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Paint & Body Basics

Getting From A to Z Without Breaking the Bank


When it comes time to actually lay down the color, there are more choices to make. It's easy to find car-owners who have painted their own cars, and this can certainly reduce the cost of the project, but it also offers the greatest potential to screw up. If you're considering wielding the gun, accurately assess your own ability before proceeding. If you've just spent a lot of time and money getting the body ready for paint, but have never sprayed a car previously, you may not want this to be your first effort. There are other alternatives that may fit your budget just as well.

Production Paint Shops

There are dozens of businesses that offer quick spray jobs on all types of cars and trucks. They generally offer flat-rate pricing and turn the work around in a couple days, and while these shops may not be known for show-quality paint jobs, a properly prepared car can turn out quite respectably when treated to a production refinish. After all, these guys spray gallons of paint every day. The key to success is thorough preparation.

First, everything that shouldn't be painted should be removed. These shops will mask, but they can't take the time to pay attention to the level of detail that you are seeking. Production shops are accustomed to prepping cars that haven't been stripped or straightened, and panel-straightening is often offered at extra cost, but again, this work is done with time in mind, so finessing the dings and dents into oblivion and hand-sanding to a glass-smooth surface isn't part of the standard program.

If you opt for production paint, have your body ready to go when delivered so that the paint techs only need to wipe it down before applying the paint. You should also put time into deciding the type of paint used. Most production shops use paints that are intended primarily for durability, and often in a limited palate of colors. Not all places will allow you to supply your own paint, but if they do, try to stick to what they are familiar with. As for color choice, if you want a metallic color, go for the two-stage paint (basecoat/ clearcoat) as this will allow for more aggressive wet-sanding afterwards. The wet-sanding can be used to eliminate, or at least reduce, the amount of "orange peel" texture in the finish. Non-metallic colors can be wet-sanded even without clear, so long as there is enough paint on the surface, and production shops tend to lay it down heavy. Don't consider the paint job a failure if it comes out of the shop with heavy orange peel--this is typical of production enamel jobs. Wet-sanding and buffing can fix much of this once the finish is cured.

Collision Shops

These are shops that handle accident damage, mostly to late-model vehicles that do battle on the streets daily. Although this kind of work isn't sexy in terms of classic cars, the technicians working in these shops are usually quite skilled in all aspects of body refinishing--they have to be to return expensive, late-model vehicles to showroom appearance to satisfy customers and insurance companies. The downside of these shops is that they are traditionally accustomed to charging by the hour, and determining the length of time for a particular job based on industry rate books, rather than actual time spent. This, coupled with high hourly rates, means collision shops can be expensive for restoration bodywork.

However, we have found collision shops that are willing to charge reasonable hourly rates if all they have to do is spray the paint. These shops offer the benefits of high-quality equipment, paint booths, and the essential experience. If your car is truly ready to go, especially if you've masked the parts that weren't removed, you can sometimes get a nice paint job for a bargain price. We've had the most luck with collision shops that were linked to new car dealerships, as these guys don't seem to feel the pressure of overhead costs as acutely as independent shops. Find one that's having a slow spell and you may just strike a deal.


Of course, as with any aspect of a car project, you may want to handle this yourself. This is a decision not to be taken lightly. If you screw up, the paint you've laid down will have to, at a minimum, be sanded flat. This means more block-sanding and more opportunity to introduce ripples and waves to your final finish. If you really screw up, you may have to strip the paint you sprayed completely off, and this can definitely raise the potential for screwing up your nice, straight body surface.

First of all, you'll need a place to paint. In many cities, the days of painting a car in your own garage or makeshift backyard spray booth have been outlawed, not to mention the fact that it's dangerous. Legally, this leaves you with the option of renting a proper spray booth, which can be done in some areas, usually based on an hourly charge or a day rate.

If you can paint at home, don't attempt to do it out in the open. Even on calm days, the dirt and insects in your new paint is frustrating. You may also be amazed at the mess the overspray will create. This is a job that should definitely be done in a confined area. But even if you turn your garage into a spray booth, or build one outside, be cautious of the overspray that is vented outside, as it can still create headaches not to mention the fire hazards. For this reason, filters on both the intake and exhaust sides of your booth are advisable.

Again, if you're inexperienced, stick with solid colors, and leave the metallics and pearls for the more experienced. Solid colors are more forgiving, both during the spray process and afterwards when it comes time to sand and buff. Plus, they're generally cheaper.

The key to this whole effort is to create a plan from start to finish and then establish a budget that you can live with. If your goal is an excellent finish, you'll find a way to make it happen.

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