Paint Department Smarts: The Right Tools and Knowledge - BodyShop Business
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Paint Department Smarts: The Right Tools and Knowledge

It’s not easy for painters to get the training they need. But that doesn’t mean you should settle for “average” techs. Nurture the Einstein in them by equipping them with the right tools and enlightening them with knowledge.

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Craftsmen throughout history have relied on specialized knowledge about their chosen profession and tools designed specifically for their craft. As a person spent time in his trade, he progressed from menial tasks that assisted journeymen to more complex tasks requiring advanced knowledge and state-of-the-art tools. After years of tutelage, the hopeful and dedicated worker reached journeyman status in his chosen field.

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That was then. The rules at work today in the collision repair industry are less formal than they were in the days of Crafts Guilds — and much less structured than those used by our country’s unions. For example, you want to be an electrician, you enroll in the union apprenticeship program, spend time in the classroom and learn on the job. At a certain point, you qualify for journeyman status. Pay raises and testing are built in, and there’s a predictable outcome for a person entering the program.

But if you want to be an automotive refinish technician, what do you do? Call 1-800 PAINTCARS? Call the International Brotherhood of Automotive Painters Union and ask to enter their apprenticeship program? Good luck!

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It’s extremely difficult to get training in this field. High school vo-ed programs offer only basic insight into vehicle repair and painting. And very few shops have dedicated programs that bring a young person through the steps required to become a competent refinisher.

People become painters for many reasons, but it’s usually the determination to learn that separates an average painter from a great painter. It’s not easy for painters to find the training they need — they have to really want to find it.

Besides a painter’s determination, what knowledge and tools are required for a top-notch paint department? I think it can be broken down into three main areas.

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1. Operational — This includes the basic facility and capital equipment typically purchased by the business to support a quality paint department.

2. Informational — This is your readily accessible information and how you use it. (Color and product information is critical.)

3. Personal — Due to the lack of national support, your personal approach to your profession makes all the difference.

Operational
• Dedicated paint area — The area of operations varies greatly from shop to shop. Because the environmental needs for painting differ so much from body work, it’s best to have a designated area or even a separate building to house the refinishing department. If you’re confined to a certain area of a building, curtains can separate the paint shop from the body shop.

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• Infrared tubes or circulating hot-water heat — These work best in the paint shop because they don’t generate wind or involve open flames.

• Film thickness gauge — If you don’t have a film thickness gauge, you’re missing the boat. A car with obvious prior paint work coming in for an estimate can be checked with the tool, and then you have a credible argument for stripping and refinishing. "Ma’am, your vehicle has 15 mils of paint on the hood and right fender. The factory puts on 3.5 mils, and our paint supplier recommends we don’t add more than 6 mils of primer and topcoat. You can see that what you have far exceeds those recommendations. What we’ll do is remove that old finish and re-paint, and you’ll have our lifetime warranty on paint repairs."

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Sounds more tactful than "Damn! You got some paint on there, lady!"

The gauge is also useful in determining if your gun setup and application methods are correct for the products you’re using. Manufacturer data sheets indicate correct millage for each product. You don’t want to be caught short, and there’s no sense applying more than the manufacturer recommends since you won’t get paid for it.

• Mixing systems — It’s hard to imagine working without an on-site paint-mixing system. The ability to mix small quantities and tint colors, primers and sealers, while saving money is real and measurable. Enough said.

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• Air compressors — The compressed-air supply to the paint department is extremely important. Modern sanding and spraying equipment need large quantities of quality air. The air must be clean, dry and of sufficient volume to keep tools and guns working at optimum levels. The quality of the air supply will also affect color match and paint-finish quality. (Your paint distributor should have the tools and knowledge to audit your shop’s air supply.)

Compressors put out a known supply of air typically rated in cubic feet per minute (CFM), and each tool and gun in your shop consumes a known quantity of air. By observing your technicians and subsequent tool usage, it’s easy to determine if you have a sufficient air supply. That 10-horsepower compressor your dad bought back in ’75 when there were only three technicians working in the whole building probably won’t be enough for even the paint shop today. Most paint and gun manufacturers today advocate the use of high-flow fittings with at least a 3/8-inch air line in the paint shop.

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• Pressure washer — Using a pressure washer prior to final masking and painting will eliminate tremendous amounts of dust and dirt. A few minutes of washing early in the game can help get cars delivered on time.

The same can be said about a spray-gun washer. When well-maintained, these save time and eliminate contamination in finished paint work. They also pay for themselves quickly by saving labor time and decreasing solvent usage.

• Spraybooth — Downdraft booths with heat and bake capability are wonderful tools, but a carefully maintained crossdraft with air-makeup will out-perform a dirty downdraft all day long. It never ceases to amaze me how little attention is paid to housekeeping and maintenance on expensive spraybooths. The best painters have the cleanest booths. Period.

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• Portable short-wave infrared lamps — The advent of portable short-wave infrared lamps has re-defined curing for painters. Today’s typical $1,600 repair has one to three panels that require refinishing. We can certainly bake one to three panels in our booth, but portable drying equipment is more cost effective and frees up the booth for the next paint job.

• Safety equipment — Certainly safety is a prime concern in the paint department. Contrary to what you might have been told, there aren’t any non-toxic paint chemicals currently being offered in the United States. But with the proper equipment, these chemicals can be used safely.

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1. You need a breathing-air system. Some of these systems can be wall mounted and plumbed where needed. Prime locations for the outlets are anywhere paint is being sprayed, the sandblasting area and even in the body shop where welding is performed.

2. Eye protection is mandated.

3. Gloves are necessary because the solvents painters work with are easily absorbed through exposed skin.

The technician shortage is real, and there’s no excuse for failing to protect the few we have.

Informational
A painter who understands and maintains critical paint information has a serious edge over one who doesn’t.

• Color books — Your color books are a great source of information. As the years go by, you should be making notes in your color books about certain colors, which variance you used, what tinting you did and information you learned that wasn’t in the books. Any departure from the norm should be noted. That way, when that four-year-old car comes in again, you have all of your research intact — and often those additional notes will point in the right direction. What you don’t want to do is spend three hours on the phone hunting for an answer. So many times at our store, I’ve heard somebody say, "I remember something about this color, but I can’t put my finger on it." We’ll track down the answer for him, but if he’d done his job, he’d be painting the next car already.

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Even if you use a color computer, you should still maintain the information in your color books.

• Estimating systems — The estimating system used in the front office includes all the basic paint times that go on an estimate. Each of these systems have information pointing out included and non-included operations for both body and paint work. It behooves you to become familiar with these guidelines.

While additional operations are widely viewed as "negotiable" items by insurers, you’ll have a difficult time negotiating on your behalf if you have no idea what they are.

• Your paint distributor — Your paint distributor should keep you informed about the specialized tools available to make you more productive. With the rapid changes in paint chemistry to comply with regulations, dramatic changes in the characteristics of refinish products have occurred. Viscosities have changed, and spray-gun needle and nozzle sizes have changed along with them. Also, slower-drying, wetter products have changed the requirements of masking products — which isn’t a problem since an amazing array of tapes, papers, films, foams and covers are available to help you mask effectively. Even oscillating sanders have become task-specific. Because of size differences and the aggressiveness of the orbit, different sanders perform different tasks more effectively. And now that most solvents available to you have uniform prices, you should decide which solvent to use based on your understanding of your painting environment, not on price per gallon.

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Has your paint distributor spoken with you about all these things?

Personal
Your personal commitment to growing will have the most impact on your paint department’s long-term career development. How do you grow?

• Nurture relationships — Key relationships should begin with your paint distributor and paint manufacturer rep. Paint is their only world, and the good ones know what’s happening and what’s coming. It can be a great help to regularly attend paint company clinics and training programs and to have a working relationship with the trainers you meet. You should strive to attain every available certification. Paint manufacturers, I-CAR and ASE all offer credentials to professionals.

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• Professionalize the paint department — Keep it clean and neat. Ben Franklin said, "A place for everything and everything in its place."

1. You should formulate a housekeeping plan with daily, weekly, monthly and annual needs for shop maintenance. Draining compressors, replacing booth filters, sweeping floors and cleaning light bulbs all contribute to a safe, productive workplace.

2. Have written, posted procedures in your paint shop. Address each refinishing scenario: new OEM e-coated parts, used parts, repaired parts, flexible parts, and rust or corrosion.

Sit down with the painters and discuss with them how you want each of these operations handled. Your paint distributor could be of help here. If you’re busy and one of your workers has a question, he can refer to the wall chart where each step has been pre-determined — what product to use, what operations are required. This will contribute greatly to quality and output of your department.

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Paint Department Smarts
The best painters ask questions of those who can help them. They also have a very real grasp on the whole picture of the business they’re a part of. They realize the need to do things once, do them right and then move on to the next vehicle. They also understand the impact the paint department has on the success of the front office and strive to meet deadlines.

The thing is, if you — as the owner or manager — aren’t providing the tools and information your painters require, they’ll never be great — and you’ll be the reason.

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Writer Michael Regan is president of The J.J.R. Company in Cleveland, Ohio, and a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

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