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The Spraybooth School of Hard Knocks

Everybody makes mistakes. (Trust me, I’ve been party to some big ones.) But if you learn from those mishaps instead of dwelling on them, you’ll come out ahead – and may even avoid a repeat performance.

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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.

I told an audience the other day that I’d been in the industry so long, I helped Noah pick out the colors for the ark. It was a slight exaggeration, but it’s true that I feel like I’ve seen a lot of things come and go in vehicle refinishing. I’ve also learned a lesson or two about spraybooths in the four decades (!) I’ve been around the industry.

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A Whippersnapper (Me) and Three Veterans
In 1970, I was fresh out of college with a major in beer and a minor in business administration when my Dad and I started our paint jobbing business. I was still in a learning mode and enrolled in every training class I could. Paint in those days was synthetic enamel, acrylic lacquer and – the new kid on the block – acrylic enamel. I typically attended classes held at the paint company’s national training center (one location, period), and I’d come home bursting with information about how to paint cars.

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My customers, who hadn’t spent years swilling beer and chasing coeds on campus, had been painting cars the whole time. “What,” they wanted to know, “did a whippersnapper like me know about it?”

I decided they were right; I should learn how to paint cars. I knew something about the product, something about selling but little about the mechanics of auto painting, so I sought out the three people I’d watched turn out the best looking paint jobs in my market and asked them for advice.

As you might imagine, they had slightly different painting styles and considered various elements important. But there was some common ground, and I took it to heart. Most important, they all agreed, was to watch the paint hit the car. If you couldn’t see the edge of the atomized paint contact the surface, you wouldn’t get a nice job. (That practice has served me well.) In addition, they all agreed that you should paint with the airflow. In those days, every booth was a crossdraft, so you’d begin painting by the intake filters and end by the arrestors. It’s still good advice. Other things – like squatting down to keep the spray gun parallel to the car, painting toward the middle to pick up the wet edge on the top or on the hood and spending extra time carefully masking – all became part of my methods.

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Let There Be Light!
Now for the lesson from my very first paint job in 1970. I was painting a 1964 MGB that I bought for $300. This was going to be a quick and easy dip with synthetic enamel. (Who knew if the new acrylic stuff would really work?) I wiped the car with wax and grease remover, practically sanded my little fingers off with a jitterbug sander, taped it up and was ready for the cool part.

I was borrowing a booth from a good customer who specialized in used cars (so he bought lots of gallons of paint), but I could only use his booth after hours, since they were busy making money in there during the day. His booth was actually a corner of his cinder block building with sheet rock making up the other two walls. It had an exhaust fan mounted in the block wall at the front of the booth and a hinged piece of plywood that you raised off the fan with a rope. Pretty high tech, eh?

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The day before I was to use the booth, the fire marshal paid the shop a visit. The sheet rock wall had light fixtures mounted flush with the inside walls of the booth, but the block wall had lights hung on the wall itself. “Oh no,” said the fire Marshall. “They’re a fire hazard and must be removed.”

But that little setback didn’t stop the shop from painting cars since they were able to utilize the light that snuck into the booth through a few glass blocks high on the outside wall.

Now remember when I could borrow the booth? Nighttime. I mixed my paint carefully with the enamel reducer, tied a shop rag as a diaper around the cup, put on two dust masks and started painting my first car. I was kind of jerky and moved too fast, but my painter friend took my hand and slowed me down some. It was going OK until I came to the dark side of the booth. The lights from the other side cast some serious shadows, but I could still distinguish the door from the floor so I kept going … three coats worth: a light sticky first coat to keep the paint from sliding down the panels, a medium second coat and a pour-it-on money coat.

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Finally, I was done, and the parts I could see looked pretty good – a little dirt but a nice gloss. It was white, of course. (Think I’m an idiot?) I cleaned the equipment and headed home, proud as punch. I was waiting at the door when the shop opened the next morning. We pushed the car out of the booth into the daylight-flooded shop and gazed at my handiwork. The side in the dark had so many runs it looked like Niagara Falls in winter. To make an already long story even longer, I ended up sanding off that entire side of the car. Remember, you couldn’t re-coat synthetic enamel for 30 days. (Who says isocyanate hardener isn’t a good thing?) The car finally came out passably well – until I redid the interior with some leftover, rubber-backed yellow shag carpet. A good way to make a $300 car worth $100!

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Lesson No. 1: Spraybooth lighting plays a huge role in successful paint jobs. From that day forward, whenever I sold a booth, I always advocated the customer purchase all the optional lighting available. You can’t have too much light in a booth. You could have too much glare, so watch the glossy paint on the walls. But the more light, the better.

Cost of Lesson No. 1: Figure my time to sand off the runs on one side of the car, re-mask and re-spray at eight hours in those early days. At today’s average door rate of $36 to $38 per hour, it would’ve cost $304 in labor plus the additional materials ($20 in 1970, $100 today). All because I didn’t have the night vision a cat has.

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Clean Up Your Act
Throughout the ’70s, I made it a point to paint three or four cars each year, so when a new customer asked, “What do you know about it, Sparky?” I could say it was just last quarter when I painted something.

But one day it dawned on me: My customers weren’t impressed with that. I had painted four cars last year; they had painted four cars yesterday. So by the early ’80s, I’d quit trying to impress my customers with my painting acumen and instead concentrated on selling them the right products and solving their problems. I continued to paint my own stuff when it suited me but stopped looking for things to paint. (Plus refinishing a motor coach bus in a parking lot helped cure me of wanting to paint anything ever again.)

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While visiting one of my good dealer customers, I was surprised to hear the work had begun to pile up and one of their painters had called in sick. The other painter knew I could paint because he was one of those who taught me. “Won’t you help get us out of this bind?” he pleaded. With a little arm-twisting and a reminder how much they spent with me the prior month, I went to work.

I spotted in a panel out on the shop floor passably well. No clearcoat in those early days, just get the metallic flake right and away you go. The next job was a pickup’s entire front clip, wiped off and in the booth. I agreed to mix the color and load the gun but wanted my customer to paint it.

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I mixed the acrylic enamel, reducer and catalyst carefully. I advocated glass measuring cups in those days, long before graduated plastic mixing cups. I poured in 20 ounces of color, 10 ounces of medium dry reducer and just over 2 ounces of hardener. The cup was filled to the brim. I pushed the thumb lever to seat the ears on the cup and headed into the booth to deliver the loaded gun to the painter.

I know many of you have hung small parts from unbent coat hangers. This shop was no exception. They frequently suspended mirrors or other small parts from the sprinkler pipes running across the top of the booth. Remember how busy they were? Well, no one had cleaned up the inside of the booth for far too long and big wads of spent masking paper littered the floor. (How not to have a clean paint job!) Now the payoff of this long setup.

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As I stepped through the little doorway into the booth carrying the over-full gun, I couldn’t see that several of the elongated coat hangers were buried under the masking paper residue. One of them caught my foot and – shall we say -arrested my forward progress. My whole body snapped forward, and the paint cup catapulted away from the spray gun and headed for the floor. When it landed, the entire 32 ounces of bright red paint flew into the air and exploded onto the undamaged box side of the truck that the painter was just about to mask. I guess you could say my face – along with the truck – was red after that.

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Lesson No. 2: Clean up the inside of the booth. (Also make darn sure the cup is clamped to the gun!) Nothing should be in the booth except the vehicle, an air hose and the painter. No hangers. No discarded tape. I’m not even a fan of the little shelf many painters favor to hold a tack rag and other miscellaneous stuff. Paint jobs will be cleaner when there’s nothing to shed dirt, and it’s much easier to move around when you can see the floor.

Cost of Lesson No. 2: It took three hours at $38 an hour to wipe off the red paint. It also cost $150 to re-mix the red paint. In addition to my $264 mistake, two other cars weren’t painted or delivered on time. The result: really p–ed off customers.

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Directions for Breathing
By the 1980s, the dangers of isocyanate catalysts were well known and most painters were wearing charcoal respirators, at the least, or air supply respirators, at best.

We had a walk-in customer who painted cars for auction pretty regularly. We gave him a hard sell to save his health by buying an air supply system we had on a monthly special. He agreed and left the store with his weekly gallon of paint, pint of hardener and new respirator. The next time I saw him, I wanted to know if he missed having that “barrel-stave-around-your-chest” feeling now that he wasn’t breathing the iso fumes. To my dismay, he said he felt worse, not better, wearing his new mask.

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“This shouldn’t be,” I exclaimed. “Let’s review your hook up.”

It turns out that after he unpacked the mask, the air pump and the hose, he connected them together in the right order but took the pump inside the booth with him! Now, instead of breathing stray fumes that slid around the edges of his charcoal mask, he was pumping fumes into his lungs.

Lesson No. 3: Read the directions.

Cost of Lesson No. 3: Becoming sensitized to isocyanate fumes will cost you $35,000 a year. In other words, you’ll be earning your keep flipping burgers instead of painting cars.

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Testing the Air
By the 1990s, I was smart enough to seldom get roped into painting anything except my own projects. However, I was given ample opportunity to see painting problems. Rarely did any of my customers call and invite me to come by to see some great looking job they’d done. Rather, they called me when the paint job went wrong.

By the middle of the decade, virtually everything on a vehicle was basecoat/clearcoat. Clears were changed to comply with the National Rule for solvent content and changed again to dry faster than the competition.

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I had a customer who’d switched to a very high-solids clear and was having trouble making it work in his heated downdraft booth. They couldn’t scuff and buff the clear after their force-dry cycle. All air-dry finishes are really force dry, not bake. OEM finishes are set by the bake cycle, and the resin actually crosslinks under heat, similar to what happens to air dry finishes with catalysts. Hot air, force dry just drives the solvent out and speeds the resin-catalyst linking.

I visited my customer and ended up painting a couple of cars with his painter. The downdraft airflow was nice and brisk so the clear dried to the touch pretty quickly. They’d set their air replacement furnace to 160 degrees F and leave the car in the oven for 30 minutes. But the clear was still soft when they went to scuff sand, and it balled up under the sandpaper. I had a remote infrared temperature gauge that could give you the temperature of an object without touching it. So we checked to see that the discharge temperature was really 160 degrees F; it was. We also checked to see if the metal temperature got to the recommended 140 degrees F; it didn’t. We tried leaving the car in the booth longer but still couldn’t get the metal temperature up.

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With the mystery unsolved, we measured the airflow during the painting cycle and found the air moving at a speedy 125 feet per minute (FPM). We discovered the problem when we went to measure the airflow during the force-dry cycle. It was still 125 FPM. Aha! Their spraybooth was designed to discharge only a portion of the air during the cure cycle. All spraybooths must exhaust 100 percent of the air during the painting cycle. Their damper wasn’t closing, and the heated air was flying right out of the booth for the whole 30-minute cure period. After getting the electronic switch that closed the damper repaired, the metal temperature shot up and the clear could be scuffed and buffed in only 25 minutes. Problem solved, fuel bill reduced, customer happy.

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Lesson No. 4: Regularly test your spraybooth to ensure all components are operating as designed. From the manometer that gauges when the arrestors are full to the controls that shut off the air when the door is opened, they all need help from time to time. An autobody shop environment with all the dust and dirt is hard on everything. From hydraulics to electronics, hinges to switches, dust can ruin them all. Test everything a couple of times per year.

Cost of Lesson No. 4: This one cost a pretty penny: Ten days of sanding and polishing soft paint – four hours per car x four cars per day – equals 160 hours. At $38 an hour, that’s $6,080 in lost labor.

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New Millennium, New Mistakes
Having made it into the new century, I recently painted some motorcycle parts. I had a bikini fairing, a gas tank, side covers and fenders that I was certain would look great in the new magic color-changing paint. I borrowed a lighted, clean, heated downdraft booth from a friend – during the daylight even! (How far I’ve come in 31 years.) I rigged up some sawhorses, wires and brackets to hold the parts in place. The basecoat material applied just fine, and I was ready for some bitchin’ clearcoats. I knew exactly which reducer to use in the clear because my friend painted in this very booth every day. As you know, moving air makes the solvent evaporate faster from the clear, and this was a newer booth with lots of airflow. At his suggestion, I chose a very slow solvent to make sure my clear would flow out perfectly and look like glass. Plus, it’s pretty easy to keep little motorcycle parts wet compared to SUV hoods.

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I started applying the clear and was stunned to see it slide down the tank after my first pass. How could I have gone wrong? I used the same solvent in the same booth my friend used every day. Had I learned nothing in 31 years? Have you figured it out yet?

The mass or volume that an automobile takes up inside the booth is much greater than the mass or volume of my handful of bike parts. Although the air replacement unit was pumping out just as much air, it didn’t move as fast. Plunk a big SUV in the center of a booth, and the air has to rush to get around it on the way to the exhaust fan. Without the bulky mass of the vehicle, the air moved slower, so my solvent choice was too slow, hence the runs.

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Lesson No. 5: Any time you paint in a new environment, practice first. Paint the trash barrel or the scrap hood before you set out on your carefully prepped target. I only ruined the tank, and the next weekend turned out some pretty snazzy looking parts. Now, if I only had time to ride it.

Cost of Lesson 5: If you ruined one front clip on a Mercedes-Benz – instead of my motorcycle gas tank – it would cost you five hours of labor at $38 an hour plus $150 in materials. Grand total: $340.

Note: The average repair costs about $1,500. Figure how many cars you could’ve worked on/completed in the time it took to re-do any one of the errors I mentioned in this article and you’ll see money add up fast.

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Learn from Your Mistakes
In my fourth decade in the collision repair industry, things have never been better. Paint products are a miracle of chemistry. They look great and last almost forever. Spray guns have less overspray, higher transfer efficiency and are more user-friendly than ever. New spraybooths are well lit, easy to clean and economical to operate.

But all this new technology does require a learning curve. Learn from those who’ve already made the mistakes and lived to tell about it. (Trust me, there are a lot of us out there. I’m living proof.) Everyone makes mistakes. It’s what you learn from them that makes all the difference.

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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.

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