Custom Car Audio Installations

The real excitement in car audio and what keeps me interested is custom installations. This is what transforms your car stereo into a mobile masterpiece of color and shape. The cost to do custom work varies greatly. You can have a pair of custom kickpanels made for a couple hundred dollars or you can spend as much as your checkbook will allow for a full blown, competition winning installation. Here's a few of the most common custom installation items.


Fiberglass has gained a lot of popularity in recent years. The number of installers that are able to work with fiberglass has increased significantly and it is much easier to find someone that can bring your imagination to life. Fiberglass basically involves making a framework out of wood (typically) and then covering that framework with a cloth material. The cloth is then coated with fiberglass resin, allowed to dry, sanded and then body filler and fiberglass mat are used to fill in the voids and further strengthen the structure. The piece is then sanded and the entire piece is covered in vinyl, carpet or paint. The cloth can be fiberglass, fleece or just about any material that will soak up fiberglass resin. The resin, body filler and the shape of the piece is where most of the strength is though fiberglass cloth does add to the strength. The advantage of working in fiberglass is that it has a high strength to weight ratio as compared to other materials such as MDF. Much more elaborate shapes can be made using fiberglass techniques and panels and enclosures can be made to seamlessly blend with the vehicle and other custom pieces in the vehicle.

If you're interested in learning how to work in fiberglass there are two instructional videos available. They will teach you how to build custom kick panel pods, spare tire subwoofer enclosures, wood/fiberglass enclosures, door panels and vehicle molded enclosures. Click here and here to find out more.

Paint and Vinyl Work

Paint and vinyl are combined with other techniques, especially fiberglass, to add real beauty to the work. Rather than covering your panels with box carpet you can choose to use color matched or color contrasting vinyl and paint pieces. Vinyl work is only slightly more expensive then using box carpet but the finished quality can vary greatly between installers depending on how well they sand the piece before application and their wrapping techniques. Ask to see some samples of the installers previous work. A good installer who does custom work will have a photo album of their previous installs. Pay close attention to the lines between the vinyl and other surfaces. Check to see how well it matches and blends with the next piece and if there are any gaps. If the installer hasn't done vinyl work before I'd recommend finding someone who has. You don't want them learning on your vehicle. That's what their car is for.

Paint adds quite a bit of cost depending on the complexity and quality of the finish. The piece needs to prepped very well to receive paint or any surface imperfections will show in the finished product. Orange peel is another problem with mediocre paint work. Looking at the surface will reveal an orange peel texture. You may have noticed this on some vehicles with mediocre paint jobs. The shop might have to send the piece off to a local body shop to be painted which can add time to your installation. I actually prefer this as local installers often don't have the experience in painting that a body shop painter has. One last thing about paint. It can be damaged very easily so I wouldn't recommend it for daily driven cars. Something rolling around in the trunk or a stray foot in the passenger area could easily ruin several hundred dollars worth of work. The look of a well finished piece is tough to beat though. Keeping it looking good is the hard part.

Plexiglass and Neon

Plexiglass and neon have enjoyed popularity for a number of years. Plexiglass is most often used as a panel on a subwoofer enclosure or an amp rack that allows a view of the equipment while also offering protection for the equipment. Plexiglass is usually used sparingly because it is expensive for very large or very thick panels. It is also prone to scratching and is usually covered for daily use or reserved for use in show cars. If the look of plexiglass appeals to you talk to your installer about working it into the installation. Colored and mirrored plexiglass is also available but may not be manufactured in the thickness you need. Ask your installer about price and availablilty. Note: Plexiglass is the generic version of Plexiglas which is a trademarked name. The generic term is acrylic which refers to the actual material itself.

Neon is usually used in conjunction with plexiglass as a backlight to give a colored glow that will usually match the color scheme of the installation. Neon can also be used as a stand alone item for accents and a wide variety of neon products are available. The classic tube in various lengths has been supplemented with neon speaker rings, shift knobs, flexible lighting and a variety of other neon accented equipment. Under car kits are popular and a few competitions for neon use are being seen at some of the major sound off events. Neon can also be used as a generic term of the new breed of super bright LEDs.


Motorization brings a normally static installation to life. Amp racks can move, hidden panels can reveal their contents and speaker pods can be positioned on the fly. Just about anything can be made to move with the right motorization technique. Most installers who do custom work are familiar with the linear actuator. A linear actuator is an electrically powered device that resembles a piston. They are usually made by connecting a DC motor to a screw drive assembly through a set of gears. The screw drive assembly is placed inside a hollow metal tube which has screw threads along the inside (like the rifling of a gun barrel). To make the assembly move voltage is applied to the motor. As the motor rotates, the screw turns inside the tube and is moved outwards. See the diagram below.

The inner workings of a linear actuator

This motion is used to motorize various panels in an installation. The actuator motion is reversed by switching the polarity of the power source. Linear actuators tend to be expensive and are usually only seen in show cars. Other electrical devices used for motorization are power seat motors and power window motors. They tend to be very strong, especially those used in luxury cars and are already adapted to 12 volt use. They're also much smaller and less expensive than linear actuators (often pulled from junk yards) and can be used for smaller motorizations where space is an issue.

The Sky's the Limit!

If your wallet can handle it then there's virtually nothing that can't be accomplished in car audio. Some have gone so far as to add computer controls to their system making a virtual network among their components that display voltage, temperature and output for each component. Precise control of motorization and preset stop points can be accomplished using a computer system. If money isn't an issue then you need to seek out an installer who is capable of the work. For the rest of us the above installation goodies will have to suffice. If you're interested in purchasing any of these specialty items and can't find them locally then I'd suggest contacting Metra and asking for their Fishman Audio catalog. They carry a large line of top quality custom installation accessories and tools.

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