Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Choosing a New Paint Brand? - BodyShop Business
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Should I Stay or Should I Go Now? Choosing a New Paint Brand?

It takes more than a coin flip to decide whether to choose a new paint brand or stick with the one you have. Sure, a new paint product with all sorts of new bells and whistles may entice you to jump ship from your current brand, but make sure you do your homework before taking that leap.

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Mark R. Clark is owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa. He’s a popular industry speaker and consultant and is celebrating his 32nd year as a contributing editor to BodyShop Business.

What a difference a decade makes.
Ten years ago, most shop owners let their top painter choose their paint brand. This made sense, since it was the painter who sprayed the stuff. The jobber salesperson and the paint representative spent most of their time checking on the painter to make sure he didn’t have any problems and that their product performed the way it was designed.

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These days, however, many shop owners choose their paint brand based on the “What’ll ya give me?” method.

The focus has gone from the person using the products to the person buying them. Usually, the shop owner doesn’t spray the products, so he has no genuine sense of whether they dry quickly or match well. He just knows his shop got a nice piece of equipment installed or a cash infusion for choosing a particular brand.

Back in the old days, the industry also employed the “key shop” theory. This school of thought held that if paint companies could get the big, shiny shop down the street to use their brand, then the other less successful shops nearby would follow suit.

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Each of these methods has some merit, but none really address the paint brand issue completely. Besides, before we can investigate picking a paint line, we have to first establish that the brand you choose pales in comparison to the most important part of a successful body shop: labor time.

The entire shop material bill typically runs less than 10 percent of total sales, and the paint portion is about 5 to 7 percent of sales. Supposing you could save a hearty 15 percent by switching paint brands, you’d only net a 0.7 to 1 percent improvement in your overall bottom line. (Most shops waste more than 1 percent by blowing off a customer every couple of days.)

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Success lies in production increases. If you could improve your production by only 5 percent, your net profit could increase 2 to 3 percent. If you could improve production by the same hearty 15 percent you were saving on buying paint, you could pocket another 8 percent net each month.

This isn’t to say the choice of paint brands doesn’t make a difference, because it does. All paint lines aren’t the same, despite what you may have been told in shop management class. This becomes evident by looking at five critical variables that differentiate them:
1. Actual resin performance.
2. Speed of application.
3. Dollar cost.
4. Consumer warranty.
5. Local support.

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1. Actual Resin Performance
First let me say I believe that if you follow the directions, use a single system, wait the correct flash times, apply the proper mil build of each layer and spray in a clean environment, you’ll achieve a top-quality job from any major paint brand.

The chemical playing field has been leveled considerably in the last few years. When I started in 1970, there were distinct product differences among brands. For example Brand X had a water-white clear, while Brand Y’s clear had a very yellow cast to it. Brand Y had a sealer that stood up to plenty of abuse while Brand Z’s sealer gave up and came off when the temperature changed. Brand Z had a primer that sanded great while Brand X primer gummed up three sheets of paper every time.

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Chemical engineers have made huge strides since then to fix these problems. Consider for a moment that your shop opens gallon cans, mixes in approximate amounts of solvents and catalysts, sprays with a hand-held spray gun in a largely uncontrolled environment and yet what ends up on the customer’s car lasts as long as the stuff the car manufacturer applied. Yet the OEM paint is heat-activated, applied robotically in perfectly controlled spray conditions and cooked at 300 degrees. It’s a miracle of chemistry for every air-dry paint manufacturer. A round of applause please.

Don’t get me wrong. Even today, differences remain among the chemistry of the products. Whether you intend to switch brands or wish to confirm the line you’re currently using is right for you, some comparison is in order.

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First, determine which of the paint manufacturer’s large range of products you’ll use in your shop. Based on your spraybooth, the type or absence of force drying, the willingness of your painters to wear air supply respirators and the type of spray guns, you should narrow down the multitude of product offerings to a short list. Brand X may have five different bare metal primers, so which one will your shop use?

In general, catalyzed paint products work better and last longer than single-stage products. However, your shop conditions and requirements may dictate that you use single-stage undercoats on some jobs. Find out exactly which of the many offerings the paint manufacturer provides are right for you. Make a list. The shorter the better.

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You’ll need at least one – but hopefully no more than two – of each of the following products:

  • A moisture-tight bare metal primer that will prevent rock chips from turning into big rust scabs;
  • A catalyzed primer-surfacer containing talc to fill the work to contour so it won’t shrink and swell as the solvent from subsequent products is applied over it. The surfacer should sand easily even after several days;
  • A catalyzed sealer that sticks to any substrate and give great holdout from the solvent in the clearcoats;
  • A basecoat color that provides a blendably close match most of the time and covers after a minimum number of coats.
  • A topcoat clear(s) that’s water-white (truly clear) and lends itself to an easy scuff and buff over the next few days.

All paint manufacturers conduct extensive testing to establish the durability of their various products. They test their offerings for flexibility, chip resistance, pencil hardness (pushing the lead in pencils into the finish), re-coatability, mil build per square foot and UV resistance, the main enemy of any paint job. Ask to see on paper the results of their tests for the particular products you intend to use. Even if you aren’t a chemical engineer, the information on the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and the product bulletins will help you compare one brand to another. It would be in your best interest to know that Brand Y has a clear that covers 500 square feet of surface at one mil thick and Brand Z has a clear that covers 1,000 square feet at one mil.

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Once you have the information on paper, spray some of each product and subject them to your own tests. Unbelievably, many shops have switched paint brands despite never shooting a single ounce of the new brand. This, no doubt, helps explain the unfortunate phenomenon of an average 90-day decline in productivity after the typical paint shop changes brands. This is because it takes about three months before most of the tricks and quirks of the new paint brand become apparent to the painters. They already knew all the shortcuts for the old brand, but it took years to learn them.

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Some helpful product-for-product in-shop testing would compare your current brand to the new brand. For example, take two bare metal panels. Spray your present brand of moisture-tight primer on one and the new brand on the other. Time how long it takes them to dry. Then scratch them and affix masking tape over the scratch. Rip off the tape as fast as you can to see if both primers stay put. Whale on the panels with a hammer. While this isn’t nearly as scientific as the weighted drop tests the paint manufacturer’s laboratory does, it’s informative nonetheless.

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Spray three coats worth of the new primer-surfacer, and compare the mil build to three coats of your current surfacer. Sand both panels with the method and grit your shop currently uses. (Some brands demand you change your repair procedures to accommodate their paint products. Maybe you should try this, maybe not.)

If you use a particular color sealer (to match the OEM color, right?) make sure it’s readily available in the new brand. If you have to combine the sealer, the solvent, the catalyst and three mixing tints to get a color you use every day, maybe this brand isn’t your best bet. Choose the three toughest color matches you regularly face. Spray them out in the new brand. If all three match better than your current brand, you may have found your new paint line.

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Spray both clearcoats (one for panel, one for overall) and check the mil build. Why? Because the main failure of today’s paint jobs is disintegration caused by the ultraviolet sun rays eating the resin. Mil thickness is a major indicator of longevity against sunshine. More thickness is better as long as the number of coats is the same. Let the clear panels dry for a week and try buffing them. If it feels like you’re trying to get a gloss off the cement shop floor because they’re so hard, it’s better to find out now than after you’ve switched brands.

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2. Speed of Application
Production time, cycle time and throughput of the paint line is where the money’s made. So it makes sense that many paint brands use speed as their main selling point. If you could do one more car per week (they’ll be quick to tell you), you’d have another $750 in your pocket each Friday.

I agree that speed is the pivotal issue. But some products require special equipment and conditions to deliver that speed. If you have an unheated crossdraft booth in your shop and the people from Brand X promise super turnaround times with their stuff, make sure they don’t require a heated downdraft to fulfill that promise.

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The reason the metal shop can outperform the paint shop is the constraint dry time puts on paint performance. For example, the crash book says it takes four hours to replace the panel. The bodymen can do it in two because they have the right equipment and the necessary skill. The crash book says it pays four hours to paint the panel. Even though the painters have tremendous skill, they must wait for the various coats to dry before applying the next ones. Dry time takes real clock hours to accomplish. And a paint line that allows you to pile the products wet-on-wet will save time only if there’s no hidden dieback problem and if you don’t need a zillion-dollar heat light to make it work.

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But if every paint brand claims they have such great speed, who do you believe? It’s time to do some in-shop testing again.

Many shops switch paint brands when all that’s really necessary is to switch products within their present brand. The new guys are certain to bring in their latest, greatest, high-tech stuff for demonstration, so if you’re using previous generation products from your current brand, then of course the new stuff looks fabulous.

If you’re considering something as disruptive as switching brands (and suppliers), make sure your current guys have a chance to compare apples to apples first. I personally know of several cases where a shop switched brands because it had a high-solid clear that looked great compared to what they had been using. Only after they made the switch did the shop discover their present brand had a high-solids clear that looked even better than what they’d just purchased. They compared their old, fast-dry, low-solids clear to the fancy clear made by the new brand. No wonder it looked so good.

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The only way to get a handle on the true speed of the new brand is to paint some cars. Typically, the new supplier will send a tech rep into your shop for a week to demonstrate the new line. This ensures the products are mixed correctly – which is half the battle – and that correct procedures are followed. But before you throw out the old brand, invite their tech rep to visit your shop for a couple days and paint some cars with your painters, too.

This is actually a good routine practice. I believe the tech rep from your paint brand should spend a couple of days in your shop twice a year. He has a vested interest that you paint the maximum number of cars, too. Logic dictates you’ll buy more paint if you paint more cars. So give the current guys a chance to catch the potential problems first.

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By the way, the biggest time waster, according to all the manufacturer tech reps I’ve spoken with, is color match procedures. Time after time, they tell me about painters who just mix the color and shoot it on the car without establishing a match first. I know test panels take a lot of time, but not as much time and expense as painting the car again and again.

3. Material Cost
Years ago, comparing the cost of one brand to another was simple. The calculation was called “ready-to-spray (RTS) per ounce.” You’d take the cost of a quart of paint, the cost of a gallon of thinner and the cost of a pint of catalyst. Add them together in the correct ratio (4:2:1 or 1:1:1 or whatever), divide the resulting total dollars by the total ounces and you have RTS cost.

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These days, calculations aren’t so simple. Because solid levels vary greatly, you need to take things one step further. For example, if Brand Y is $1 per RTS ounce and Brand Z is $1.50 per RTS ounce, you should choose brand Y, right? But what if Brand Z covers more square feet because it has more solids? Today’s high-solids, high-tech finishes should be compared at the cost to paint one square foot of surface at one mil thick. You can find the square foot coverage data somewhere in the product literature. I’ll be the first to agree the cost per square foot isn’t as important as the speed of the product, but if dry time speeds are similar, use the less expensive paint.

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Another buzzword for today’s paint calculations is the “cost per paint hour” of a particular brand. Add up the total paint hours your shop billed last month. Then figure the total liquid your shop bought last month (approximately 70 percent of your total material bill). Divide the paint dollar total by the paint hour total to get your shop’s cost per paint hour. (i.e. $1,500 liquid divided by 160 hours = $9.37 per paint hour).

Remember that how well your estimates are written has a huge bearing on your paint cost per hour. In the previous example, if you sold 180 hours of paint work instead of 160, your paint cost drops to $8.33 per hour.

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Many shops switch brands without ever doing any paint cost calculations. Whether it’s per RTS ounce, per square foot at one mil or per paint hour, compare the cost of the products to one another. Product speed and production increases offset huge differentials in product cost, but wouldn’t it be nice to know the difference?

4. Consumer Warranty
Repeated studies of consumer preferences show that a written warranty is high on the list of their demands. Sure, you say you’ll stand behind your work, but Mr. and Mrs. Consumer have heard that before. Put your promises in writing and they’ll tend to believe you.

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Most major brands of automotive paint offer an extended warranty to the vehicle owner if their recommended products were used to refinish the car. Yet another good reason to use one brand of products throughout the repair. If your present brand offers a lifetime warranty to the car owner, why switch to a brand offering anything less?

Assuming you’ll only choose a brand with an extended warranty, the next question is how those claims are verified and settled. Does the paint manufacturer cover only the cost of product? Or do they cover labor too? If so, at what rate? Will it be your door rate or some discounted figure? Will they cover the cost of a rental car to the consumer? These are questions you should ask before a job fails and needs re-done. Everybody’s warranty sounds good in conversation; read the fine print carefully and get clarification on anything you don’t understand.

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5. Local Support
I’m a big fan of all the value-added things a good distributor can do for its shop customers. I honestly believe that the 5 percent increase in production I referred to earlier can be accomplished with just the good things a professional paint jobber does.

From recommending the right product for each of your specific applications to organizing and counting the inventory on the shelf, to multiple special deliveries that prevent any downtime for your techs, they’ll increase your production. In addition, several studies show that the main information source for body shop technicians isn’t a great trade magazine like this one or an educational clinic offered by the paint manufacturer. It’s the regular sales call from a knowledgeable distributor salesperson.

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If you start purchasing your paint over the Internet without seeing a real-life salesperson, you’ll miss out on a lot of good advice and free help. Professional paint, body and equipment jobbers make whatever brand of paint they sell the best it can be. From instruction on how to mix and apply the products to answering questions when trouble arises to settling a complaint equitably, they’re the people – on the ground in your town – who make the paint brand work well.

Many shops have switched brands and suppliers only to have the new paint brand work adequately, but have the new jobber fall far short of the level of service they were accustomed to.

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Picking the Paint
When the next vendor comes into your shop dangling an attractive gift of equipment or money to entice you to join their side, think twice. In exchange for a few thousand dollars worth of paint shop equipment, you may trade away much more.

Once the new prep station is installed and the contracts are signed, it’s a very poor time to discover the new primer takes forever to dry and the new clear won’t polish the next day. Maybe the speed of the new stuff will require a major change in the procedures your painters employ. Sure, painters can be re-trained, but what if all the new paint needs to be cooked with an infrared light you don’t own? What if your cost per paint hour goes up by $1?

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If that’s the case, a two-painter shop will spend an additional $6,000 for paint this year. Two years into your five-year contract, you could have bought your own prep station – plus be $20,000 ahead when the contract finally ends!

If the warranty settlement on the new brand takes three claims forms, four reps and five weeks to conclude, how are you better off? If the new brand comes with a lovely gift and a discount every month but you end up losing the jobber who’s willing to leave his home at 10 p.m. or 5 a.m. to open the store and get what you need, did you really come out ahead?

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Choose your paint brand carefully. There are many good ones out there, and each has a set of features and resulting benefits that are the perfect combination for some shops. The trick is to get the best combination for your shop.


Writer Mark Clark, owner of Professional PBE Systems in Waterloo, Iowa, is a well-known industry speaker and consultant. He’s been a contributing editor to BodyShop Business since 1988.

Liar Liar!

Unlike Jim Carrey, we don’t always speak the truth. Some of the following statements are lies. Which ones? It’s up to you to decide – using your paint knowledge.

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1. Since I can get a top-quality paint job using any of the major paint brands, it’s OK to switch to a new brand based solely on what they’ll give me – like a neat, new piece of equipment or maybe even some cash.
True     False

2. A 90-day decline in productivity occurs after the typical paint shop changes brands.
True    False

3. The main failure of today’s paint jobs is disintegration caused by the ultraviolet rays of the sun eating the resin.
True    False

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4. The metal shop outperforms the paint shop because of “dry” time. This is why a paint line that allows you to pile the products wet-on-wet will always save time.
True    False

5. The biggest time waster in the paint shop, according to most manufacturer tech reps, is painters waiting for products to dry.
True    False

Give yourself 1 point for each correct answer.
Answers: 1. False; 2. True; 3. True; 4. False, it will only save you time if there’s no hidden dieback problem and if you don’t need a zillion-dollar heat light to make it work; 5. False, it’s color match procedures. Many painters mix the color and shoot it without establishing a match first.

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5 points: OK smarty pants. We’ll make the quiz harder next time. Or maybe you read the article first and then took the test? Is that what you did? CHEATER!!

4 points: Think you did really well only missing one, huh? Based on five questions, each question rates 20 percent of your grade. Missing one puts you at 80 percent. That’s a C. If someone graded your paint shop, is that the grade you’d want? Of course not! You can do better. We know you can.

3 points: Well … you missed almost as many as you got right. Enough said.

2 points: This is not good. You really, really need to read this article.

1 point: One is better than none, right? Not much.

0 points:: Don’t speak English? Then your failure here is understandable. Or perhaps you’re an accountant sitting in a body shop’s waiting room where this magazine just happens to be sitting. Again, an understandable failure. If, however, neither one of these scenarios applies to you, you need to read this article word for word, syllable for syllable.

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