I learned quite a bit about working with Tolex while building a couple of portable Eurorack cases and thought I’d pass along these tips.
Tip 1 – Get a sample pack of Tolex to find the perfect option
Tolex is usually sold by the yard in widths of 54″. Depending on the type you pick, it can range from $15 per yard for the cheap stuff all the way up to $30 or more per yard! If you aren’t sure which type of Tolex you want to use, I recommend getting a sample pack from Antique Radio Supply. The pack only costs about $10 (+ shipping) and includes a small 2″ square of each Tolex type they sell. As you can see, there are some pretty rad options available including (simulated) snake and alligator skin!
Tip 2 – Use the right glue for the job
Once I had picked the specific type of Tolex I wanted (a nice Mesa style “black Taurus”), I started researching glue options. Talk about confusing! For starters, there are water-based and solvent-based glues. The advantage of water-based is that it doesn’t put out toxic fumes and therefore can be used indoors. The disadvantage is that it takes much longer to set up, and if you believe some of the forum posts out there, it doesn’t actually hold very well. Another disadvantage of water-based glues is that they have a very short shelf life of only about 6 months. Before you buy it, check the expiration date. Finally, water-based glues cannot be allowed to freeze, or they become useless. If you order it online, look for a place that sells it with heat packs included and make sure you pay for the fastest shipping option available.
Solvent-based glues, on the other hand, tend to set much faster and seem to be the preferred way to go. Some people recommend DAP Spray Adhesive or 3M Super 77. From what I’ve read, both of these hold well enough, but they pretty much bond instantly upon contact, so you don’t get much of a chance to work out air bubbles or align your Tolex once you’ve applied it.
Warning: Solvent-based glues and their fumes are extremely flammable! Read and follow the instructions carefully for the glue you pick. I recommend using them outside and away from any open flames or sparks. Even outside (and especially inside), you should wait a respirator with organic/vapor filters.
You can also buy brush-on glue. After using spray glue, I can definitely see how this would be advantageous for working with corners and edges, though I haven’t tried any brush-on glues yet.
I ended up buying both my Tolex and spray glue from Reliable Hardware, and I was very pleased with how easily it went on and how much working time I had once I contacted the two surfaces together. Pro tip, if you order the Reliable Hardware glue through Amazon, you can save a bundle on shipping.
Tip 3 – Buy enough glue
This one might sound obvious, but if you order glue online, consider buying a little more than you think you’ll need. For my cases, I calculated I only needed enough glue to cover about 8 square feet (for 2 Eurorack cases). According to the Reliable Hardware website, the can of spray glue I bought should have been enough to cover a full 32 square feet, but I ran out mid-way through my project. Not a huge deal, because I had enough to reach a good stopping point, but if I had run out midway through spraying one of the panels, it would have meant starting over from scratch!
Tip 4 – Watch tutorial videos before you cut your Tolex!
There are plenty of great videos on YouTube that will show you the basics of applying Tolex to various types of cases, including curved surfaces. I found a couple really helpful:
Tip 5 – Test a small sample first
Chances are you bought enough Tolex that you can test with a small sample piece. This is a good way to make sure you know how to use the glue properly and that it will stick to your wood as you expect. I recommend testing on a small piece of wood and wrapping all the way around one edge to simulate what you’ll be doing on your actual case.
Tip 6 – Make sure it’s warm enough
The first time I tried applying Tolex, it was only about 45 degrees F in my garage. I had the doors open to improve ventilation. Unfortunately, the glue didn’t stick very well. After doing a little more research, I found it’s best if the air is at least 60-65 degrees while you’re spraying and while the glue is drying. I also kept my glue and materials inside the house to allow them to warm up to room temperature before I began applying the Tolex.
Tip 7 – Mask the areas you don’t want sprayed
It’s pretty difficult to remove overspray, so I recommend masking the areas you don’t want to get covered with glue before you spray. I used some scrap wood and strips from a cardboard box and just laid them over the case and Tolex. I removed them immediately after spraying so the masks wouldn’t stick as the glue dried:
A related tip is to get a big roll of paper to use for covering your work surface. As you spray, your work surface will get messy from the glue. You don’t want this to end up on the good side of your Tolex! After doing each part of my case, I put a new sheet of paper over my work surface so that when I moved the box around, the outside of my case stayed nice and clean.
Tip 8 – Cover both surfaces with the glue and allow it to set up before connecting surfaces
Contact adhesive sticks to wood and vinyl just fine when it’s wet, but once it has set up a bit, it really only bonds to itself. You want it to set up and dry just a little before you connect your surfaces, so at this point if you’ve only sprayed one side, it won’t adhere very well. For the glue from Reliable Hardware, I just needed about 5 minutes for it to set up and turn milky white. At this point, you can touch it with your fingers and it will feel tacky but it won’t outright stick to your skin. This is the perfect time to contact the Tolex to the wood surface.
Tip 9 – Use a J-roller to remove air bubbles
You might think you can apply the Tolex perfectly without a roller, but you’re wrong. They’re cheap. Just get one. Immediately after you apply the Tolex to the surface, roll out any air bubbles from the center towards the edges. This will also help spread out the little glue blobs to give you a nice flat even covering.
Tip 10 – Use a heat gun for edges
After wrapping the Tolex around an edge and rolling it out, I used a basic heat gun along to help it form to the edge. Since I had relatively sharp corners on my case (90 angles), this was really helpful. Many of the guitar amp wrapping tutorials you’ll see on the web have nice rounded edges with a radius of about half an inch – not so on a typical Eurorack case as you can see from the images above.
That’s all for now! I’ll post more tips as I progress on this case build.