move on to the main plate. The Stack display is installer friendly in that it has a thin lip all the way around the perimeter for it to surface mount into a plate. However, I wanted to go one step further and flush mount it into the new gauge plate. First thing is getting it marked out. As you can see in the image below, I got lucky that it barely fits height wise within the S14 cluster surround:

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The inner line gets cut out with a jig saw, then the flush portion is created again with a rabbet bit. However, the lower corners are too tight to use the rabbet bit. So I hand carved/shaped the flushed ledge in those areas:

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As mentioned earlier, we agreed on the 52mm Speedhut Revolution series gauges to flank each side of the Stack display:

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Also added in flush turn signal indicators and eventually a Stack shift light off to the right side:

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I’m constantly test fitting things as I go… this is one of those times:

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This after an initial coat of SEM Satin Black Chip Guard. It typically takes several coats to get a texture I’m satisfied with. I love this stuff!

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After six coats and some dry time, I test fit everything to make sure I’m still on track:

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Last thing on the list, before I can call this complete, is to polish the OEM lens. I start off with wet sanding the inside and outside with 1200, 1500 then finish with 2000 grit. I then polish the inside and outside with four stages of polish. This is after the wet sanding to get all of the deeper scratches out:

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The finished product ready for service!

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Well, this job was slightly unexpected for me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s right up my alley. However, the cost for me to do something this tedious is not cheap… and for what most onlookers would refer to as a waste of money. With that being said, I completely understand the customer’s reasoning. Hell, I do the same sort of thing all the time… spend tons of money or time on things that will go unnoticed by most.

So down to it! This customer had a set of S13 JDM window switch plates/switches that he wanted in his S13 USDM vehicle. Seems easy enough, just unsnap/unscrew the switch assemblies from the back of the JDM plates and attach them to the back of the USDM plates. WRONG! The switch assemblies are of completely different design from the JDM to the USDM version. Not only that, the window switch plates have the opposite curve to them since the plates are obviously on opposite sides of the car in JDM land. If you take a look at the images below, comparing the JDM and USDM, it quickly becomes apparent the differences. The switches themselves are also different. The USDM switches(not pictured)are a simple push forward and push back. Whereas the JDM switches are a pull up and a push down style. Which means there also needs to be a “cup’ formed in the plastic in front of the switch. That way your finger doesn’t just poke through when you are trying to pull up on the switch. In the following images, the USDM plates are the ones without the actual switches in them.

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So the only way to properly do this was to cut out the section that has the JDM button openings, thus retaining the original JDM button mounting setup on the back. Then hack out a similar size opening in the USDM plates and retrofit the JDM assemblies into them:

The cut out JDM assembly on the right needing to go into the USDM plate on the left:

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USDM plate ready for the transplant:

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Test fit to make sure I am still on course:

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Same with the passenger side:

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Next it was time to bond these permanently into place with one of my favorite products… Norton Speed Grip 2-part adhesive. Note: just to get setup with this stuff it will cost a minimum of $100. The glue is very expensive and it takes a special applicator gun to apply it. But it’s so worth it if you need to bond plastic.

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At this point it’s time to get it looking good. A lot of rough sanding, shaping, forming, a tad bit of Evercoat Fiber Tech filler, some primer and here you go. Well, some of those steps need to be done numerous times!

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My customer also requested a white LED to be mounted in the driver side switch:

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Last but not least, some SEM Satin Black Color Coat:

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This customer wanted a little bit of flare without going overboard. I did a full Speedhut gauge setup with flip-flop color scheme. He needed to squeeze two other gauges somewhere so I closed off the small vents and lower switch areas on the cluster shroud. Then flushed in a 2-1/16″ Speedhut gauge on each side.

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This seems to be the most popular piece that I duplicate:

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The first one is the driver’s door handle/vent trim from an S14. The customer felt that a boost gauge was more important than a door vent… I can’t say I disagree with him:

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Next up for another S14, flush mounted Speedhut gauges in place of the HVAC controller:

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My true love, S13 goodness. Again, three Speedhut gauges flush mounted in place of the HVAC controller:

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Another S13 utilizing some risky gold bezel Speedhut gauges… I love the outcome!

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