Collectively, we’ve been in the game of hot rodding for a long time. And over the years, we’ve seen visionary builders produce and enhance some seriously killer vehicles. And our favorites include cars or trucks stuffed with engines they didn’t come with—or in places where they, by all accounts, simply don’t belong. With this kind of modification, custom fabrication is a necessity. And one of the major areas to address is the location of the headers—headers that may not be available if you’ve got an application founded on combinations. So, what do you do in the quest for that dream build? You craft your own custom headers.
Why Would You Need Custom Headers?
Custom header work is one of those areas where craftsmanship becomes art. Because of this, we wanted an expert’s input, someone with enough background to speak with authority on the matter. So, who better than August Cederstrand of Edelbrock? With lifelong experience in hot rodding, Cederstrand is the kind of guy who’s seen it all and lives and breathes the life of one totally immersed in the field.
Cederstrand says that several factors could dictate the need for custom exhaust headers. On one hand, it could be that there’s simply nothing on the market that fits your engine swap. “Another requirement might be a very high-horsepower racing engine that needs a far larger set of headers to extract the hot exhaust gases than off-the-shelf headers are capable of providing,” explained Cederstrand. “Many times when a full tube chassis race car is constructed, a bundle of snake’s headers wrapping its way around everything is the only way to make it work. Some race cars dictate what is needed to make hot exhaust gas extraction. Take Formula 1: those cars have one-off exhaust systems made of thin wall Inconel tubing. Hideously expensive but required to save weight and maintain the high horsepower levels those engines generate.”
Where Do You Start?
Whatever fuels your motive to build custom headers, you’ve got some options to get started. Numerous suppliers support this part of the market by providing builders with a handy starter pack. (JEGS and Kooks are just two of many.) “Most D-I-Y header kits will include all the components necessary to build a custom set of headers,” said Cederstrand. “They would have the header flange that bolts to the cylinder head, a whole box of different bends and straight pipes, and some form of merged collector and collector flange to bolt on the rest of the exhaust system. That would be the bare minimum for a kit,” he added.
There’s variance within the kits, as well. “There are also several companies that offer many different options to the fabricator,” says Cederstrand. “Stainless steel kits, which offer tremendous durability, O2 bungs and temperature probe bungs—the list goes on from there. It comes down to the project, budget, and skill of the fabricator to select which components are needed,” he added.
What Level of Skill Do You Need?
Cederstand raises an important point. Building custom headers does require a certain level of skill for fabrication. Those who get involved with this kind of job need to be ready to start thinking creatively and effectively. Additionally, a trained hand with a welder is imperative. “Some means of fusing the pipes together is a must. MIG welders are very affordable but a TIG welder will yield a cleaner result, but they take more skill and practice to master,” shared Cederstrand.
He also mentioned that you’ll need to have the right tools to accurately cut the tubing as well. Hand saws and grinders are useful, but a band saw is the tool to have in order to make the precise cuts you’ll need. (Check out this great list breaking down the best on the market.) If you need some practice and are nervous about wasting money on expensive stainless steel tubing, not all hope is lost. “There are some companies that make plastic mock up tubing kits to help route the pipes the fabricator needs to construct,” said Cederstrand.
With the shopping list of tools and kits you’re almost ready to go. Cederstrand offered up one final tip for anyone taking on this task. “In my opinion, perhaps the greatest tool in the fabricator’s tool box is patience,” he added. “No one should be afraid of making a set of custom headers. But it takes time and patience like everything else in the car hobby. And the satisfaction of making yet another cool part for one’s hot rod can’t be discounted. So, get out there and make a set of headers!”