Reaching New Heights: Separating Types of Painters - BodyShop Business

Reaching New Heights: Separating Types of Painters

What separates the average painter from an extraordinary one? The "best of the best" pay meticulous attention to their technique, gun maintenance, gun selection - and everything else involved with painting a vehicle. In fact, the best paint techs are scientists, students, sleuths, housekeepers and dancers all rolled into one.

There are painters and there are paint technicians. What does a paint technician do that makes him superior to the average painter? To find the answer, I spoke with experienced painters as well as jobber sales reps, paint manufacturers reps and the president of a major spray gun manufacturing company to learn about the skills and qualities that separate “top gun” paint techs from garden variety painters.

Just Who Is a Top Gun?
A first-rate paint technician must possess a variety of skills to consistently produce high-quality jobs. Automotive refinishing has become increasingly technical in recent years. To meet these demands, the best paint techs are a scientist, student, sleuth, housekeeper and dancer all rolled into one.

What the heck am I talking about? An average painter can spray paint through a gun and turn out jobs that look OK most of the time. But he really doesn’t know why some jobs turn out and others don’t. When things go wrong, he’s at a loss for answers. Happy enough to just maintain mediocrity, he’s not a curious fellow. He does enough to get by; no more and no less. That’s what makes him average.

On the other hand, a paint technician has a desire to learn and master the elements of his craft. Like a scientist, he wants to know why things work and what makes them tick. He studies the materials and equipment that are an integral part of his daily activities. He’s aware that the more he understands the tools of his trade, the better he can control the results. He practices exceptional chemistry skills by reading labels, measuring chemical components precisely, using proper mixing ratios and always selecting the right reducing solvent for the current temperature. His spray gun is set up properly, and he follows flash time guidelines according to paint manufacturer specifications. He knows how his spray gun works and how to adjust and maintain it. He enthusiastically pursues training and proudly informs you of his ASE, I-CAR or other training achievements. He feels he can always improve himself; he’s got an insatiable appetite for more knowledge and loftier achievements.

When something goes wrong with a job (as it inevitably does from time to time) the “top gun” technician doesn’t whine or waste valuable time and energy looking for something or somebody to blame. Instead, he simply regroups, retraces his steps and figures out why the problem occurred and what he can do to prevent it in the future. Like a super sleuth, he’s got a knack for problem solving.

His work area is organized and clean. His appearance is always dapper and professional. Let’s face it, this guy would make any mother or grandmother proud!

When he picks up that spray gun and works his painting magic, he has a fluid, relaxed rhythm. The motion and movement is downright graceful. It’s reminiscent of a professional dancer, always smooth and fluid, never jerky or uptight.

With this theatrical explanation out of the way, we can look at the specific things these techs do that make them so good at what they love doing.

Get the Gun …
The paint techs I interviewed for this article have been in the trade for quite awhile. The overall average experience was 20 years, so these guys have been around long enough to know what they’re doing. With that said, let’s start by looking at the spray gun.

If the gun doesn’t work well, it tosses quite a monkey wrench into the works. Why is gun set-up and adjustment so important? First consider the complete spray gun. The techs I interviewed agreed that a good gun is one that feels comfortable and well-balanced in the hand, puts out a good flow of material and atomizes the material uniformly and consistently.

Ken’s Auto Service in Mayfield Village, Ohio, has three paint techs, and owner Al Meyers is one of them. Meyers advice on choosing the right spray gun? “I advise anyone to demo a gun for more than 10 minutes before deciding to buy it,” he says. “Use it for a couple of jobs and then make your decision.”

Meyers said he once tried out a particular gun, liked the way it performed and purchased it. He decided to buy an additional gun for the shop, identical in every way to the first. But the second gun just didn’t spray the same, even though in theory it was the exact same gun. The moral here is that all guns may not be created equal all the time. Many paint techs will demo a gun for a few jobs and then choose to purchase the demo model because they’ve become comfortable using that particular unit.

Other factors to consider are ease of maintenance and availability of replacement parts. Minor problems such as a check valve that continually gets plugged up can ultimately make you regret buying a certain gun in the first place.

Toby Chess – manager of Caliber Collision Center-South Bay in Gardena, Calif.; director of technical training for Caliber Collision Centers; and contributing editor to BodyShop Business – compared spray gun performance to exotic cars.

“It’s like owning a Ferrari that you must tune up every time you drive it vs. the Volkswagen that you just hop into because it keeps on running,” he says.

In other words, the fanciest, latest model spray gun may not turn out to be so slick if it’s touchy and doesn’t work well on a regular basis. Pick a gun that’s a dependable performer.

Set Up for Success
Be sure your guns are set up correctly for the type of material you spray. Check your paint manufacturer’s recommendations for fluid needle, fluid tip and aircap specifications.

Your personal application style also has some bearing on the size of the set-up you use. Gary Horst, a long-time technical salesman for the J.J.R. Company in Cleveland, Ohio, has been working with painters for 12 years. His advice is to follow your paint manufacturer’s recommendation and proceed from there on personal preference.

“A finesse painter usually goes with a smaller size set-up, but if you like to pound it on, you’ll opt for a larger size,” he says.

Keep in mind that the larger the gun set-up, the bigger the droplets of material when they come out of the gun. For example, paint droplets sprayed through a 1.3 needle tip and cap set-up are atomized more finely than paint droplets sprayed through a 1.7 set-up. Think of the droplets sprayed out of the 1.3 as tiny grains of sand, while the droplets sprayed through the 1.7 are more like large pebbles. The point is that the 1.7 puts out more material but doesn’t atomize as finely as the 1.3. Using a set-up that’s too large could cause problems – like runs and orange peel – if it’s not suited to the material and/or the tech’s application style. Conversely, you wouldn’t want to spray very heavy-bodied materials — like a high-build primer-surfacer — through a small set-up.

“You can’t sweep the floor with a mop,” says a rep from a major paint company. “The gun set-up must meet the requirements of both the material being sprayed and the technician who sprays it.”

What about gun adjustment and application technique? Gun adjustments will vary depending on the type of gun used (i.e. turbine vs. shop air supplied) and the type of material being sprayed. All the paint techs I interviewed basically follow the same routine for adjusting the gun prior to spraying a job. They set air pressure first, then adjust fluid. Most often the fluid is set wide open. Fan pattern is then checked. Some techs prefer to spray a test pattern onto masking paper, while others make a test spray into the air and view the pattern. The fan pattern is then adjusted, if needed, and the air pressure is re-checked and adjusted. Why? Because adjusting the fan pattern changes the air flow, so the air pressure must then be re-adjusted, as well.

Tips on Technique
At this stage, the gun is properly adjusted and ready to go. Next you should know the correct way to hold the spray gun in relation to the job surface. All the techs I spoke with agreed the proper way to hold the gun is at a 90-degree angle to the job surface. You can call it “perpendicular to the job surface” or say that it’s held “straight on” to the panel. It all means the same thing.

Keeping the gun positioned in this manner is vital to maintain even distribution of paint across the job surface. If the gun isn’t held straight on to the panel, you’ll end up with some areas light on paint and some areas covered too heavily. And if you hold the gun improperly while spraying a metallic color, you may end up with a host of problems, such as color mismatch, tiger stripes and mottling.

Triggering the gun should be done smoothly. Start the triggering action while the gun isn’t pointed to the job surface, squeezing the trigger enough to get air only. As you approach the job surface, squeeze full trigger on and make your “pass” over the panel. When finished with your pass, ease off the trigger until you have air only, and then start coming back to repeat the process for your next pass. Paint techs describe this method as “feathering” the trigger.

Troy Hopkins, a paint technician at Southtowne Auto Rebuild in Seattle, Wash., has been painting for 20 years and also taught painting at the Regional Occupation Program in Chino, Calif., for 13 years. “Full trigger and off, then on,” he says, describing the triggering motion. “Start as you’re going on to the panel, then let off at the end of the panel, and trigger back on before the next pass.”

Stroke motion, or technician movement, is the next item regarding technique. Each paint tech has his or her own style, so the responses here varied widely. Some use a lot of wrist motion, while others use arm and shoulder motion, keeping the wrist “locked.” Still others use a combination of arm, shoulder and wrist. All believe that you should never arc with your body or wrist, so when you reach the end of the panel, you shouldn’t fan out or flip your wrist outward with the spray gun. Your stroke motion should be fluid and relaxed. Work your way down the panel and then work your way back. The gun is pointed straight onto the panel, keeping the motion even and steady. At the end of the panel, keep the gun pointed straight on, with no turn cut or arcing.

The speed of movement for some techs always remains the same, but most of the techs I talked to said they move slower when spraying a larger panel than when spraying a small area. Some said they move a bit slower when spraying clearcoat because it ensures even, wet coverage of the clear.

Another common practice is to move slightly faster when spraying high metallic or pearl colors because it decreases the risk of mottling or striping. The goal here, no matter what your speed, is to get the paint onto the job smoothly and evenly. “Some painters move like their pants are on fire,” Meyers says. “They move so fast they get all the material in the air and not on the job!”

Your gun distance from the work surface depends on the recommendations for the material you spray. The people I interviewed work mainly with acrylic urethane basecoat/clearcoat systems. Gun distance varied from 4 to 10 inches, with an average distance of 6 inches. Several of the techs said increasing the gun distance is a good idea when spraying the last coat of a metallic color because it helps to even out the metallic. “Sometimes I move in to darken the appearance of a metallic color or move out to lighten it,” says Hopkins.

Gun distance can affect color match, material layout and gloss of the finish. Follow those almighty paint manufacturers’ specs, and then fine-tune your personal distance technique.

“Out here [in California] we’re working under rule 1151,” says Chess. “And when you’re working with high-solids products, you have to be especially careful about gun distance or you’ll end up leaving your signature — [a run or sag] — on the job!”

Overlap is one more element of painting that differs with each individual. Some maintain the same percentage of overlap for all material sprayed, and others choose to overlap a bit more when shooting high metallics or clearcoats. Overlap percentages among those interviewed ranged from 50 to 75 percent.

Taking Care of the Gun That Takes Care of You
Spray gun maintenance is vital to being a top-notch paint technician. I spoke with the president of a major spray gun manufacturing company who said that properly maintaining a gun is a must to ensure the gun will perform at maximum efficiency.

The following are a few basic, but critical, maintenance points to think about.

  • Lubricate the moving parts of the gun with a commercial spray gun lubricant on a regular basis. Many techs do this before or after each use.
  • Use a sealed gun washer to clean your gun after each use. If you have a gravity feed gun, don’t forget to cover the air inlet before placing the gun into the washer. Covering the air inlet prevents sediment from the solvent in the gun washer from building up within the air inlet. Eventually, this will result in choking off the air flow.
  • Once the gun is cleaned, remove it from the washer and wipe it dry. Don’t allow the gun to “drip dry” inside the gun washer because the residue left on the gun from the washing solvent is sticky and contains sediment, which could potentially cause finishing defects. After the gun is wiped dry on the outside, spray some fresh, clean solvent through it. This helps eliminate any sediment build-up in the air passages because it flushes out solvent residue left behind in the gun washer.
  • Once the gun is cleaned, flushed out and ready to be put away, one tech I interviewed uses the following procedure to keep the aircap clean and free from obstructions: Remove the aircap, and wipe off the threads on the gun head and aircap, using a paper wipe and some clean solvent. Store the aircap inside the gun cup, into which you’ve poured a small amount of clean solvent.

Before he used this procedure, the aircap on this tech’s gun became stuck onto the gun head due to dried residue from the gun washer. Over time, this had built up on the threads on the gun head and the aircap. The aircap was affixed so tightly that he had to cut it off with a die grinder. This ruined both the aircap and the gun head. He replaced them both, but to add insult to injury, this particular gun was his favorite. It was a costly and frustrating experience.

  • Use the right tools when removing obstructions in the aircap. “If your aircap becomes completely clogged, don’t try to remove the obstruction by poking sharp steel or other metal into the aircap holes,” says the spray gun manufacturing company president. “Once the precision holes are damaged, the aircap is destroyed and must be replaced. And aircaps are expensive.”

Many paint jobber stores sell spray gun cleaning kits, which include a small device resembling a wooden tooth pick for safely removing obstructions in the aircap.

Properly Prepped
What else makes a paint tech a “top gun”? The extra attention he or she gives every job to make sure the result will be a success. The techs I interviewed all felt that good prep work is imperative to turning out a great paint job. Prior to any painting, these techs check and double-check the prep work. Some of them even do the prep themselves.

For example, Jimmy Purpura, paint technician at Longstreet Autobody in Richmond Heights, Ohio, uses a specific method to prepare each vehicle. He washes the vehicle with soap and water and pre-cleans it with wax and grease remover. He then feathers, primes and blocks the work and scuffs the edges. Then he blows off the vehicle, cleans it again with wax and grease remover, and sends it into the booth to be masked, tacked off, cleaned once more with wax and grease remover, and tacked off one last time prior to painting.

“I spend the extra time doing this procedure because it ensures a good job,” says Purpura.

Pay Attention!
When you follow a specific procedure each time, it leaves less room for error because you methodically go from one step to the next, following the same order each time. “Prior, proper planning eliminates poor performance,” says Hopkins.

Paying attention to all the little details is what gives a “top gun” tech the edge over the average painter. Keeping the vehicle extra clean, making sure all areas of the vehicle are blown off thoroughly – especially around windshields, moldings and panel edges – are the things that make “top guns” the best of the best.

Keeping the booth clean and well-maintained is also a must, and wearing a clean spray suit is just good common sense. The paint bench also should be clean and well-organized with containers, measuring sticks and strainers all close by.

Also, document where color matching and troubleshooting are concerned. Julio Ramirez, head paint tech at Caliber Collision Center-South Bay in Gardena, Calif., keeps spray-out cards for all vehicles he paints. On the back of each card is formula and tinting information. Ramirez goes beyond just tinting for a blendable match. This documentation process helps him obtain the very best color match possible, and he has a record of what he did for future reference. Hopkins also keeps troubleshooting notes in a notebook for his future use and as a reference for someone who fills in if he’s away. The notes are a great way to look back to see what was done to correct a problem or to jot down new methods. After all, it seems more sensible to get it down on paper than to try to memorize it.

Taking Pride in Your Work
All the paint techs I spoke with agreed that taking the time to do the job right is the fastest way to finish the job. There’s no point in haphazardly rushing down a road that only ends in re-dos. “To be a good paint technician,” says Ramirez, “you have to care about what you’re doing.”

Chess drives that point home. “A great paint technician has to care about the job and its quality. It’s an attitude. He looks at the car not just as another repair ticket, but as somebody’s investment. He really cares about the customer – and that comes from the heart.”

Writer Kelly Skahan is the office manager and a prep technician at Patrick Enterprises in Pacific, Wash.

Solving Those Pesky Spray Problems …

Like everything else in life, when it comes to painting, every problem has a solution.


Pulsating or spitting fan pattern.


Loose fluid nozzle or needle, cup may be clogged.


Tighten parts, clean vent hole on cup.



Spray pattern is bent to the right or left.


Aircap horn hole plugged or dirty on one side.


Clean aircap horn hole with wooden toothpick or device supplied in gun cleaning kit. (Note: Never use metal to poke the aircap horn holes!)



Spray pattern is heavy in the middle.


Under-reduced material; air pressure too low, incorrect fan-control knob setting, nozzle too large.


Increase reducer, increase air pressure, adjust fan-control knob setting, change nozzle to a smaller size.



Split or hourglass-shaped spray pattern.


Over-reduced material, air pressure too high, fan width too wide.


Use less reducer, lower air pressure, narrow fan width.



Running or sagging of material.


Applying too much too quickly, gun distance too close to surface, gun travel speed too slow, over-reduced material, air pressure too low, painting on cold surface.


Wait longer between coats; apply medium, not heavy coats; increase gun distance from car; increase gun travel speed; decrease reducer; increase air pressure; keep job surface at a reasonable temperature.



Dry, rough-looking finish.


Gun distance too far from surface, air pressure too high, gun travel speed too fast, reducer too fast for temperature conditions.


Decrease gun distance, decrease air pressure, decrease gun travel speed, use a slower reducer.



Top- or bottom-heavy spray pattern.


Dirty aircap horn holes, deformed aircap horn holes due to reaming with a sharp metal object.


Clean aircap horn holes with wooden toothpick or device supplied in gun cleaning kit, replace aircap if necessary.

Suspect Spray Patterns

  • Spray pattern: One-sided round spray
  • Cause: Center drilling of air cap or paint nozzle is dirty or deformed
  • Remedy: Clean thoroughly; replace nozzle set if necessary
  • Spray pattern: One-sided spray pattern, bent
  • Cause: Air cap horn drilling is dirty on one side
  • Remedy: Clean horn drilling; replace nozzle set if necessary
  • Spray pattern: Spray pattern twisted to one side
  • Cause: Air cap horns are dirty or deformed
  • Remedy: Clean nozzle with a nozzle cleaning set; replace nozzle set if necessary
  • Spray pattern: To much material in the fan center
  • Cause: Atomization pressure is too low; viscosity is too high; too much material is applied
  • Remedy: Increase the pressure; add thinner; choose a smaller nozzle size
  • Spray pattern: Fan split, producing figure-8 shape
  • Cause: Too much thinner in the material; spray pressure is too high, fan width is too large
  • Remedy: Adjust thinner, spray pressure or fan width to compensate

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