Complex Automotive Refinishes of Today

Complex Automotive Refinishes of Today

Even though refinishes today are more complex than ever before, every generation of painter has experienced challenges. It really comes down to the painter’s mindset.

So what exactly makes for a complex finish, or refinish as it pertains to our industry? You’ll likely get five different responses from five different painters. We all see the world through our own lens, and what’s difficult for me may be a piece of cake for you.

When we define for ourselves what constitutes a complex refinish, we naturally measure against what we’re familiar with. Most of today’s young painters, for example, likely know only two- or three-stage finishes, and for them nothing is more difficult. Some of them may also be versed in single-stage, but it has been my observation that they’re in the minority. Whatever is new and unfamiliar will likely be considered complex, at least initially.

Let’s step back and consider some older technologies and their challenges as a segue into today’s technological advances and the complex challenges they create…and why.

The 1920s and 30s

I suppose there’s no real need to go all the way back to nitrocellulose lacquer; I don’t think anyone who cut their teeth on nitro-lacquer is still around and painting. I could be wrong, but that’s my hunch. And while synthetic enamel has been around for decades, I’m not aware of any collision shops using it for repairs today.

Acrylic Lacquer

Acrylic lacquer is by no means all-inclusive, but there are a bunch of us who got our start with lacquer in the body shops, and it was still in use at the OEM level well into the 1980s. There were some nuances associated with it: It was an aggressive solvent that could cause lifting on some finishes; it needed to be buffed to bring out the shine; it was a soluble/reversible finish, so other solvents such as gas dripping from the nozzle could soften or stain it. Still, it was a beautiful finish with a depth of appearance that was difficult to replicate.

One of the challenges of a three-stage refinish is an inconsistent flop. Here, we see it’s dark from one angle but light from another.

Another challenge with lacquer was keeping an even appearance of metallic orientation after buffing. Lacquer clearcoat was available, but most body shops didn’t use it in day-to-day repairs, so the single-stage color coat itself (including metallic) was typically sanded and buffed. Dad would cocktail color and clear together in the final coats he applied, as he believed this would better match the reflowed finish from the factory’s high-temperature bake. This practice likely made that final cut and buff a little easier.

Acrylic Enamel

Acrylic lacquer was still in wide use when acrylic enamel hit the scene. Theoretically, there was less labor involved with it than lacquer, as it didn’t need a buff to bring up the gloss level. It was typically a three-component system using an activator.

Some painters embraced it, while others rejected it. It was more forgiving than lacquer in several regards: It wasn’t anywhere as “hot” as lacquer, so there was less chance of aggressive over-penetration from the solvents; it wasn’t reduced as much as lacquer was thinned, so it filled a more aggressive sand scratch, which allowed a slightly rougher/faster preparation. Also, while enamel solvents evaporated as lacquer thinner did, an oxidation and a molecular cross-linking process took place and, as a result, a non-reversible finish was achieved. However, this was a sobering introduction to isocyanates.

One of the challenges of a three-stage refinish is an inconsistent flop. Here, we see it’s dark from one angle but light from another.

Today, most of us are aware that if it’s catalyzed, we must protect ourselves from the tasteless, colorless and odorless gas known as isocyanate. But that wasn’t common knowledge in the late 70s and early 80s. Another thing the cross-linking process educated us on was re-coat sensitivity. We learned there’s a “before” and “after” window when we’re safe to re-coat a repair without the repair “blowing up.”

All the while, colors were becoming more complex with the additions of pearls, micas and metallic, and color matches were increasingly more difficult. Basecoat/clearcoat from the OEM debuted and, as a result, we could no longer “burn” a blend in. A non-reversible coating onto a non-reversible substrate is a repair destined for failure as it will always just lay on the top, rather than melt in the same way lacquer would. I can assure you that was a complex problem that was widely misunderstood in the field at the time, and is what brought us to eventually avoiding blending the clearcoat and bringing it to a naturally occurring break.

Urethane Basecoat/Clearcoat

Basecoat/clearcoat solved many problems, but like every other change in the history of the industry, it wasn’t embraced by everybody.

Early OEM basecoat/clearcoat lacked sufficient UV screeners, and we saw the results: clearcoat degradation showing up as a chalky white cloud on horizontal panels. Of course, today’s clears are really durable with adequate UV screeners, but clearcoat degradation can still occur if the film build is insufficient, whether due to stingy application or excessive buffing.

There was one serious challenge that added to the complexity of basecoat/clearcoat: the texture we were seeing from the factory. If you were aiming for an invisible repair, you had to put texture in the clearcoat to match the factory finish. This may seem simple enough now, but the old habits of a glass-smooth finish left over from the lacquer days were slow to pass. And the size and degree of texture was different from manufacturer to manufacturer; there was no universal orange-peel.

Naturally, not everyone saw the need to have texture in the finish, and plenty of body shop managers and even customers were balking at that texture that had been intentionally left. A shift in the expectation had to be addressed, and this was a difficult conversation to navigate in the beginning as it sounded like the painter was making excuses.

But basecoat/clearcoat did make a blendable match easier. You simply transitioned the color gradually to the adjacent panel and cleared it off. Easy as pie. Except, the complexity of today’s finishes are creating challenges greater than anything today’s painter has ever known.

What Makes a Finish Complex?

Advanced color development and customer expectations make for ever-increasing difficulty. Time and experience give us procedures that slay those difficulties.

Take, for example, when the Mustang made its debut in April of ’64. It was available in solid colors: white, black and the primary colors. A couple of muddy colors and a few metallic, or poly, colors were offered as well. Pretty basic by today’s standards. But, before we scoff at the simplicity as we consider our tri-coats, remember that was all single-stage paint – no clearcoat. The point is, that was complex then.

Painters today are dealing with tri-coats, which are complex by any standards. Whether it’s a pearl or a candy, another layer of difficulty is added to the job. There was a time when these were custom offerings, but that day has passed, and virtually all of the OEMs have put these colors into production.

We’re also seeing matte finishes from the factory. This is especially challenging as the color perception is affected by the degree of gloss, which can change over time and with washing. Even just brushing against the matte finish can alter the gloss. This is complex and difficult, but not impossible. It does require more time in the shop and typically zone refinishing, so part of the equation becomes: “Are we getting paid for this additional work?”

While finishes such as matte have traditionally been a custom proposition, we now see them from the OEM, too.

And while we’re talking about additional work, we must bring up the Nissan KAB, which requires two paint jobs due to the super-fine metallic. Oh, and that means two bake cycles. Lexus has a four-stage out, too, and Mazda’s 46G is similar to a pearl white – except it’s black. You know what makes these less complex? A clear understanding of the procedures involved to ensure success, and writing the estimate to reflect the additional work.

Of course, we can’t overlook “custom” colors or complete color changes. We’ve all seen them, and some are beautiful, but some are $200 national-chain specials. Rarely is there any pertinent color code information in either case. If you’re lucky, you’ll have access to a color camera of some sort to assist in navigating through choosing a formula and get you in the ballpark. A chromatically arranged color library is a fantastic asset here as well.

And finally, perhaps the most prolific cause of complexity in finishes: the moving target from the OEM by way of inconsistencies. And to be fair, I’m not talking about all vehicle manufacturers, just most of them.

What causes these inconsistencies? For one, many of the panels are transparent, with not even enough color film-build to ensure coverage, resulting in a blotchy appearance. Try matching that – or blending into it. Paints at the OEM level can also experience metallic shear – the size of the metallic flake changing from the beginning of a color run to the end of it as the always-moving-color pulverizes the metallic, resulting in the last car painted having a finer metallic grind than the first one. But they share the same color code. Also, not all parts are painted at the same facility or even with the same paint technology. Color-match-wise, this adds another layer of complexity to deal with.


So while it’s evident that the more things change, the more they remain the same, and every generation of painters has their own new/difficult/complex challenges to address, the solution has always been the same. Of course, I’m referring to the painter’s mindset again – the ability to see things as they are and not be prejudiced by preconceived notions and solutions to other challenges.

Continue to develop that intellectual toolbox and keep it full with relevant tools because the challenges you face tomorrow will likely be the most complex you’ve ever encountered.

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