40 Tips for a Perfect Finish
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40 Tips for a Perfect Finish

For painters, it seems the number of perfect-paint-job tricks to remember is at least a million. Always trying to make your job easier, we’ve whittled that million down to 40. Follow these tips of the trade, and the good paint jobs will follow right along with you.

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Are we watching an old Batman episode? No, we’re talking about painting. These are the words you may think of when you see your cool new equipment, like a downdraft booth or a new color match system. Presto! You’ll have a perfect paint job now, right?

Well, not exactly.

To find out what it does take, I spoke with some top painters in the business and asked them to share their tips for creating a perfect finish. From the 100 or so tips that I gathered, I narrowed it down to 40 that can be accomplished at any shop, no matter what the shop’s location or what type of equipment or paint system methodology is used. Incorporate these ideas into your operation, and you won’t have to read an article on “40 tips for handling customers angry about your shop’s paint job.”

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  1. “Observe tack time between coats,” says Rich Jeter, a painter in Lebanon, Mo., who also teaches paint and body at nearby Waynesville Technical College. Simply stated, this means that with all of the other factors in place, flash-off or tack time between coats is critical. If the directions say to apply three full wet coats without any flash time in between, do it this way to avoid a re-do.
  2. Don’t accept the attitude that every job is an opportunity to practice your buffing techniques. Work with a clean booth and clear filters and follow a regimen that keeps contamination from following the job through the shop. The hours saved in buffing out dirt nibs will be worth it because you’ll be able to spend this time doing something else.
  3. Distance from the panel surface can affect the finish in several ways. Jeter says that a vertical panel, in many cases, will require a greater spraying distance from the nozzle and that the air pressure and fan adjustment should both be greater.
  4. Teach painters the colors. Don’t assume that your perception of a color match is universally shared. Use the “flash card” method from grammar school if necessary to help new painters pick up on hues and learn reds and blues. This bit of information surfaced with several painters that I spoke with. “If you don’t know color, you can’t achieve a match — ever,” says Tom Nadel of Ozark Refinish in St. Roberts, Mo.
  5. Remind painters to train their eyes to readily recognize paint system faults such as orange peel, color shift, dulling of the gloss, streaking (mottling in metallic) and any of a dozen other conditions that may not at first be obvious during painting. Lighting may have to be adjusted or other precautions taken to get the best color match.
  6. Jeter says that all too often a shop will attempt to produce paint work or take on procedures that are out of the range of their equipment. “Trying to spray a paint job that’s a $6,000 ticket item with a paint booth that costs $400 or with high pressure spray equipment that’s worth even less is foolhardy at best,” he says.
  7. The downdraft booths currently being produced received kudos from just about all of the painters and shop owners that I spoke with. Carmen Phillips, a painter from Craig AutoBody in Los Angeles, Calif., says sidedraft/downdraft booths will prevent the debris build-up that occurs on most vehicles sprayed in a straight downdraft booth. These are the imperfections that may show up in the upper one-third of the side panels. Some painters thought this situation occurred no matter what the condition of the filters and regardless of whether or not the booth was wet down. Phillips, however, points out that as the airflow rolls through the booth in a downdraft, it can use centrifugal force to throw any tiny particles that may be suspended into the finish in the upper side panel areas. Moderate to light buffing in such cases has been the fix when this occurs.
  8. Spray guns — especially turbines or earlier HVLP systems — must be kept in tip-top shape. Worn or damaged nozzles must be replaced on any spray equipment. Just about every paint expert in the field recommends separate use of HVLP primer and colorcoat spray equipment. Most painters actually have a third gun set up to spray nothing but clears.
  9. Avoid burn-through episodes with a power buffer that’s the old high horsepower/hard-to-handle design. Remember that the new catalyzed paint systems use heat to build gloss as they harden. Too much force or pressure will certainly damage the clear and might compromise the color and undercoats. Good, easy-to-use equipment that’s kept up and used with the correct buffing agents and clean bonnets matched to the finish will net all kinds of benefits whenever buffing is required.
  10. Provide for the correct diffusion of light when using infrared drying equipment. Experts say that reflectors must be set to concentrate the infrared light onto the finish itself for drying purposes. The biggest detriment to the process is overspray-coated reflective units, along with a poorly insulated booth that allows the heat to escape. Don’t forget that infrared exists just above the visible light range, and its ability to transfer heat depends principally upon the unit setup relative to the position of the panel or panels to be dried.
  11. James Barnes, body shop manager for Wood Motor Company, in Harrison, Ark., has seen all sorts of painting disasters. One such disaster was caused by flaking paint from a poorly maintained booth that shed its overspray skin, so to speak, during the final topcoat spray of a high-dollar paint job that took days to match. “A little clean-up of booth and equipment will save you a do-over time after time,” says Barnes.
  12. Wear lint-free clothing that doesn’t breed airborne strings and dust. “Wearing a dust rag around a fresh paint job is just asking for the static attraction of the fresh finish to draw the dust from your clothes,” says Barnes, who’s careful to screen his shop painters daily.
  13. Save your life — and the lives of your fellow workers — by making sure seals are bulletproof in booths. Keep out dirt and moisture. Keep in hazardous paint fumes. Filters that are kept pristine can provide your facility with a 20 percent gain in productivity, saving plenty of hard buffing time. It seems just about every product we use can cause cancer, so use your head and watch those filters and the booth interior pressure.
  14. Matching panels is a science. Barnes’ painters use test panels and are sure to compensate for shadows and lighting when setting up to paint the panels and the car. “Do your test panels in the same geographical location in the shop as the car will be sprayed in,” he says. Many make the mistake of spraying test strips or pull-downs in the prep area under fluorescent lights. This isn’t the way to get a good match.
  15. Blend carefully, but don’t forget that the newer paint systems will require slightly more “hide” effect. The paint surface is built up well on flat panels like the hood or deck. Be sure to lay down enough mil thickness on vertical panels to get the job done. “Sometimes a Texas Blend, or wide area overlap with the gun, is required to achieve match and gather up the hide effects,” says Barnes.
  16. Typically go for three coats, say many of the painters I spoke with. Start with a tack coat, move to a medium to heavy colorcoat and finish with a gloss coat. Get to your clear over as soon as you can, and follow directions on the can for temperature and mix requirements. Buff out as soon as possible, and look for flaws immediately.
  17. Barnes insists on avoiding “hocus pocus” techniques for determining the amount of material required. He says that his painters are taught to recognize that on any job, the paint and material costs must be scrutinized to keep costs in line with estimates. “Be sure to carefully determine the exact amount of material used in the first coat,” he says. Don’t mix another 20 ounces if you had four ounces left over from the first coat. Only mix 16 — the actual amount required to cover — and you’ll save not only the extra four ounces of usable paint and reducers, but you’ll also eliminate the extra that would go to waste as another hazardous-materials cost. This stuff will eat up your budget if you let it.
  18. Why should you have a mixing room? Barnes told me that if you don’t, sooner or later you’re going to fall prey to what he calls the “glurk, glurk, glurk syndrome.” By having a professional workstation with scales, you avoid the hassle of working with measuring sticks (as the paint drips from them, you get the “glurk, glurk, glurk” sound), and your tints and base colors can be kept stirred and ready at all times.
  19. Use color-matched primers whenever possible to avoid color shift or hide problems in the topcoat. The painter becomes the best judge of such a situation. For example, gold metallic topcoats may not do well with a red oxide primer coat, and some sealers and other basecoat additives can actually encourage bleed-through of a primer, which will skew the color light or dark.
  20. Remove moldings and door handles, say all the pros. When you see a car body with peeling paint, it’s usually around moldings and near trim pieces and door handles. You can’t get the grime and silicone stuff off until these pieces are masked off.
  21. Tack rags are a cheap insurance policy. After you’ve degreased and wiped down, and all the silicone remover has evaporated, avoid going over the car with an air nozzle. Instead, use a tack rag in its complete, unfolded state to gently and meticulously wipe down the car one last time before material is sprayed onto the panels. A warning comes from Jim Burns at Jim’s Autobody in Forsyth, Mo. Don’t leave the tack rag balled up or standing on the vehicle because the varnish in the rag will settle off and may cause a paint-etch problem during the refinish stage. “Use it to tack, and then get rid of it,” says Burns. “Use a new one on the next job.”
  22. Masking is critical. The quality of your work depends upon correct masking techniques as well as good material selection. Work hard to achieve an accurate edge, and don’t use the discount store tape. A good brand of tape makes all the difference in the world. Your paint finish won’t have adhesive “drop out” smudges when you use a quality tape on a clean finish. And never use newspaper for masking paper because the porosity of the paper will allow ink to bleed through. This stuff is also oily and will act like silicone contamination.
  23. “Use the right grit sand paper when working on the undercoat,” says Barnes. If you don’t put a harsh scratch-laden surface down under the topcoat, it won’t show up later. “If it’s not there to begin with, you won’t have to worry about it because it doesn’t exist,” says Barnes.
  24. Getting the paint can opened cleanly is half the battle, said a lot of the folks I spoke with. A neat trick to help painters keep dribble from the outside of the paint gun cup when they pour from the gallon (a common paint finish sag complaint) is to use a nail to puncture the can trough in about a half-dozen spots. This will keep the paint that settles in the trough area after pouring from building up. This should also keep your painters out of trouble.
  25. The paint store shaker routine that you did a half-hour ago may not be adequate for distribution of materials, and the results of not re-stirring or a second round of shaking may allow for a settling out of pigments and binders — or for even a color shift.
  26. Use maximum reduction in hot climates. Reducers that are temperature matched still require a specific volume of solvents to flow out properly — especially in hot weather. Catalyzed paints still have some drying that occurs by evaporation. This is extremely important to remember. Thinning or reduction of paint determines “flow-out.” Without this flow-out, you’ll have a dull finish, and your clear may not instill the sheen that it should, even after buffing.
  27. Honor the material-required flash times. Don’t try to lay down too much color. This procedure invites sags in even the best of conditions with any type of paint system. Ten to 30 minutes are typical flash times required by the paint manufacturers. Best advice: Follow the directions taken off the paint can labels.
  28. When two-toning or working with graphics, use the appropriate amount of hardener in the initial coat. Re-coating times vary for the second tone, but four hours is reasonable. Be sure to get the tape off immediately after the second coat or graphic is applied to prevent tape marks.
  29. Only force dry when you have reference panels that have been prepared in the same manner. A lot of experts use 30 feet multiplied by 140 degrees Fahrenheit as a guideline when using this type of material accentuation. Color and gloss are factors that might be a problem if you’re not careful here.
  30. Never buff or polish the colorcoat in single-stage jobs prior to allowing the thinner from the primer surfacer to evaporate. You’ll likely get shrinkage, and scratches will pull up to the surface, which ruins the finish. Follow label instructions or revert to forced drying by lamps, if needed.
  31. Poorly mixed material, too much hardener or a dirty substrate will cause chipping or poor settling. Sand down to bare metal, and begin with a surface finish cleaning to repair this set of problems.
  32. Bleed-through problems come from poor hide of substrate, not using color-matching primers — especially with reds and maroons — and using incorrect technique when laying down the finish. Fixing this set of conditions involves going back and sanding off to bare metal.
  33. Blistering happens because improper substrate preparation — along with a temperature variation — negates the reducer selection for the job. The top-coat must not skin over before all of the reducer evaporates. Using a retarder or other similar additive may help here but complete refinish is required to achieve desired results.
  34. Blushing is caused by air pressure problems, water in the air, high humidity, and poorly mixed or old clear material used in a finish. Thinning and reduction is paramount in avoiding this condition. Often the clear can be sanded off, and the color or base is found to be intact. In many cases, however, a complete refinish from the substrate on up is required to fix this problem.
  35. Fisheyes, according to Burns, are caused by a dirty environment or a poorly trained painter. “Any painter worth his salt will check water traps and equipment prior to spraying,” he says. “Dirt, silicones and other breeds of contamination of the surface during any stage of the paint process will ruin the job.” The trick here is to check and then recheck for this type of problem beforehand, and then protect the vehicle during flash-off and drying.
  36. Orange peel conditions occur from mixing material improperly, using expired paint materials and careless use of additives. Training painters to use correct application techniques, including the right amount of air pressure and distance to the panel surface, can minimize any objectionable effect. Before laying down the clear, determine if the color has flowed out past the orange peel stage. If this is the case, wait longer, using the maximum dwell times allowed by the paint maker. Fixing such a condition may require sanding down to bare metal and starting over with a good basecoat.
  37. Mottling shows up as streaking or striping, giving the surface a marble-like effect. Be careful not to coat too heavily on the first coat. The gloss coat should be sprayed on with regard to flash off times, and drying must take place in a controlled environment. Experts tell us that metallics can mottle if they’re not distributed by shaking prior to the paint mixing. Repairing this condition can require a complete or localized re-do of the affected areas.
  38. Water spotting still strikes fear in the hearts of all painters. But this effect is avoidable with acrylics, provided you carefully adhere to the paint formula. Single-stage projects can suffer from this problem if the material isn’t mixed to specifications or if the film thickness is excessive. Refinish any areas that are water-spotted if buffing by hand won’t get rid of the marring.
  39. Wrinkling is seen when too many wet coats are piled on. These days, forced-air drying can offer relief in some cases — or make the problem worse if the paint film has a lot of solvents that haven’t been released. Study the effects of the problem carefully before attempting a forced-dry application. A refinish is often the only way to repair this problem.
  40. Crazing looks like shattered glass. It can be caused by a too-heavy topcoat, unmixed components, incompatible paint components (i.e., disregarding a manufacturer’s system) and when thinner attacks an acrylic surface. Reduce paint by 200 percent before the last coat dries. Blend with a good retarder, and then apply double wet coats until the crazing disappears. Maintain control of drying temperature and you have it whipped, say the experts.

Writer Bob Leone, a retired shop owner and contributing editor to BodyShop Business, is ASE three-way Master Certified and is a licensed secondary and post-secondary automotive instructor in the vocational school system in Missouri. He is also a former NAPA A.S.E. Technician of the Year. Some photos and diagrams reprinted courtesy of Sherwin-Williams.

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