Few materials rival fiberglass. It has several advantages over steel. For example, low-volume parts made from it cost far less than steel ones. It resists more chemicals, including an abundant one that causes steel to whither away into brown dust: oxygen. Size being equal, properly made fiberglass can be several times stronger yet still lighter than steel. In fact, it won't even dent.

No, when fiberglass does fail, it cracks. In fact, if hit hard enough, fiberglass breaks into pieces.

Steel snobs rejoice at that last part, but little do they know that's where fiberglass really begins to shine. A seasoned veteran with a shop full of specialized tools might not be able to justify repairing a flat-smashed metal fender, but a rank amateur with hardly more than simple hand tools can put a fiberglass one back together from dozens of shattered pieces ... sometimes in one afternoon.

To learn how to fix it properly, we have to understand how fiberglass works in the first place. Depending on the construction technique, fiberglass resembles either a concrete slab or a sheet of plywood.

A slab owes its strength to the steel reinforcing bar, or rebar, embedded in it; the concrete is merely the glue that binds the bars and offers a conveniently smooth surface. Trade the rebar for a lot more glass strands, the concrete for considerably less plastic resin, and scale it down a whole bunch, and you've basically got a fiberglass part made with a chopper gun.

Wood plies bound together by glue create a panel far stronger than solid wood of comparable size. This construction forces individual plies to bear loads in tension or compression, the directions where most materials are strongest. We refer to fiberglass parts made by a similar bonded-ply technique as hand-laid or hand-laminated.

While more labor intensive, hand-lamination has serious benefits. First, it doesn't require any special equipment like chopper guns, so it's a real asset to occasional users. But most importantly, hand-lamination makes far stronger parts than any chopper gun could ever aspire to. It's because fiberglass owes its strength almost exclusively to glass fibers and hand-lamination achieves a far better glass-to-resin ratio than a gun can. Remember that the resin exists only to bind the fibers. It's comparatively brittle, and any more than necessary makes parts weaker and heavier.

This distinction is important for more than just selecting fiberglass parts; the hand-lamination technique is the backbone of most fiberglass repairs. Rather than merely joining broken materials at the point of damage as we do when welding metal, we literally grind away the damage and replace it with new material. By grinding the damaged panels in a particular manner, fiberglass repairs achieve great surface-area contact, which is essential to ply construction technique. What's more, a properly made repair is every bit as strong as the remainder of the panel. In some cases-particularly with chopper gun-made parts-repairs made by this technique can be stronger than the existing panel. But best of all, any enthusiast with a few very common tools and a good supplier can repair fiberglass with the same kind of quality and reliability as a seasoned veteran can offer.

Though we can't anticipate every type of damage, this method applies to 99 percent of all fiberglass repairs. In fact, this information applies to things like chopping fiberglass tops and grafting together two panels. Only the person doing the chopping is creating the damage. The repairs after the modifications remain largely the same.

While we don't think you'll intentionally create damage just to get the opportunity to try out this technique, merely knowing how to do it certainly eliminates a lot of anxiety. At the very least you'll rest easy knowing that strong and reliable fiberglass repairs are easier than you thought.