In the world of hot rods and custom builds, there is no shortage of top-level craftsmanship and artistry. Through eye-catching paint jobs, intricate metal work, and jaw-dropping pinstriping and air brushing, masters of the trade display creative skills we sorely wish we had. Unfortunately, many of these niche artforms are shrinking even further from public knowledge—hence this column. We aim to highlight some of the dying arts of the automotive world and give them the credit they deserve. And today we’re focusing on a treatment that every wild custom and hot rod deserves: bead rolling.
What is Bead Rolling?
Bead rolling is a great example of taking something practical and making it beautiful. Simply put, builders often use bead rollers to add rigid lines onto sheet metal in order to strengthen it. The ‘beads’ add durability to the surface, preventing warping or vibration. The exciting part, however, is that there’s no set pattern for optimal bead rolling. Therefore, any design is fair game. This allows the technique to add an extra level of customization and flare to a vehicle.
Traditionally, bead rollers are used for panel repair work—which is why you’ll find one in any well-dressed sheet metal fabrication shop. They come in many shapes and sizes, but ultimately consist of male and female dies that press together to create bends and ridges in the steel. This can be done with either a high-end electric device or a manual one that simply clamps into a bench vise. Gears and a crank on one end rotate the die on the other end, which beads the steel. A tool like this is great if you’re working on a vehicle that’s suffering from serious rust. Often, patching the panel might not be an option. Bead rolling not only lets you strengthen the replacement sheet metal, but also match the original styling or create something entirely new.
Traditional Bead Rolling
The structural integrity added by bead rolling steel makes it the ideal process for constructing bomber-style seats. In addition to door panels and trim, this is an exceptionally common application of the art in custom hot rods. Bomber-style seats mimic those found in WWII aircraft. Traditionally, they are very basic with some holes in the body of the seat and embossed ridges to improve durability. If that sounds simple, don’t be fooled. Even the most basic designs—which most skilled bead rollers are going above—take practice and precision to master. The hard work pays off though, as they add an incredibly killer look.
Hot Rod Network explains that bomber-style seats have been appearing in hot rods almost as long as they were popping up in military planes. In fact, many came from surplus yards and were repurposed by ambitious builders. “They’ve always been considered ‘kool,’ and for good reason; they’re practical, lightweight, and they give a car a purpose-built look with an aircraft flavor,” continued the site.
Modern Bead Rolling
And while many hot rodders love the utilitarian styling of traditional bomber seats, modern bead rolling techniques have opened the door for significantly more intricate designs. Artists like Jamey Jordan, the owner of Handmade Seat Company, use their bead rollers to create masterpiece-level work for classic rides. If you ever wondered just how nice a bomber seat could be, look no further than Jordan’s online portfolio. Each piece is different from the last, displaying its own unique design. Some have simple geometric shapes and others skulls and anchors. Some even mimic the quilting patterns found in luxury interiors!
And if “luxury interior” has your ears perking up, check out Rotten Leonard’s Jalopy Shop in Lewiston, ID. Producing a fine set of traditionally-styled bomber seats, the shop adds beautifully pleated upholstery to blend comfort and rugged styling. This is ideal for enthusiasts who regularly drive their classic rides, as Rotten Leonard’s candidly states on its website, “This gives you the bomber seat style but with more of a comfy ride—original bomber seats suck after sitting in them for a few hundred miles.”
Bead rolling is a talent that appeals to both the trades and the arts. From functional repair work to original styling, it is a skill that easily blends both worlds together. As recreational hot rodding continues to grow, and people are constantly on the prowl for something unique and beautiful, we’re hopeful this dying art will see some new life breathed into it.