How to remove a door trim panel
Removing a door trim panel may seem daunting because all the fasteners are hidden. But if you know what to look for, you can remove all the fasteners and lift the entire door panel off in less than 15 minutes—without a factory diagram.
Door Panel Removal Tips
To reduce factory labor costs, car makers rely on snap fasteners to secure the panel in place until more sturdy screw fasteners can be installed. The snap fasteners are known as “Christmas Tree” fasteners. The head locks into a keyhole slot on the door trim panel and the barbed “limb ends” are designed to push into a pre-punched hole in the metal door. During installation, the assembler simply hooks the top of the door trim panel on the window ledge and presses the panel against the door frame. They smack the door panel with a rubber mallet to force the Christmas Tree fasteners into the holes. As the fasteners enter the holes, their “limbs” expand and hold the panel.
But car makers can’t rely on these snap fasteners alone. So once the trim panel is in place, they finish the job with screws. Why? Because drivers use the arm rest to pull the door closed. Christmas Tree fasteners cannot take that kind of daily stress. With the door panel firmly attached, they install switch assemblies (power window, power door lock, power mirror, etc.), and the window crank (manual windows). Then they cover all the screws with snap-in “vanity caps.” Their only job is to hide the screws. Now that you know how door panels are assembled, you just need to reverse the process.
Step #1 Remove the window crank (manual windows)
If you have manual windows, start by removing the window crank. Some window cranks are screwed in place. The screw is either in plain sight or hidden under a vanity cap in the center of the large circular part of the crank. If your vehicle doesn’t have a screw or hex head fastener, then it is held in place with a clip. There’s a way to remove the retaining clip with just a rag. But it doesn’t always work. The proper removal tool is cheap (less than $8 at any auto parts store) and will get you off the right start on this project.
The removal tool works by expanding the ears on a clip in a slot on the window crank. Most DIY’ers get frustrated at this point because they don’t know which way to insert the tool. The factory always installs the open end of the clip so it faces the rotating knob. If this is the first time the crank is being removed, insert the tool between the hub of the crank handle and the protective plastic disk. The protective disk simply prevents the crank arm from wearing a groove into the door trim panel. If you try to insert the removal tool between the protective disk and the door panel, it will not engage the spring clip. If you cannot disengage the clip, the window crank may have been removed by someone else and the clip may be installed backwards. In that case, insert the tool so it pushes the clip towards the rotating knob.
Hold a rag on the ejection side of the window crank to catch the clip. Trust us, it will go flying across the room if you don’t cover the edge with a rag. Then push the tool towards the center hub. You will feel the clip pop off. Then pull the window crank towards you. When you reassemble the crank handle, remember to install the clip so the open end faces the rotating knob. With the clip installed in the groove, simply press the crank assembly onto the splined shaft until the clip snaps into the shaft groove.
Step #2 Find and remove the vanity caps and the hidden screws
This step requires some detective work and a small pick. Look for any plastic pieces (round or oval) that don’t seem to serve any useful purpose. Start at the arm rest in the door pull area. There are usually screws there. If you don’t see any, look for a vanity cap. Search the door latch area as well. Check along the latch side of the door trim panel. And don’t forget to check under reflectors.
Don’t forget to check under reflectors and along the latch side of the door panel.
If your door panel has carpet, feel for screws hidden along the bottom edge of the carpet.
Step #3 Remove any part that will prevent you from moving the panel up
Late model cars usually have a plastic trim cap to cover the screws to the side view mirror. In this case, our 2002 Oldsmobile Alero had a tweeter installed in the trim. Some of these trim pieces are held in place with screws, but most just snap in place. Use the trim removal tool (next page) to pry the plastic trim off. Disconnect the electrical connector to the speaker.
Step #4 Remove retaining screws and trim pieces around door latch handles
Asian cars usually require you to remove the door latch handle before
the door trim panel can be removed. Look for a screw like the one shown in this illustration. Once you remove the screw, gently lift out the plastic latch mechanism. If it doesn’t move, DON’T force it. If probably has plastic hooks mounted on the back side. So slide the entire latch mechanism forward until the hooks disengage from the door frame. Then you can lift it out.
Once you have it loose, you will have to disconnect the latch rod from the handle. You’ll see a plastic retaining clip. Rotate the clip off the rod and lift the rod up. Do NOT lose this retaining clip. You’ll need it for reassembly.
Some Asian vehicles look like the latch in the illustration but do not have a screw. The trim bezel on these latches hide the release mechanism. Use a small flat blade screw driver to gently pry the bezel up from the to edge of the latch. Then pry down on the bottom edge of the bezel. Once it’s off, you’ll see either hidden screws or spring release latches. Remove those and the door handle will come out.
Step #5 Pop the trim panel fasteners
Start at the bottom of the trim panel and insert the door panel removal tool. Pry against the metal portion of the door until you feel the fasteners pop. Move the tool towards the hinge area and repeat while holding the loose portion away from the door. Once the bottom fasteners are released, you can usually pull the door panel out and the remaining fasteners will pop out. If they don’t, you’ll need a long handled tool like the one shown below.
Step #6 Slide the door panel up and off the window sill
Remember, during assembly the factory guys put the top of the door panel on first. So it’s the last to come off. So lift the trim panel out and up. As soon as the door panel is lose, you’ll notice that it’s still connected with wires to the door switches. Do NOT pull on the trim panel or you can rip those wires right out of their sockets. Use a small flat blade screw driver to depress the release latches on each of the door switches and remove the connectors.
If your door trim panel has courtesy lights, the bulb sockets must be removed. They usually twist 1/4 turn and pull out. Once the door panel is completely off, move to step #7
Step #7 Account for all Christmas Tree Fasteners and re-install where necessary
It’s not uncommon for Christmas Tree fasteners to slide out of their keyhole slots in the trim panel. So locate any fasteners that are still in the door frame and remove them with the slotted removal tool. Then reinstall them in the keyhole slots in the trim panel. Straighten any bent fasteners now or buy new ones at the auto parts store.
© 2012 Rick Muscoplat
Posted on by Rick Muscoplat