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Refinish

Pearl Car Paint Job: Mastering the Three-Stages

Some painters dread three-stage paints and pearls, but there is a secret and a method of matching that works every time.

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photo 1. how many panels would you include in the three-stage white pearl paint time for this job? some of you would probably include the hood and rear quarter, but that’s unnecessary.

Some painters are so stumped by three-stage paints and pearls that they dread them and end up painting the entire side of a car for just one panel. I’ve actually seen it happen!

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The secret to success is to add white or red or whatever color your three-stage is and add 7 percent solid basecoat to your first pearl coat. It still looks like a pearl coat but you can actually blend it like a regular basecoat. You have to tweak things here and there, but that comes with experience.

Starting Out

Photo 1 shows my first step with a Subaru Forester that I’m blending with a three-stage pearl white. We had taken the hood off this car during a repair a month prior, so when the car came back after another crash, I knew the hood would match. I start by using an old piece of 500 grit to sand through the clearcoat and pearl coat and down to the base white that’s actually on this car. You could also just work on where the base is featheredged by the dent you’re repairing.

you can see here how close i keep the primer to areas i’ve used filler on.

As we all know, there are several base white options to choose from. But with three-stage pearls, you can’t determine which white base to choose from – it’s all a guessing game. In this instance, there are three to choose from: a lighter one, a darker one and one that’s more yellow. I always go for the lighter-than-variance one.

After I sand down to the factory white base, I use 1000 grit and polish the area. Now you have the exact factory white base in front of you so there’s no need to guess. Then, I tint my light base using my own “progressive dot” method. It started out too dark, so I kept adding white to lighten it up and let the dots dry until – bingo! – I got one that matches. Now I have the best match possible for the white base on the three-stage pearl white.

photo 2. this photo shows where i start my white sealer. i tape the area so the sealer completely stays away from the top of the fender and the rear door. at this stage, i’ll take the paper off the door and put on a couple coats of solid base.

In Photo 2, you can see I’m going to blend my white sealer, white base and pearl clearcoat in the small area of the front fender. There’s not much room, but it can be done.

First, prep the entire job and tape off. After you spray on your adhesion promoter over the areas to be blended and it’s dry, tape off the rear door. Now spray the driver’s door and front fender with white sealer, keeping it down where the gray primer is (Photo 3). Feather it out on the edges, keeping as far away from the hood as possible.

photo 4. this is about 85 percent blended. just a couple more coats of 100 percent pearl coat and it’s ready for clear.

The Secret
Now here’s the real blending secret for all three-stage paints: mix up your pearl coat, then pour off half into another cup. Take your base white and pour 7 percent of it into one of the two pearl cups. Now you have a semi-opaque white base with pearl in it. You should be able to then take off the paper from the door and spray two coats right over the white base area and allow the overspray to go onto the door and a little past the white base on the fender (Photo 3).

Be patient. If the door doesn’t start blending in after three coats, you’ll need to add some more white base to your pearl. This is where practice makes perfect. Keep blending into the door and fender, going further and further by small, three-inch increments, keeping in mind that three coats equals nine inches of blend. This is how you create your blend: by adding white to your pearl base. And you still have the other half of your true pearl to spray.

When your blend looks good, switch to the pearl base. Start by fogging it, each coat going past the pearl-tinted-with-white base. If you don’t have a good blend with the white-tinted pearl base, it won’t work. The transition has to be seamless. I usually put on three to five coats of the final pearl coat, blending out further each time (Photo 4). There shouldn’t be a halo effect. After your blend looks good, paint on the clearcoat and you’re good to go.


Using the progressive dot method, you can’t even see the last dot because it’s a perfect match.

Perfect Paint Matching…with the Progressive Dot Method

What can you learn from a tiny little dot of paint no bigger than the head of a tack? Plenty…if you’ve been doing the same paint matching method for 30 years.

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A lot of people have showed me a lot of practical ways to do things through the years, and I typically adopt the ones that work and take the shortest time. With color matching in the automotive refinishing world, I came up with my own method and called it the “progressive dot method.”

It’s very simple. You just put a perfect dot on a polished part of the car you wish to paint and let it dry. It will first dry to light or dark. Don’t worry about flop or anything else yet – they usually dry too dark, unless they have a lot of flattener in them. It would take me 2,000 words to describe how to match paint, and assuming that most of you are quite experienced in auto painting, I’ll spare you on how to tint. Suffice it to say you don’t have to make it so complicated. But I understand your pain and know that some colors can be an absolute nightmare: getting the flop right, obtaining the right value, etc.

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The progressive dot method is ideal because it’s done in a small area and you’re not wasting time and materials getting the match required. There are no test panels, letdown spraying, paint paddles, tape, paper, etc. – and a whole lot less waste of expensive paint. Sometimes it takes four to 14 to 20 tints to get a real torturous color. But you won’t have any comebacks (you know customers always worry about color matches).

Follow these steps:

1. Mix your initial paint up. I usually bring a fender or some other part from the car into the color-corrected paint mixing room.
2. Dip your finger into the prime paint on a stir stick and put a dot onto a polished section of the fender.
3. Let the paint dot dry completely before tint cycle one starts; even before it starts to dry, it will be obvious that it’s too dark.
4. Start adding more metallic or pearl five drops at a time to lighten it up. If there’s flop adjuster or weak white in the formula, use that as a last resort.
5. After drying, you can use a heat gun lightly to speed things up. The next dot is now lighter and does not change hue in any way.
6. Keep adding more metallic or pearl. Pearls will make it more milky, whereas metallics won’t.  You’ll want to pour off enough paint to tint – and save your initial paint if you mess up your tint somehow.
7. Add more metallic and test your flop. Use a flashlight and look at the dot sideways at a 10-degree angle to see if your flop is there.
8. By now, it should be pretty close. Sometimes you might see that the color requires a metallic, pearl, weak white or something else that’s not even in the formula. I use color cards if the color just isn’t happening – and start with a new color variance.

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This particular Dodge gunmetal metallic started really dark even though I went lighter than the variance. You painters know that the eye is superior to color guns or variance cards. In the photo above, you can see I got my match after about eight tints, but it’s right on the money. You can now put a lot of metallic in the prime you poured off and, by putting a stir stick in it, make it as close to your match to get a close enough base for initial coverage. You then want to take your good match and put a dot of it on various parts of the area you’ll be painting. Once those dots dry, you should be able to come back and not even notice where they are.

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So that’s the progressive dot method. Try it and give it some time and I promise you’ll never go back to your old way of matching paint.


Tom Ferry is the head painter at Ketchikan Autobody and Glass in Ketchikan, Alaska. He can be reached at [email protected].

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