Straighten or Fill? - BodyShop Business

Straighten or Fill?

Many techs look at a job and immediately think about how to fill it, never considering straightening. In fact, some techs believe no job is complete without plastic filler.

I’d like to qualify my ability to write on
this subject by first stating that I’ve been working on automobile
bodies as a professional for nearly 35 years. Perhaps you’re thinking,
"Ohh, a dinosaur, huh?" No. I may have been around a
long time (circa 1945), but I love my work, and I’m constantly
trying to improve the way I do things and become more proficient.

When I entered the collision repair industry
in 1963, plastic filler was present but still in limited use where
I worked. I was working as a helper in the body shop of a Cadillac/Pontiac
dealer in Denver, Colo. You could use plastic filler, with the
permission of the shop foreman, but you had to purchase it from
the parts department at your own expense. The dealership would
supply all the lead you wanted to use but not plastic filler –
unless you paid for it yourself. Obviously, it wasn’t held in
high esteem by the management and was used mainly for filling
file marks or pits in the lead. That was it. For the most part,
we straightened repairable parts.

I don’t know if you’ve ever actually gotten
your hands on the quarter panel of a ’59 Cadillac Coupe DeVille,
but we’re talking major metal. These weren’t a rare body style
either. Lots of vehicles for many years to come were built with
large, long, slab-sided sheet metal on them. We straightened those
without plastic filler and did a fine job of it too. However,
it was probably the design of those vehicles, with welded inner
construction and huge panels, that inspired the invention of plastic
filler. While the immediate response was to wildly abuse the use
of plastic filler, it did simplify many repairs if used properly.
Although the first plastic fillers were prone to several types
of failures, especially when applied too heavily, the fillers
of today are far superior and seldom fail. The issue I’m trying
to address in this article isn’t really one about the quality
of the plastic filler in use today. I think it’s fine. It’s the
issue of when to use it that needs addressed.

Plastic-Filler Happy

Working with and watching collision repair
technicians over the term of my career, I’ve come to the conclusion
that some of them really believe that no job is complete without
plastic filler on it. I’m not kidding.

When we check in new parts, we’ve all noticed
damage from the factory, caused when the outer skin is hemmed
over to secure the inner construction (hoods, doors, decklids,
etc.). Generally, you can obtain an allowance from your supplier
for this, and with a smooth hammer face and a good dolly, these
imperfections can be corrected. Then, with some careful blocking
of the factory primer, you can finesse this damage without sanding
through the factory primer. Sounds like bull, but I assure you,
it isn’t. There’s no need to grind, fill and prime the majority
of repairs being done. Think about it this way: When I fill something,
I have to mix the filler, apply it and then clean my tools. I
have to sand the filler, featheredge the repair, mix the primer,
apply it to the repair area, clean the spray gun and sand the
primer. In addition, I’ve created hazardous waste in the process.
All this to create a repair that takes more time. Why? Keep it
small and look for ways to minimize the repair. It’s faster and

"Ok," you say, "what about
a lot of the repair that’s going to require grinding?" Sure,
the vast majority of the actual collision damage is going to require
breaking the paint, but it still won’t require filling. It could
be metal straightened, couldn’t it? The answer is yes – and many
times this can be done much faster and without introducing another
element for exposure to job failure.

It’s really a mind set.

Think Straighten

Many techs look at a job and are already thinking
about how they’re going to fill it, not ever considering straightening.
Straightening should always be given first consideration. If you
can remove the inner fender liner, reach access to the damage
and then carefully relieve the stress of the damage, a simple
straightening job will finish the repair. Many repair techniques
that are used on the outside of a panel cause damage and require
filling. Always try access first. You’re inventive and clever,
or you wouldn’t be in this industry.

I was recently a judge at a Vocational Industrial
Clubs of America (VICA) competition, judging sectioning and welding.
The contestants were given a uniformly damaged new Ford Escort
fender to straighten. We agreed that, in the real world, a shop
would estimate approximately three hours to repair a dent of this
nature. I watched the contestants from several of the vocational
schools in our state struggle with their fenders. Most had at
least three applications of filler and some, many more. As I watched
this scenario unfold, I commented to a fellow shop owner, who
was judging the estimating, that "If I couldn’t straighten
that fender in 40 minutes, I ought to put my tools away for good."
He blabbed to the other judges, and I got challenged to do just
that after the competition was over and the students had left.
So, I gathered a hammer, dolly, file, a dual-action sander, which
I locked on grind, and an 80-grit disc. Time was started, and
as I completed my task, the time keeper called, "If you can
finish that within a minute, you’ll have 20 minutes into it."
It took me 21 minutes, including featheredging. It was quiet for
a minute, then someone said, "Yea, but you’d have to take
the fender liner out to do that."

Yea, but how long does that take? Come on,
think! Break that mind set!

Filler on the Brain

Think about it. Practice a little bit. You’re
an autobody craftsman, aren’t you? Be patient. Those paintless
dent repairmen don’t learn that skill overnight. They work at

You’ll need a body file, but you should have
one anyway. And use a fine disc for grinding. I use a dual-action
sander with a thick foam pad and an 80-grit sanding disc – 6-inch
works best. Lock the sander in the grinding mode. File and grind
sparingly. Use some thought when you remove the dent so it releases
with the minimum damage.

A craftsman I learned from said, "The
body men do more damage to the metal than the customers do."
Ease it out. You’ll get it, and you’ll be proud when you see the
pattern the fine sanding disc has made on that beautiful bare

And, to those of you who are saying that metal
finishing is a lost art, I say, "It’s not an art, it’s a
skill." A skill you’re capable of learning. You say, "The
metal on these new cars is too thin to straighten." No it
isn’t. Look at these paintless-dent-repair guys finessing out
dents – and the majority of them aren’t even collision techs.
Finesse! Skill! Pride! Our occupation is indeed a craft. Take
pride in that and be the best craftsman you can be!

Writer Mike West is a contributing editor
to BodyShop Business. He’s been a shop owner for the past 25 years
and a technician for 34 years. His shop in Seattle, Wash., has
attained the I-CAR Gold Class distinction and the ASE Blue Seal
of Excellence.

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