There is something about working on a project car that’s been taken down to bare metal that really motivates you to start thrashing to get it completed. Maybe it’s the peace of mind of having a blank slate to work with that flips a mental switch that makes you stay up wrenching until 3 a.m. on a work night; maybe it’s simply knowing that your carefully chosen paint scheme will be tied directly to the project without someone else’s terrible color choice from 1978 lurking underneath. However, motivation isn’t the most common reason why folks take their cars’ paint all the way off. Sometimes it’s what is “lurking underneath” that makes you want to tear off your project’s old skin to really assess what you’re working with.
In the past, when you wanted to strip a car’s paint to bare metal, you essentially had to remove it of all the trim, glass, and drivetrain before you could blast it. Sand media would pit and eventually break glass, and the trim would be annihilated by fast-moving particles. Also, sand media processes can actually heat up the metal through friction, causing it to warp in some cases. But there are safer and more environmentally friendly ways to strip your paint these days, and a soda blasting process is one of them.
The two most common reasons to get an old car blasted are to reveal any shoddy bodywork that may have been performed over the years and to get the car’s surface nice and smooth for a fresh coat of new paint. Sometimes you may pick up a project that you think is a solid specimen, only to find out years later that the quarter-panel was made of Bondo. Or, on the brighter side of things, you may think a project is junk, and it turns out not so bad. Albert De Alba at Cal Blast in Upland, California, can help you determine what you have by blasting all your old paint away—without removing the glass or trim. Cal Blast uses a sodium carbonate material, which is worlds “softer” than sand media—a substance common in industrial applications. For classic cars and restorations though, a soda blast is a much more viable choice, as it doesn’t heat the metal, yet is nearly as effective at removing coatings, such as paint, primer, old stickers, and body filler. Soda also leaves a protective invisible layer that will prolong your car from rusting right away, so you can actually drive the car around in bare metal. We did. However, soda is not aggressive enough to remove rust, so shops like Cal Blast offer a secondary copper blast process that removes rust as well as the invisible layer. If you opt out on the copper blast, you need to actually wash the bare car with soapy water before you can primer it, as it can create issues when the paint dries.
You may be wondering, why strip the paint off of your car when you can just paint over it anyway? Depending on the level of pickiness, car builders and/or owners don’t want to cover old paint because it can come back to bite them later. Body filler cracks, hidden rot, or shoddy bodywork, in general, can show up in your paint years later and also, if there is a hefty buildup of old paint layers, it can “fade” away body lines that would otherwise be defined.
We were leery about the bodywork and paint on our newest project car, a ’63 Nova we’ve dubbed “The Hellion”, but we really didn’t want to take the car out of its running condition before we absolutely had to. Getting it sand blasted would require us to pull the glass and the trim and basically render the car undriveable for a while before we could afford to get it painted, so we made plans to drive the car to Cal Blast, get it stripped, and drive it with its metal and old dents all exposed until we had the scratch to paint it. We bought the car knowing there were about seven rot holes in the body, but it was relatively straight. Also, when we pulled the interior out, we were glad to see the floor was solid and lacking any rust holes. Still, we wanted to make sure there wasn’t any other hidden, worse rot under the paint. We originally were going to use good old-fashioned elbow grease to remove the paint ourselves using Aircraft Stripper and power tools, but it turned out our elbows didn’t have as much grease as we thought.
In one day we went from a curdled cream–colored Nova that had us wondering how much of it was made of Bondo, to a clean all-metal project ready and begging to be worked on. Follow the next few pages to see how it’s done—maybe Cal Blast can help you with your next project.