You’ve got a car or truck that needs painting. But you can’t afford—or don’t want to pay—the two, three, or five thousand dollars it realistically costs to have a local body and paint shop do the work.
Or maybe the vehicle in question really isn’t worth a two to five thousand dollar paint job, but you’d like a nice paint job on it anyway.
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That is, if you could find a body and paint shop that even does a regular, full paint job. I don’t know about where you live, but in most metropolitan areas these days, such shops make their money on collision repair, paid for by insurance companies. They pull frames straight, replace fenders, glass, and so on with new pieces, then spot-paint what’s needed to match the finish on relatively new cars. Most such shops won’t even work on anything resembling an “old” vehicle, let alone do a full paint job—especially one requiring a color change—which would require some hours of hand-work like sanding, masking, and so on.
And given that situation, if you can find a shop that is willing to paint your car, for whatever price, how good are they? Car painting is probably not their primary business. For whatever reasons—government regulations, cost of materials, cost of labor, or more likely the marked improvement in factory paint jobs that last much longer than they used to—there just aren’t many “auto painting” businesses anymore. There are a few high-dollar custom-paint specialists (where you’ll pay several thousand dollars—often into five figures). And then there are the low-buck one-day in-and-out paint places, such as Earl Scheib or Maaco, that have franchises all across the country (where you can get in-and-out for as little as a few hundred bucks).
Since you get what you pay for in this world, a few hundred bucks doesn’t promise a great paint job. The way we would turn a bottom-dollar finish into a decent one in the old days was to do a lot of the work ourselves, pay more, and make special requests on how the shop handled the job. Our first task, of course, was to take everything possible off the car that you didn’t want them to get paint on (otherwise they would). Second was to hand-sand all the paint, being sure to feather-edge any chips or scratches as much as possible, without sanding to bare metal. Third, the real trick was to pay twice the going rate (which was still plenty cheap) just to get them to spray on twice the allotted amount of paint. To tightly control costs, The Earl only allowed something like two quarts of paint per car, which barely covered a sedan, let alone a wagon. For the extra money you could get two coats of paint, including the rocker moldings, around wheelwells, and so on. Fourth—and this was important—was to ask them to paint the car with the doors shut. This way they couldn’t get any paint on the interior, which would invariably happen otherwise. Plus, the extra paint that would have been used in doorjambs could go on the outside of the car. Finally, we’d ask them not to paint the wheels, because no cool car had body-color wheels (especially not Earl Scheib body color), and they’d always get paint on the tires, too. Then, when we got the car home, after letting the paint dry for a week or so (so it wouldn’t pull off with masking tape), we’d sand and mask the doorjambs and paint them with spray cans in black, a color to match the dash/interior, or a shade as close to the outside as possible. And we’d paint the wheels white, black, or red and add whatever hubcaps were coolest at the time. Then after waiting the prescribed six months or so, we would wax the car. The remaining task was to keep it clean and take care of it. Even an old-days Earl Scheib paint job responded very well to care and upkeep. The more you waxed it (especially as the enamel paint finally hardened somewhat), the better it looked. If you did it right and kept the car up, even other car nuts probably couldn’t tell it came from Uncle Earl’s. Especially if you had it painted black.
The Don’t-Do-it-Yourself Paint Job
Like so many things in our modern world, the quality of one-day “in-and-out” paint jobs has improved significantly. Of course, as you might suspect, so has the price. But at most such auto-painting places, you now get choices. As I mentioned, the old “spray it, bake it, and drive it away” job now costs about $250 to $500 depending on the place, but that’s still dirt cheap. But now most such shops offer a range of paint stage options, starting with name-brand two-part (catalyzed) paint and a wide range of color choices. Additional levels include masking and painting doorjambs, under hood, and so on; base coat/clear coat in even more colors; and even (at at least one chain we checked) a complete color-sanded and rubbed out modern paint finish for about$1,500. As of this writing, that’s about half what a similar paint job would cost else-where (at the cheapest, if you could find a shop to do it).
So don’t ridicule the “drive-thru” auto paint shops these days. Let’s take a look at a few reasons why one might be a better option than painting your car in your own garage. And then let’s see what you can do at home—and with your choices at such a shop—to optimize the paint job you can get for a very good price.
Let’s say you don’t have an air compressor, or a spray gun, and all the other equipment necessary to paint a car. If you’re starting from zero, it adds up to quite a bit of stuff. It would cost quite a bit more than one or two one-day paint jobs.
Even if you have some or all of the equipment, maybe you keep a pretty tidy garage, and you don’t like the idea of filling it with catalyzed paint fumes and overspray: or the prospect of hanging up all that plastic sheeting and sealing everything off looks like more work than you want to do just to paint this one old car. At the other end of this spectrum, maybe you don’t even have a garage to paint your car in, or the one you have isn’t really big enough to do the job.
Regardless of whether you have the equipment or the space, perhaps you’ve never spray-painted anything in your life, or the few attempts you’ve made have been less than satisfactory. You’d really prefer to have someone who knows how to handle a spray gun shoot the color on your project car.
Fine. Given those parameters, let’s look at what the one-day paint emporium can offer you.
For starters, they all have professional, well-ventilated and filtered, usually temperature-controlled spray booths to spray the paint in. You don’t have to prepare the space, plus your car is painted where there is no dust, no dirt, and no bugs, m’lady.
Not only do they have good, up-to-date spray booths, but they have industrial-size compressors, industrial-quality water-traps and air filters, the latest HVLP spray equipment, and so on. They have to. The government mandates it and checks on them regularly.
And, perhaps most importantly, their painters know how to spray paint. They do it all day long, every day. The gun-wielders in such places have usually worked their way up, and have plenty of experience. The management knows they can’t have painters that cause runs, drips, or ugly orange-peel, because at their prices and with their schedule, they can’t afford to have “re-dos.” Besides, learning to lay on a good, even, smooth coat of paint isn’t that difficult. It just takes practice and experience. These guys have plenty.
Finally, even given the advantages listed above, the one big drawback to old-day $19.95 paint chains was that they used their own, usually low-quality, non-brand paint. No matter how well it was sprayed on, it had an evil tendency to peel back off (especially given their minimal—if any—surface sanding or prep). Well, the quality of paint in general has improved significantly since then, in most cases (though we will see what happens when and if water-based paints are phased in). But the better news is that most of these places, for a moderate increase in price, offer two-part (catalyzed) paints in name brands (i.e., Dupont, PPG, etc.), a much larger choice of contemporary colors, and even two-stage (base coat/clear coat) options.
We don’t know which chains, franchises, or local one-off auto paint shops of this type exist in your area, but they are plentiful. To check one out, pay a visit, find out what level of options they offer (including brand and type of paint used), and what the warranty is. But much more importantly, look at some of the finished cars in the lot, waiting to be picked up by customers. That tells you much more about their quality than any front-office salesman.
What You Can Do
You don’t need a book to tell you how to take your car to a shop to get it painted. We wouldn’t have included this chapter if there weren’t some ways in which you could participate—add your own effort—to make a one-day paint job turn out better than average, and to make it an acceptable substitute for either painting the car yourself or taking it to the high-dollar shop (which, we should mention, takes a whole lot longer than one day to prep and paint your car).
If you’ve been reading this book front-to-back, you’ve probably already surmised that the two primary things you can do at home to improve a one-day type paint job are to: (1) take as much stuff off the exterior of the car you don’t want painted as possible; and (2) thoroughly hand sand the existing paint on the car.
In the first category, how much you disassemble the car depends on a few factors, including its age, and assuming you want to drive the car to the paint shop and back. Older cars have readily detachable non-painted components such as chrome bumpers and grille, headlights, taillights, mirrors, door handles, hood ornaments, and so on. These are all relatively easy to unbolt and remove. If you’re driving the car to the shop, you need at least taillights and brake lights, and you may want things like turn signals, door handles, and mirrors. One trick is to loosen these compo-nents and pull them slightly away from the body (about 1/8 to 1/4 inch) so paint can get behind them; but don’t let them hang down, covering metal that should be painted.
Newer cars with body-color bumpers, handles, mirrors, and so on are problematic. Most one-day paint shops don’t want to deal with any loose parts; they want to roll the car into the booth and paint it as a whole, with all parts at least semi-attached. Ask your chosen shop how much disassembly they do or don’t allow.
Likewise, we assume that a vehicle being painted this way will not be getting all new interior, glass, and so on. So, obviously, leave all windows in place. On some cars, chrome or stainless trim around windows is easy to remove and greatly simplifies masking. On others it cannot be removed without removing the glass, gasket, and all. Do not try to take off trim that you’re not sure how to put back on. Masking it is much simpler, and in this case better.
On the other hand, don’t rule out a full-on glass-out/interior-out paint job at a one-day paint shop. It would require a way of trailering or towing the vehicle to and from the shop. And, obviously, you’d have to make arrangements with the shop to do this (though it’s actually much easier for them, since little or no masking would be needed). You’d have to leave the doors, hood, and trunk attached. But all the other stripping is hand work you can do at home. So if you don’t have the equipment, space, or experience to paint it yourself, but you do have the time and energy to completely disassemble and reassemble the car, this is one viable option, especially if you pay for the better or best paint they offer. I know of one vintage dragster that was painted during restoration by Maaco, and is now on display in a museum.
As far as sanding is concerned, that’s covered in the preceding chapter. A full hand sanding of the car is the one thing none of the in-and-out paint shops do, because it’s way too time-consuming for them. But it doesn’t really take that long, and you can easily do it at home. It doesn’t take any tools or dedicated space. Just some time and sweat.
The other thing you can do at home, as outlined here in Chapter 3, is basic bodywork. Again, you can do much of this with hand tools. And it can save you quite a bit of money. A big caveat is that no paint shop wants to guarantee a paint job over somebody else’s bodywork—you have to deal with the individual paint shop on that. But, if the vehicle in question needs bodywork, I think that leaves you two choices. Maybe two and a half. The half is to straighten any bent sheetmetal as best you can, using hammer-and-dolly or whatever tools you have available. But leave it in bare metal or pre-existing paint—don’t use any filler or primer. Depending on your skill and the predilections of the paint shop, this might save you some money on body-work costs—but not necessarily. The first full option is to let the paint place do whatever bodywork/priming they (or you) deem necessary, and pay their price. The second is to do the bodywork yourself and forego any guarantee on the paint. This is well worth considering if (1) your bodywork is good, and (2) you’re going for a lower-priced paint job, anyway. In fact, even if you’re getting their best spray job, the point is that the chances of the paint going bad are slim (especially if you do good prep on your part, and keep up the paint job after-wards), and the cost of having them do the bodywork could often be more than having the car repainted, if it does go bad. See how that logic works?
Tips and Tricks
The old “pay more for extra paint” trick might still apply, though you probably wouldn’t want to pay double the price just for an extra coat of paint. But ask them how much they’d charge.
Some places include a color sand and rub-out with their highest-priced paint job. Depending on the extra cost, this could be well worth the money, because then they know they have to put enough paint (or clear) on the car so as not to rub through it—and if they do, they have to fix it.
Otherwise, the hot tip is to get the catalyzed paint (or base coat/clear coat), because then you can rub it out yourself as we show in Chapter 11. Most one-day type paint places won’t do a rub out because it’s so labor-intensive—or charge accordingly if they do. But the problem here is the same as trying to rub-out a factory paint job—you don’t know how much paint they put on the car, but you know they didn’t intend it to be rubbed out. You might be able to buff it out (carefully), or you might go through. If you can get them to add an extra coat of paint or clear for a decent price, then you can color sand and rub it out at your cost (free) with much less fear of rubbing through. On the other hand, if you’re happy with a glossy finish like a new car (not rubbed out), that’s all you need. Wax it and enjoy it.
Most of these paint places are onto the “doors closed” trick. Their lowest-priced paint job is usually a doors-closed deal. That doesn’t mean you get any extra paint on the outside, but at least it insures you don’t get paint on the interior, and you can paint or other-wise detail the doorjambs and other such areas yourself.
If you are paying them to paint the doorjambs, they’ll probably do a good job of masking off the interior opening. But it’s very difficult to mask the doors’ rubber weatherstrip seals. Unfortunately (especially for newer cars) they can be expensive to replace. But if you care about such things as detailed doorjambs, you should really remove the rubber seals, clean the area with adhesive remover and sand it, and then install new seals after the painting is done. It also wouldn’t cost you anything but your time to remove the upholstered door panels and the window frames (if any).
Speaking of masking, you might think you can do a more meticulous job than the entry-level laborers doing it at the paint shop. You might be right, and it could benefit you to run a single layer of 3/4-inch tape around such things as window frames or openings. This allows you to drive the car, and the maskers can add taped paper over your tape. On the other hand, these guys mask cars all day, every day. They might not like the way you tape something, or even be offended by it. Remember in the last chapter I mentioned that it’s always better when masking to err in favor of getting a little paint on the trim, rather than not getting paint on the body where it belongs. This is taught to most of the maskers at these paint shops, and part of their job is to go around the car when it’s done, cleaning paint off any chrome trim, rubber, or other parts that shouldn’t have gotten paint on them. You can do the same at home. Using lacquer thinner (very carefully) on a rag or razor blades, you can clean areas that might have gotten some stray paint on them. This is generally easier than trying to pre-mask the car yourself. If, by chance, the paint shop did miss a spot—because of mismasking or bad spraying—they should fix it, immediately, under their warranty. It’s not that hard to do.
Such detailing goes for the rest of the car, too. One telltale sign of a recent quickie paint job is body-color overspray on the gas tank, exhaust pipe, or other undercarriage parts visible from road level. After you get the car home from the one-day paint store, another day spent with a wire brush, maybe some coarse sandpaper, some masking paper and tape, and a few spray cans of semi-gloss black or some other neutral color (i.e., dark gray), can finish off the undercarriage, engine compartment, trunk, and so on.
But speaking of spray cans, do not use any on the exterior of the vehicle before you have it painted, especially by a one-day shop. If you’re doing the one-day paint job because you don’t have your own paint equipment, you might feel strong urges to touch up spots, as you’re sanding, with spray can primer.
Don’t do it. You never know what’s in spray cans these days, and whatever it might be, new two-part paints usually don’t like it. I found through bad experience that the same is true for old-style lacquer primers—even good-quality lacquer primer shot from a gun. It wrinkles up under new catalyzed paints.
So I guess the final trick, the primary rule, for getting a good one-day-type paint job is to follow their rules…for the most part. Otherwise, do the disassembly and prep sanding they won’t do, clean and detail the car afterwards yourself, and then wax it regularly and take care of it. If you do, nobody will know it was a cheap paint job.
Written by Pat Ganahl and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks