Waterborne/low-VOC paint technology is here. In fact, it’s been here for awhile. Maybe not in your state, maybe not in your shop, maybe not in your face. But it will be, I assure you, no maybe about it.
Oh sure, you’ve also heard of low-VOC solvent, but waterborne is more common. It may exist, but as I understand it, the lion’s share of every manufacturer’s color development goes to waterborne. So while there may be a niche market for low-VOC solvent, the major effort is for waterborne, and for the purpose of this article, that is what we will deal with.
The Mental Change
There are a number of fundamental procedures and principles that apply to solvent coatings which transfer over to waterborne/low-VOC. In addition, there are a few procedures and techniques that may be new to you. Before we close the gap on that, we need to saddle and break the most difficult bronco in the corral. You know what I’m talking about: resistance. The mindset of the painters. I’m talking about preparing yourself mentally for the change. That’s the logical first step in this sequence.
In many ways, I believe the transition is easier for some of us old dogs, as we’ve already been through many changes. Many of us “cut our teeth” on lacquer. Acrylic enamel promised increased production due to not having to buff a shine on it, but it did take longer to dry. Furthermore, single-stage enamel metallics benefitted from an orientation/dropcoat technique similar to what some of the waterborne systems require. Remember when “basecoat” showed up? Until then, we could clear or not, our choice. Basecoat demands it always.
Basecoat/clearcoat urethane is a fantastic product, which I suppose most of us have embraced and most young painters have always used. I can appreciate any reluctance and resistance to switch, as we humans all tend to try to avoid change, but there is no stopping this train. The tracks are laid. We all must get on board, or be left behind.
My recommendation is to start with education. Get your jobber and paint manufacturer reps – you know, the pros – to start the process. In many areas, this is already being done. I suspect the various personalities will dictate the strategies employed; some will appeal to, “You’ll like it better once you change; no one ever wants to go back to solvent,” while other painters will need to hear, “You have no choice.” Regardless, ensuring their success in the transition will get everyone on board. Once the learning curve has been conquered and new habits established, everyone will be back to business as usual. Of course, some will pine for the good ol’ days, and some will champion the new kid in town, waterborne/low-VOC. Doesn’t matter. Like it or not, that’s the destination we’ll all arrive at. Let’s get the discussion going.
So, with the proper mindset being formulated, we need to address the shop environment to assure as pain-free a transition as possible. Do not blindly bumble into predictable failure by ignoring facts.
Waterborne/low-VOC paint makes a few non-negotiable demands. Clean, dry compressed air is one. This can be achieved through a nice, new compressor or by a state-of-the-art air filtration system – or a combination of the two. If you have an old rig that’s been blowing oil past the rings for years, your airlines are contaminated and in bad shape. A new compressor on the front end alone will not solve your challenges.
Here again, get the pros from your local support system to analyze your situation and come up with options for you. There are unrealized yet predictable benefits of air that’s clean and dry enough for waterborne/low-VOC, besides the obvious benefit of fewer headache-causing contaminants. With the proper personal protective equipment or PPE, you can breathe this air. In addition, an increased level of awareness will, by default, result in better attention to detail.
Another piece of the puzzle essential to the success of waterborne/low-VOC in your shop is a spraybooth designed for it. Of course, retrofitting is also an option. Also, with a refinishing professional with the proper mindset, armed with a proper understanding of the nuances of waterborne and a minimal amount of equipment, many booths are adequate as-is.
Depending what part of the country you live in, you may need a heated booth. The water must evaporate into the air. If it’s too cold or too humid, the process will take longer than you want. Also facilitating the evaporation process is a disruption of the surface tension of the waterborne/low-VOC paint. In other words, air blowing across the surface. This is typically done with a fan of some sort or an air amplifier. Again, there are booths designed from the ground up for this, aftermarket retrofit kits and a host of equipment manufacturers whose products can help achieve victory.
There are some fantastic spray guns out there that make application a breeze. You may get by with your old stuff and your experience and expertise, but just recognize that there are new spray guns designed specifically for waterborne. May as well make it easy on yourself. Besides, who doesn’t want another spray gun? Or a whole new fleet of spray guns?
On to the third step, which dovetails with the first step, and may be the most challenging for the painter: changing habits. No, I’m not suggesting that all habits must be changed; just the ones that need to be changed. I will outline some fundamentals and principles that have generic applications, but here again, you need to get the pros involved to ensure specific procedures and techniques relating to their product are learned and observed. Let’s face it: there are some flat-out bad habits out there, some of which aren’t disastrous due to the forgiving nature of solvent. Waterborne is only harsh mistress if you fail to give her what she wants and shortchange her with poor prep. But treat her properly and you’ll have a blissful union.
There are some fantastic painters in the field, some who came from formal schooling with accomplished instructors, some who apprenticed under geniuses and some who were astute enough to figure out the course with a map and compass on their own. But with some guys you wonder, “Where did he come from? The Cambrian Explosion?” There is no evidence in the fossil record that demonstrates their ancestry or lineage. It’s as if they simply appeared with their habits, and we’re left scratching our heads, trying to figure out the logic to them. However, I would suggest that more important than the history of where you’ve been is an open mind as to where you’re going. My point is, under almost all circumstances for painters of all skill levels, you need to get the pros involved for the specific tutorial required by whatever paint line you’re using. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel here – the pros have already figured out how to make you successful with their product.
Here are some general fundamentals.
Cleaning the panel. You can clean the car first if you want; some cars need it, some do not. But clean the panel regardless. By clean, I mean clean it with purpose. Don’t just go through the motions. Clean it, either with soap and water or low-VOC waterborne cleaner. Spray on, wipe off. This will take care of most of the organic contaminants such as dirt and bird poop. You may also have moss to deal with depending on which part of the country you live in.
Follow up with a wax and grease remover to clean road tar and other petroleum contaminants. Spray on, wipe off. At this point, you may need to come back with one of the cleaners and a mildly abrasive scuff pad and gently scrub the panel. Similar to washing dishes, you aren’t trying to “scrub and scratch” the panel, just clean it.
“Why should I waste my time, Carl?” you ask. “That seems like a lot of cleaning.” Because waterborne/low-VOC paint is less forgiving of surface contaminants that are ground into the panel by the sanding operation.
And by the way, a brand-new panel should also be cleaned. Who knows how many “greasy pork chop sandwich hands” have handled the part before you got it? It’s not a waste of time. You’ll need to clean everything again after sanding and prior to painting, so let’s be in the habit of having both cleaners in some sort of a pressurized sprayer. If they’re handy, then you’ll use them.
Also, keep in mind that not all paper towels are created equally; some rapidly break down and deposit micro fibers on your panel when using a low-VOC waterborne cleaner, while others fail to absorb well and leave a film behind. Get the proper towels for the job. They aren’t more expensive, just different. Those trusty pros can help make a choice here.
Sanding. Assuming you’re not from the Cambrian Explosion, you probably have a grasp of the fundamentals of grit selection for the various operations. Featheredging, block sanding, final prep for sealing, final prep for blending, etc. Suffice it to say, don’t cheat the process which the pros have dictated. They are vested in your success and are not attempting to sell you on unnecessary procedures. The edges can possibly be trimmed for economy of motion later, but for now, get those habits ingrained.
If you’re still wet sanding, I would ask, “Why?” Of course it works quite fine, but it certainly isn’t necessary. There are those of you who have been dry sanding since you started, and when you sand with 800 or 1000 grit dry paper, well, you already know why the panel needs to be clean. Bear in mind, there is a varying degree of scratch severity between dry sanding, wet sanding, hand sanding and orbital sanding even when you’re using 400 grit paper in each of those operations.
In addition, there are products we use that can be applied over “properly cleaned E-coats” or “properly cleaned plastic.” So obviously there are instances where we do not need to sand, but “no sanding” is not synonymous with “no prepping.” Properly cleaning a panel is a procedure in prepping. Whether we make paint stick through mechanical means such as sanding or through a chemical adhesion promoter, we need to be certain the panel is clean and dust-free.
One more thing regarding low-VOC cleaners: they defeat static electricity, which isn’t much of a problem in high humidity areas but is electrifying in low humidity areas.
You may have noticed a reoccurring theme here: the pros. The pros here and the pros there, well, they’re the experts with their products and you need to tap into their expertise. Do they know everything? Are they infallible? Of course not. This is the real world. But by getting their assistance ahead of time, you’ll be virtually guaranteed their attention. Wait until the last moment when the tsunami is about to strike, and you may find you have to “take a number and get in line.” I can assure you it’s an easier transition to waterborne at your leisure now rather than after the train has left the station. And finally, get prepared for increased productivity.
Carl Wilson has been painting for nearly 30 years, with formal training from the GM Training Center, ASE, I-CAR and multiple product and color courses. He currently works as a painter at RPMS Auto Body & Paint in Kailua, Hawaii. He can be reached at [email protected].