Old cars are the heart and soul of our hobby, and often the only ones we can actually afford. Of course, the older (and cheaper) the car, the more likely it is to show the scars of its age. The simple way to improve its image is to pull into a body or restoration shop, toss them the keys, and have them call you when it's done. The problem is, that's expensive. But there's a better way.
We're going to break the process of refinishing a car into several categories, and then explore the different means of accomplishing the various tasks within each category. Hopefully this will provide some guidance when you're planning your next project. Just keep in mind that there isn't really a way to completely avoid the need for particular skills and tools/equipment during the refinishing process. Check it out.
Unless the car you're working on has only one prior paint job, and it's still in good shape, you should figure on stripping the surface to metal. This may sound excessive, but again, the cars we usually deal with have been around a long time, and very few of them are blessed with original paint. Several re-sprays later, there's no telling what sins have been concealed. Even if the body itself is free of damage and filler but has the remnants of a few paint jobs, it's best to get them all off. Any problems with any of the prior finishes can manifest itself in your new paint job later on, and trust us, you only want to do this once. Removing that paint can be accomplished in several ways, from brutally basic sanding to high-tech chemical stripping. Consider your options:
This is the most basic means of removing old paint from your car, but it's also the most tedious and time consuming. However, if the current finish on your car is thin or peeling, it may not take much effort with a sander to get it down to bare steel. If you go this route, you'll probably be using a dual-action or "DA" sander. These are primarily air-powered and can be used for a variety of tasks during the refinishing process, so they're usually worth the investment. The dual action is the spinning of the sanding disc coupled with the spinning of the base that the sanding disc is mounted to. This results in an orbital motion that is desired because it tends to remove material more evenly than a simple spinning motion.
Most DA sanders can be switched to a single spinning motion, considered grinder mode, though this is generally reserved for heavy, localized material removal. Using a grinding action on the painted surfaces can create gouges in the finish, which is less of an issue when stripping to the bare steel as opposed to prepping a painted surface. However, grinding with aggressive grit, as you would when paint-stripping, can actually mar the steel, creating minor waves that can show up later. For the same reason, heavy-duty grinders, especially high-torque electric units, should not be used by the novice to strip paint. These machines have the ability to grind right into the sheetmetal, leaving scars that will have to be filled later. An 8-inch sanding disc with 80-grit paper on a DA should do the trick. The proper sandpaper for a DA usually comes in rolls of pre-cut paper discs with adhesive backing. You'll need a bunch to do the whole car.
This approach entails applying a chemical to the surface, which then softens and lifts the paint. After the product has done its thing, the bubbled paint must be scraped off of the surface and discarded. Some of the strippers are thick and must be brushed on while others can be sprayed, either from aerosol cans or pump bottles. The best approach is to strip in small sections, as there is usually a time window when the paint is fully softened. If you wait too long, the bubbled paint will begin to harden again, making it more difficult to scrape off. Like sanding, chemical stripping will take time, and cars with multiple paint jobs will require multiple applications before bare metal is reached. Some local governments consider the scraped paint to be a hazardous material, so proper collection will be expected, rather than simply throwing the remains in the trash. Some strippers are safe to use around rubber and chrome trim while others can damage these items, so be sure you know what you're dealing with before you begin. Also, some stripping products are intended for specific types of paint, like enamel, lacquer, and so on, so shop wisely. There are even some strippers that are designed to remove the paint but leave the primer, but if your car has been through multiple paint jobs, your best bet is to go to metal.
If chemical paint-stripping sounds like a good idea for your car but you'd rather remove yourself from the process, consider chemical dipping. As the term implies, the entire body of the car will be dipped in a vat of chemicals to remove all of the finishes, leaving it in bare steel. This service is provided by businesses that specialize in this type of work, and these places usually don't do any of the work to prepare the car for dipping, like removing everything that isn't the body itself. You'll have to handle that yourself, and you'll need to remove everything from the body prior to dipping, including the glass, brightwork, and all interior trim. In fact, even the remaining weatherstripping, seam-sealer, and undercoating will be dissolved. Some car-builders have concerns about chemical dipping, feeling that it can leave inaccessible areas--like the insides of the rocker panels--untreated and vulnerable to future rusting. However, dipping facilities that are equipped for treating car bodies usually pass the shell through multiple vats, including one that should leave an etched coating on the steel, protecting it from moisture. Despite this, you should be prepared to work on the body immediately after it is returned. Leaving the bare body outside after stripping is obviously out of the question.
Dipping is an excellent means of stripping, but it isn't right for every job. Obviously, if you didn't intend to completely dismantle your car and replace all of the weatherstripping, window seals, body seam sealer, and so on, this isn't the option for you. However, if you do select this method, consult with the stripping facility first to find out what they plan to do, and what they expect you to do before dropping the body off. Some dippers will reject a body that's too greasy or has excessive loose rust, as this can contaminate the dip.
One of the more popular means of having a car stripped is blasting--the process of using compressed air to shoot media particles at the body to abrade the finish. The most common form of pressure-blasting uses sand. However, sandblasting is not recommended for sheetmetal auto bodies, as the sand can be too aggressive. Even when fine sand is used, there is still an issue of panel warpage, since the abrasion quickly builds heat that can distort the steel.
A better method of blasting sheetmetal involves using plastic media. The small plastic particles usually have sharp edges that are very effective at stripping paint, yet the plastic won't create heat when it contacts the steel surface, so warpage isn't an issue. Typically, a car body will be completely dismantled prior to blasting, though it isn't absolutely necessary, as it is with dipping. Glass and other trim can be covered for media-blasting. Unfortunately, this media does end up in virtually inaccessible places, so this is certainly a concern.
Another emerging trend in body blasting is the use of baking soda as the media. The baking soda is also effective at stripping when applied under pressure, though it is pressurized with water rather than air. This process, considered wet pressure blasting, does not create dust and is not harmful to glass and trim. As a bonus, disposing of the baking soda can be as simple as washing it down the sewer, as some cities actually appreciate the addition of the baking soda to sewage since it will neutralize acids. Like media-blasting, baking soda blasting is a professional service, not a DIY deal.
Once you've gotten your body down to bare steel, you'll be able to see all of its flaws. Even nice examples of 20-year-old cars will have some dents, dings, and possibly rust. Some of the minor imperfections will be harder to spot, requiring an educated feel to locate, usually by rubbing the open hand back and forth along a panel. Fixing dents and rust does require varying degrees of skill, depending on how much work is required, but it is possible for the novice to tackle some of this, even if the pros have to be recruited to finish up. The key is not creating more work in the process.
Obviously the simplest way to deal with damaged body panels is to replace them. For older classics, this may mean scrounging the swap meets or the Internet, though the list of reproduction sheetmetal for muscle-era cars is growing steadily. It comes down to determining whether to replace or repair, which should probably be based on how much work is required to repair, and how that compares with the cost of replacement. Remember also that while fenders and doors are relatively easy bolt-on items, quarter-panels and rocker panels are not, and must be cut and welded (see "Reconstructive Surgery," page 32), which basically requires professional installation and significantly increases the cost of replacement.
Cars built during the '60s and '70s were notorious for rotting, even when based in mild climates. Much of the problem was due to poor drainage and leaky body and glass seals, so rust can even plague cars that have never seen snow. Short of replacing rusted panels, proper rust repair mandates welding, though a 110-volt MIG-welder is usually sufficient for sheetmetal work. Some small rot holes can be patched with pieces of sheetmetal stock, while larger holes may be easier dealt with using specifically stamped patch panels. Patching with sheet stock is pretty straightforward: Trim out the rusted section, cut a piece of new steel to match it, patch it in with small welds, spacing them out to minimize the concentration of heat, and continue around the panel until there are no gaps between the patch and the panel. Then grind down the welds and smooth the repair with filler. The better you are at this, the less filler you'll need. Stamped patch panels will require more specific trimming of the rusted section and careful alignment. If you have little or no experience but do have access to welding equipment, practice on junk panels first. If you think it's completely over your head, talk with a professional for an estimate.
This is the area of bodywork that probably requires the most skill and experience. Working sheetmetal into shape could be considered an art form, particularly when true craftsmen work their magic. Shaping body filler for the final finish presents yet another challenge. Many novices have driven themselves nuts attempting to tackle panel-straightening alone, so don't feel bad if you have to bring in a pro to get it right. Entire books have been written on metalworking and other forms of body sculpting, so we can't even begin to go into the process here. However, if you think you might want to attempt this, get some junk panels and some good reference materials, and give it a try. Even the most skilled pros will tell you that practice has more to do with successful work than anything else.
If you have no intention of becoming a panel-beater, you can probably shave some shop time off of dent repairs by prepping the area yourself. This will consist of basically grinding out all paint and filler in the affected area and perhaps removing other parts and pieces that may provide access to the back of the dent or hole. Don't remove the panel without talking to the shop that will perform the repair, as many pros prefer to work the steel while it's still mounted, since the panel is better supported that way.
There will be plenty of sanding involved in any body project, and block-sanding is usually the final process prior to paint. If you don't know what you're doing or what you're trying to achieve during this step, you can waste a lot of time and effort. Block-sanding is the process of hand-sanding with the sandpaper attached to a sanding block or a long board. The idea is to sand the panels until they're perfectly smooth, though they should be almost there before this stage even begins. The goal is to eliminate the small waves and surface imperfections so that after the paint is applied, it will be mirror-straight.
If you want to attempt to do the block-sanding to eliminate some of the grunt work from your shop bill, talk to the technicians who handled the previous work, especially if they will be the ones to lay down the paint. In some cases, they may not want you to be involved in this process, as it is possible to screw up the surface even further, rather than smoothing it. If they are willing to work with you, listen to their advice and remember to be gentle--any harsh sanding here can create ripples in the final finish.
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.
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.