Building a rat rod is an inexpensive project you can work on at home or the shop. These classic cars aren’t your typical hot rod. A rat rod lets you get creative and build a project car that is truly one of one.
Nothing is off-limits when it comes to the size, shape, and accessories you fabricate together. It’s the ultimate Frankenstein project and one every welder can have some serious fun working on.
Looking for that project to fill your weekends? Is your spouse complaining about a bunch of junk cars sitting in the yard or taking up space in the garage? Building a rat rod is a great hobby to have.
What is a Rat Rod?
A rat rod is a home-built, rough, and low-budget vehicle put together with scrap parts. What makes these cars special is that they’re imperfectly perfect. They often feature rust spots, a lack of paint, and cheap or cast-off parts. You’ll often find non-automotive items that have been altered and repurposed to work with the car. This could be done by using the barrel of a rifle as the gear shifter or welding a wrench to the door and using it as a door handle.
What makes a rat rod so special and unique is that no two are the same. Rat rods are fun projects to work on and are only limited by the builder’s imagination. Nothing is off-limits when you’re building a rat rod. The interior of the vehicle can be pretty bare or fully finished. You’ll see some rat rods repurpose the seats from a farm tractor and others that use leather seats from a speed boat.
As for the frame and chassis, most builders will start with the frame of an older car or light truck. A lot of guys will even cut the frame down and rebuild it. It’s common to remote areas like the trunk and fenders to make the axles more exposed and cut down on materials needed to finish the build.
When it comes to the motor, you’ll want to go with a V8. This is the most popular choice, but other guys will run a V6. You can even use a diesel engine like WelderUp did on our Diesel Rod build.
How Much Does It Cost To Build a Rat Rod?
For a lot of guys, one of the biggest draws of building a rat rod is the affordable price. With a typical street rod, guys might spend thousands on chrome parts and lots of polish. That’s not the case with a rat rod, though.
Since most of the build is done with repurposed junk parts or other items that are fabricated, you can save thousands. You’ll seldom find a rat rod project that costs more than $5000 to build. In fact, some guys can have something running for $1000-1500 if they have a lot of spare parts on hand already.
One way to keep costs down is by finding other rat rod enthusiasts and making regular trips to the junkyard. Since you’re using a lot of scrap parts, there may be times where you need a certain part that you just can’t find. If you build a network of enthusiasts, though, you’ll be able to buy, sell, and trade parts to help keep your costs down.
Make sure to try to find local Facebook groups in your area and start sharing pics of your build with the community. Somebody might have the perfect thing to add to your build and reach out with an offer.
How To Build a Rat Rod
When you’re building a rat rod, you can make the project as grand or as simple as you desire. Don’t be afraid to get creative and build something that will turn some heads.
You want the rod to be imperfectly perfect, and only you really know what that looks like. Here are some tips for building your first rat rod.
- Choose a Vehicle
Before you can start building your dream rat rod, you need to get a vehicle. If you’ve got some old project cars lying around, this might not be too difficult. But, if you don’t, you’ll need to do some research online or make a trip down to your local scrapyard. As mentioned above, most rat rods are built from American cars or pickups manufactured before the 1960s. That doesn’t mean you have to stick to that era, though. Plenty of guys will work with muscle cars or light pickup trucks from the ’70s and ’80s.
Some of the most popular choices for rat rod builds include mid-century Chevrolet pickup trucks or ‘30s-era Fords like the Model A.
When you’re looking for a vehicle, start your search online. There are plenty of local clubs with websites and forums or public Facebook groups you can browse through. You’ll likely find some good candidates down at your local junkyard or on websites like Craigslist.
When you’re choosing a vehicle, pretty much anything goes since you’ll be fabricating parts and Frankensteining this project together. Depending on your skill level and how much work you want to put into this project, be mindful of things like how much rust is on the vehicle and how intact the shape of the car is.
- Strip it Down
Now that you’ve found your project car, it’s time to strip it down. You’ll want to have a fresh start for this build, so make sure to remove all the seats, fixtures, and any other accessories from the vehicle.
This may be pretty easy, depending on the condition of the vehicle you’re using. If you’re starting with something that’s already been parted out, you may only need to spend a few hours at most removing the remaining parts and getting the frame ready to start the build.
- Drain the Fluids
It goes without saying that you’ll be doing many fabricating to the frame and body during this build. To keep everything safe, you’ll want to drain all the gas and fluids before you start cutting and welding around the frame.
Make sure that you drain all the fluids from the vehicle and wipe away any traces of gasoline that may have spilled onto the frame or ground near the vehicle. As an added precaution, it’s a good idea to keep a fire extinguisher on hand in case an errant spark catches a trace of gas you might have missed when prepping the build.
- Source Your Parts
There’s a good chance that you’re not going to have everything you need on hand to complete this build. Once you have an idea in mind for the look of this project, take an inventory of what parts you already have and can use and what parts you’ll need to find. Once that list is ready, you can start to source these parts. Just like when finding a vehicle, online groups or scrap yards will be your best bet.
Here are some popular places you might get lucky though and find scrap parts for your rat rod build:
- Facebook groups
- Hobby websites
- Parts donor vehicles
- Swap meets
- Car shows
- Car clubs
- Resize the Frame
Now it’s time to get this build started. Just like when building a house, you start with the foundation. On a rat rod, that means building or resizing the frame to your desired specifications.
If you’re going to resize an existing frame, start by measuring and marking where you want the new axles and wheels to go. Once you’re ready, you can grab a reciprocating saw and make all your cuts as needed. When the cuts are complete, you can weld the frame back together and get ready for the next step.
Another option is to build the frame from scratch. You’ll likely need about 20 feet of rectangular 2×4 tubing. Make sure to match the width of the frame to the size of your rat rod’s body and start cutting pieces and welding the frame together. If you go this route, you’ll want to build it like a ladder with cross support beams. Make sure to always measure twice and cut once so that your frame is as square as possible.
- Add Your Suspension
Once the frame is in place, you can start to add axles, shocks, and the suspension system. Start by measuring the rear of the frame and making sure you have the right size axles.
Since the axles should be somewhat longer than the width of the body, leaf spring axles are a popular choice because they’re easy to modify. Anything you find from the 60s or 70s should do the trick and are popular choices as well.
Next, you’ll want to install the coil springs. To do this, weld the upper mounts to the cross member on the rear of the frame. The lower mounts can be welded to the axle housing. On the front of the vehicle, go with a straight axle. This will give you that classic rat rod look and help keep costs down.
- Mount the Body to the Frame
Now we’re getting to the fun stuff. Once the frame and suspension are built, you can start to add the body back to the frame and give the rat rod some character. This is where you get to be really creative and make the rat rod what you want.
It’s common for a lot of guys to scrap things like the hood, trunk, roof, or fenders to give the vehicle some attitude. During this part of the process, you can start to weld as much or as little of the body back onto the frame.
- Give it Some Power
What good is having a rat rod to show off if you have to push it or tow it everywhere? Now it’s time to add the engine back onto the vehicle. You don’t have to go crazy with your engine since your rat rod probably isn’t going to be street legal.
To help keep costs down but still allow you to enjoy the rat rod, most builders will go with a Ford 302 or Chevy 350. Since the engine doesn’t need to fit perfectly under the hood, you can customize the build to fit the engine.
Once your engine is mounted, start reinstalling other parts like your starter, alternator, transmission, driveshaft, radiator, steering linkage, and foot pedals. Since you’ll be adding a lot of scrap parts to the build, you may need to spend time welding different parts to the frame and making sure everything is secure and aligned.
- Add Your Remaining Parts
Now comes the really fun part. It’s time to start making the rat rod truly unique. As mentioned earlier, a lot of builders will repurpose items to give their rat rod some character and charm. Sawed-off rifle barrels are a popular choice for a gear shifter, but if you can cut it and weld it to make it fit, go for it.
Seating is a big concern for a lot of builders. Some guys will pull seats from other project cars while others will go way off the beaten path. Boat seats, tractor seats, even folding camping chairs can be added to a build to make it truly one of a kind.
- Give It Some Style
Once your rat rod is built, and you’re happy with everything you’ve added to it, you can give some style. Some people will choose to paint parts of the body. You don’t have to though, true rat rods are known for the rough exterior, often full of rust and wear.
Afterall all, these vehicles aren’t meant to look shiny and nice like a classic hot rod. If you want to give your rat rod some style, you can, but there’s something about a rough and rusty look that just can’t be beat when you want to build a project car with some attitude.
Join Welder101 and Get Inspired to Build a Rat Rod
If you’re serious about improving your welding skills and building different projects like a rat rod, join Welder101 today! This comprehensive course includes a growing library of videos and training resources combining 30 plus years of professional welding experience.
Better yet, you’ll get access to our private Facebook group. Inside, you can interact with the Welder101 team and everyone else who has enrolled. This is a great channel to share ideas, ask questions, get feedback on your projects, and be inspired by what other welders are building. Who knows, you might even find some people in your area that have those final pieces you need to complete your rat rod build.
Enrolling in Welder101 gives you lifetime access to the community, all the training resources, discounts on equipment or merchandise, plus so much more.