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Enhance your custom paint business by focusing on six essential areas

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 23:00
Al Thomas ABRN auto body repair collision repair custom painting

Custom painting (Fig. 1) attracts many people, regardless of gender, to automotive refinishing. Just as those with hopes for the NBA or NFL, many car nuts have dreamed about becoming custom painters. Like most fantasies, the dream doesn't include the challenges that come with becoming a star. The better custom painters with earned reputations are treated like stars in select circles. But the challenge of making a living as one takes practice, hard work, marketing and sound business practices.

Though there are many skills that generally produce successful businesses, the following are essential to operating a profitable custom-painting business:

  • reputation;
  • quality and skill;
  • marketing;
  • location;
  • equipment; and
  • training.

Reputation

In all sectors of the service industry, reputation counts. But one could argue the custom painting industry is an even more difficult service business because it caters to a customer's specific, artistic and sometimes fanciful dreams, rather than just restoring a vehicle to its pre-accident condition.

The reputation of a custom painter is more important for attracting customers than it is for a collision-repair painter. Fortunately, many custom painters are often key participants in the genre they attract. For example, a bike painter may ride his own killer custom bike. Others prize their personal street rods or race cars. By participating in car shows, bike rallies or racing, a painter can, and often does, gain a reputation for his work. For many, that may be a starting point into painting others' vehicles; and if their work is good, they lay the foundation for their reputation.

Good and bad reputations spread rapidly, though, and many argue bad ones spread faster. Others are convinced good custom painters, who generally come from the collision repair industry, are born not made. Regardless, the better your custom painting reputation, the longer distances people will come to seek you.

The power of the Internet and quick delivery can help enhance a painter's reputation as well. Some sought-after custom painters of motorcycles will have customers' parts shipped to them, paint them and ship them back, thus enhancing their reputation.

Quality and skill

The quality of a custom painter is based on his skills, meticulously flawless ones at that. Customers are the ones who will open both doors so they can see both sides at once, lie on the ground to inspect the rockers and insist the vehicle's paint scheme is followed through the door to the inside of the fender, or the glove box (Fig. 2) or even under the hood down into the engine bay (Fig. 3).

The body must be straight and flat, a perfect surface for the paint to lie on. In many cases the product that is brought in to be painted must be repaired or at least blocked extensively before paint can be applied. Some say a painter is a glorified sander, and if you don't like to sand, painting isn't for you.

Extensive labor is required for custom painting. The surface is straightened. Flaws are repaired (Fig. 4), primed and blocked (Fig. 5) and often blocked a second and third time to make a perfect flat and straight surface. More so than in collision repair, this attention to detail is often continued in areas most painters care less about or ignore altogether, such as inside the trunk (Fig. 6).

Because painters work on many older vehicles, which are less than perfect, restoring the vehicles – including ones with rust that need to be repaired (Fig. 7) – frequently comes with custom painting. In turn, restoration involves an entirely different set of skills that need to be as perfect as the paint prep.

Custom shops often need a person skilled in mechanical abilities because vehicles often need to be stripped so the paint can be applied. Even vehicles that, at first glance, appear not to need much work, (Fig. 8) can require extensive body repair and restoration when disassembled and stripped. Even when replacing floor pans that will be covered with trim, for example, the meticulous attention to detail must be continued (Fig. 9). Painters doing custom work must be skilled in multiple techniques, such as pinstriping (Fig. 10) and airbrushing (Fig. 11).

Design

Unlike collision repair jobs, each custom paint job is unique. The custom painter's challenge is to create a design for each customer that is different from any previous paint job. Although customers often come in with ideas of what they want, it's the painter's/designer's expertise to complete each customer's vision. Colors must be created often, so the painter becomes a bit of an alchemist who designs and records each new color as it is developed. One such example is the brilliant red (Fig. 12) – developed by Korek Designs of New Berlin, Pa. (www.KorekDesigns.com) – that's a basecoat not a candy.

The challenge of creating a suitable design for each customer can be daunting. One needs to be unique while reflecting all the good paint jobs that have been done before. A custom paint design may be simple but well executed. Note the blue inside the fender wells and grill in Fig. 13, and a simple two tone broken up with a tasteful stripe in Fig. 14. But it could involve ghosting (Fig. 15) or painted and etched glass (Fig. 16). Depending on the clientele you aim for, the products – motorcycles, street rods, rat rods, race cars – will require different designs and marketing.

Custom designs, especially good ones, are limitless. There are many painters with great ability to technically apply paint in all its forms; but many are limited by their own imagination or artistic ability to design.

Location

It is often said the three most important considerations of a business are location, location, location. But the custom painting and restoration business can vary a little from this guideline. Customers go out of their way to get who they want from shops with solid reputations.

One example is Korek Design (Fig. 17), a family business started by Steve Korek in New York City. As its reputation grew, the business outgrew the available area in the city and moved to its present location in New Berlin, Pa. Steve's son, Ryan, an active drag racer, continued in the trade with his father. They operate the business together, employing other technicians.

Even in difficult economic times, the business has a backlog of work to do. When I visited their shop recently, it was full with vehicles in progress, and their storage area full of vehicles in the queue, which is a result of their long-standing reputation and their pickup and delivery service. They have a long list of repeat business with drag vehicles (Fig. 18), which arrive during the off-season for a fresh coat of custom paint for the upcoming season.

Training and equipment

Even though custom painters learn from mentors, they continue to learn from that age-old teacher – trial and error. Each new paint scheme is a teaching tool that can lead to more or different effects in the next paint job. Custom painters can learn new techniques (Figs. 19 and 20) and share them with each other at schools and seminars. Even trade schools offer classes in custom painting and automotive restoration.

While most of the equipment in a custom paint shop is the same as a collision shop, some custom painting and restoration shops have specialty equipment to help with restoration. These might include special jigs to transport body shells as in Fig 5; rotisseries, so all sides of the vehicle can be worked on more conveniently (Fig. 21); movable lifts, the rockers can be worked on (Fig. 22); and specialty metal working tools, such as a English wheel (Fig. 23). Other tools such as shears, breaks and anvils can be helpful when restoring sheet metal.

Economy and environment

During most economic downturns, businesses suffer and downsize sometimes. But some custom painting shops continue to thrive because of their diversity. Clients who are interested in restoring a vehicle with a perfect paint job don't suffer from reduced discretionary funds during economic downturns, and such customers continue to have vehicles restored and painted. Even diehard car buffs often find means to have their race cars or motorcycles painted for the upcoming season.

How will the looming environmental regulations (the waterborne paint requirement for example) affect the custom painting industry? Most major paint manufacturers have introduced lines of water custom paint. With the faster evaporation times and no-lift cycles, custom painters can layer different colors faster than with solvent paint. And because water paint has a much thinner film thickness when dry, the fear of excessive film build lessens. As more custom painters familiarize themselves with waterborne coatings, they're likely to find this environmental regulation opens up areas of creativity that solvent paints lacked.

If custom painting is what you aspire to, or if you'd like to start a custom painting business, practice a lot. Perfect the attention-to-detail skills. Block meticulously. Learn the somewhat lost skills of good metal finishing. Become a flawless welder and develop your paint skills. Examine and critique the work of others, and learn from their mistakes so you won't make them. If you want to have a reputation that withstands the test of slow economic times, your custom paint jobs must be as close to perfect as possible.

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