Understanding car paint can go a long way toward helping you out the next time you find yourself in a body shop with your vehicle. Even if your insurance company is paying for everything, it’s always a good idea to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible before agreeing to get your car repainted. Here are a few things you need to know about automotive paint, such as how it’s applied and what you can expect from a quality paint repair, to strengthen your understanding.
Understanding Car Paint Types
Once upon a time, almost every car was painted with something called an acrylic lacquer, which was simply sprayed on and then treated with a hardener to make it stick to your vehicle’s sheet metal. These days, lacquers are only used by specialty painters looking to achieve a certain visual effect, or on classic cars, with the vast majority of body shops using a base coat/clear coat finish.
The base coat of paint is what gives your car its color — this is the layer of paint that’s applied on top of the primer used on your vehicle, bonding it to the steel, aluminum and plastic underneath. Although the base coat can be mixed to give an automobile any hue under the sun, to protect it and make it shine, it has to be combined with a clear coat on top. The clear coat is sprayed over the base coat in many layers (depending on how much gloss is desired), transforming the flat base coat into the deep, rich colors you’ll find on any modern car lot.
If you’re not sure which kind of paint your car has — base coat/clear coat or an older enamel or lacquer-based type — here’s a simple way to find out. Take a microfiber cloth, apply a dab of polish and buff an out-of-sight spot on your vehicle. If the cloth comes away stained with your car’s shade of paint, then you’ve got an older paint job. If it shines up but doesn’t bleed any color onto your cloth, then you have base coat/clear coat paint on your automobile.
Understanding car paint at a body shop also means learning how modern paint repairs are performed. If only a small portion of your vehicle needs to be touched up, most shops will do their best to blend that area into the surrounding paint so that the repair is imperceptible, by mixing up a batch of paint that matches what is on your car already. This has to take into account any fading that might have naturally occurred over time, and any variances between the factory color listed by the manufacturer and the actual hue of what the supplier provided when your vehicle was built.
Some colors are more difficult to blend than others, such as metallic or tri-coat pearl type finishes. In these cases, body shops may have to paint a larger part of your vehicle — such as an entire hood, door or bumper — to ensure a match with the rest of the car. This is especially true on vehicles with plastic bumpers, where paint can settle and darken at a different rate as compared to steel.
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Having been bitten by the car bug at a young age, I spent my formative years surrounded by Studebakers at car shows across Quebec and the northeastern United States. Over ten years of racing, restoring, and obsessing over automobiles lead me to balance science writing and automotive journalism full time. I currently contribute as an editor to several online and print automotive publications, and I also write and consult for the pharmaceutical and medical device industry.