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1996 Chevrolet Impala SS Body and Paint - Stay Shiny

We wheel a well-worn ’96 Impala SS into the shop for some body and paint rehab.

Patrick Hill Apr 15, 2014
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We’ve seen all types of paint jobs in our travels and heard all sorts of joyous tales and equally horrific stories from readers about getting their cars painted. It’s a process that can bewilder, frustrate, anger, and break the bank. There is a correlation typically to how much you pay for a paint job and how good it will look. For someone who plans on driving their classic Chevy until the wheels fall off, spending $10k on a paint job doesn’t make that much sense. On the flip side, building a trailered, hard-core show car and then taking it to the local Maaco for a $500 spray job is equally nonsensical.

We know a lot of our readers won’t be painting their cars themselves. The benefit to that group in reading this story is better understanding the job you’re paying someone for, the products used, and how they’re applied. For those tackling the job themselves, this will hopefully give you an idea of what you’re getting into and how to avoid making a mess of it. One thing you’ll definitely need for painting is a high-capacity air compressor so you can maintain a constant pressure during the painting process. A fluctuating air supply will wreak havoc on your paint job. You’ll also need a separator to keep moisture out of the lines.

In this story, we’re not using any metallic, candy, or pearl finishes. Those require much more in-depth applications and processes to turn out correctly. We’re sticking with a straight-up solid color, black, just like our subject Impala was from the factory.

We wanted this paint job to fall more toward the real-world, budget-friendly sort. With that in mind, we went to Summit Racing for our basecoat and clearcoat. Summit carries a full range of paint and body supplies, including Summit’s own brand of primers, paints, and clears. It’s basically one-stop shopping if you’re doing the paint job on your Bow Tie or buying the supplies to take to a painter. Our painter for this story is Aldrin Rodriguez of A&R Motorsports in Tampa, Florida.


1. At some point, something was rolling around loose in the trunk and beat the hell out of the lower rear quarter area. Our bodyman and painter, Aldrin Rodriguez, started here with a body hammer and larger socket serving as a dolly to work the dents out of the metal.


2. For all the sanding work on our Impala, we had Summit Racing send us a Dura-Block sanding kit, PN TAI-AF44L. It features different shape sanding blocks and that are just flexible enough to assist with the sanding process on different areas of the body, but rigid enough to keep the user from causing more harm than good. These things are the truth and well worth getting if you’re doing bodywork!


3. After we sanded on the part of the quarter where Aldrin was repairing dents, we could see the low and high spots still remaining. It also revealed where previous bodywork had been done in this area, because old body filler started showing through.


4. For removing the old factory emblems, Aldrin used this sharp-edged spreader to get underneath the emblems and pry them off the body without causing damage. The old adhesive was pretty brittle, so it didn’t take much to get them off.


5. With our dent repair done, we’re ready for body filler. Before that, the panel is wiped down with a degreaser solvent to make sure it’s completely clean and the filler won’t have any problems adhering to the metal.


6. Once mixed, the filler is spread over the panel in thin, even coats. You want to use as little body filler as possible to smooth out a panel. The more you apply, the thicker the coats, the more post work you have to do, and the more variables you introduce to the body- and paintwork. We’ve seen where heavy filler use eventually separates and bubbles under paint, necessitating expensive correction work be done, up to stripping down the whole car and repainting it.


7. Part of the Dura-Block kit is this cylindrical-shaped block for getting into the curves of different body panels. It was extremely useful on the ’96 where the body has a sharp curve just above the lower body line.


8. After sanding, we found this dent and old repair that needing massaging.


9. See the spots where the sandpaper didn’t touch? Those are low spots that are small dents. Rather than infuse the metal with more heat that can cause further shrinkage by hammering them out, Aldrin will use a finishing putty to fill in these shallow dings.


10. Once the filler has cured/hardened enough, start with 80-grit paper to shape the filler, then progress to 180-grit, finishing with 320 grit. If you start sanding on filler and notice shavings that look like you’re grating cheese, the filler hasn’t cured long enough. If you prime and paint over uncured filler, as it cures it will cause bubbles underneath the paint.


11. Here’s how a finished area looks after sanding and shaping. Before applying primer, all areas where filler are applied will be allowed to cure fully so they don’t cause problems later underneath our new paintjob.


12. On parts of the car where trim was attached using double-sided tape, an eraser tool is used to remove the remnants of the tape from the panels without harming them. The spinning wheel is made out of the same material as a pencil eraser.


13. Where there was adhesive residue from the emblems, Aldrin sands off the remaining glue with 320-grit paper.


14. The roof of our Impala had lots of small dings in it from hail damage that required repair. The problem is, the roof metal on this car is thinner than the metal other panels on the car are made from. This means hammering out dents is problematic, especially small ones. For every one dent you massage out, the shrinking and stretching of the metal can create new ones that also have to be repaired. After sanding the roof to highlight all the low spots, Aldrin uses filler to fill in the dents and smooth out the roof’s surface.


15. The adhesive used on the factory spoiler was some particularly funky stuff. A razor blade was used to remove the majority of it from the decklid, then solvent to wipe away/dissolve the remnants.


16. Now it’s time to mask off the car for priming. For the door, hood, and trunk jambs, 3M’s soft edge foam masking tape, PN 06297, was used. This stuff works brilliantly, conforming to the jambs’ shape and keeping any direct or overspray out of the interior, trunk, and engine compartment. If you’re painting a car of any sort, have a good supply of this on hand.


17. Because we’re repainting the Impala its original color, we don’t have to prime the entire car. But we do need to clean and scuff all the surfaces so the new paint will have a solid foundation to adhere to. Aldrin uses red Scotch-Brite to go over the entire car. After that, he’ll wipe all surfaces down with a tack cloth and wax/grease remover to remove any contaminants from the surface.


18. For primer, paint, and clearcoat, we went to Summit Racing. We chose Summit’s high-build urethane primer, PN SUM-SWSP310G-12. It’s designed to go over factory finishes, fiberglass, sheet-molding compounds, and refinishing lacquers, enamels, and urethanes. It features a two-hour drying time, so you can be sanding and doing finish work in the same day. It’s used with Summit’s 2K HS hardener.


19. Before spraying anything, Aldrin always flushes out his spray gun with solvent to make sure it’s clean. Even a little bit of contaminants left in a gun from the previous job can cause problems and affect the results. For the primer, Aldrin used an HVLP (High Velocity Low Pressure) SATA KLC gun with a 1.7 tip.


20. Before spraying primer, the car was totally blown clean with compressed air while the exhaust fan in the paint booth was running. For our Impala, we pitched the factory hood and went with an aftermarket fiberglass one. The Summit primer had no problems with this. Aldrin lays down the primer in nice, even coats, watching for any runs or issues.


21. Once the primer was dry, Aldrin laid down some black guidecoat for doing his final bodywork. Once again, our Dura-Block sanding kit was put into service while doing the final prep for paint. When sanding, it’s important to never sand in one direction for too long. Also never use your bare hand on sandpaper. Sanding in one constant direction can leave scratches that will come through after the paint is sprayed. Sanding with your hand can leave fingerprints and uneven areas in the primer, which will instantly show up in the finish, especially with a dark color like the black we’re using.


22. You can see here the dark areas are where low spots still exist in the panel, highlighted after sanding over the guidecoat.


23. To even out any remaining low spots, Aldrin uses a spot putty to fill in the low spots. Any spots where putty is used are allowed to dry/cure, then sprayed with primer to seal them up.


24. When sanding the roof, you have to be extra careful not to bear down too hard while sanding and risk denting the roof. Let the paper do the work. If you notice it’s not sanding well, go to a fresh piece of paper. Again, Aldrin’s using 320-grit paper for this final work.


25. Here, we have a booger of old clearcoat from some previous repair work done on the decklid. It’s easily fixed, though. Using an orbital sander, Aldrin will sand down the area until the high spot of clear is gone and the whole area is even enough where a shot of high-build primer will make everything uniform.


26. When using an orbital sander on a car, never, never, never do this while sanding! Not only can you end up sanding all the way through to bare metal, but all the pressure and heat from putting all that pressure on the sanding spot will distort and warp the metal, meaning more bodywork to be done. Always keep your sanding block or orbital flat on the surface you’re sanding.


27. After sanding, the high spot is gone. A thin coat of putty, and this area will be good to go.


28. Time for color! For this, we went with Summit’s two-stage basecoat/clearcoat products. For the basecoat, we used Jet Black, PN SUM-SWBC538-12. It’s mixed in a 2:1 ratio with Summit’s two-stage basecoat reducer, PN SUM-SWBR565G-12.


29. At all three stages (primer, basecoat, clearcoat), the products were mixed according to the included directions in correlation to the ambient temperature and humidity. Spraying products when it’s either too hot, too cold, or too humid when they’re not mixed for those conditions can wreak havoc on the results, and in some cases you end up having to strip everything off and start over from the beginning.


30. Before laying down the basecoat, Aldrin blows the car off once more with compressed air, while wiping all the surfaces down with a tack cloth.


31. Now it’s time for the color/basecoat. For application, Aldrin used a SATA RP 3000 HVLP gun with a 1.3 tip. Same process as before: nice, even coats and not too heavy or too much air pressure to cause runs in the basecoat. Black/dark colors will show just about every degree of imperfection in a paintjob there is, so the application process is critical to an outstanding paintjob.


32. After the first coat was applied and allowed to tack up (about 20 minutes), Aldrin used a tack cloth to wipe off any overspray before applying the second layer of basecoat. After the second layer was applied, it was allowed to set up half an hour before the clearcoat was sprayed on.


33. After basecoat application was done, Aldrin flushed out the gun he used with solvent. Anytime you use a paint gun, you should always flush the gun and tip after use. Once product dries inside a gun’s workings, it can be very difficult to get clean again before its next use.


34. Now it’s time for clearcoat. For our Impala, we used Summit’s single-stage urethane clearcoat, PN SUM-UP200, along with Summit’s single-stage reducer (SUM-UP401) and urethane activator (SUM-UP101). The activator we chose is a medium-temp activator for use between 70 to 80 degrees. Summit also sells a low-temp activator for use below 70 degrees and a high-temp activator for use above 80 degrees. The same applies to the reducer. Choose your activator and reducer to suit the ambient temps you’ll be applying them in.


35. Even though it’s done for all steps when loading a paint gun, it’s especially critical when loading the clear to use filter funnels to make sure no particles of debris or crud stay in the clearcoat mixture that could clog up the gun or end up in the clear and have to be picked out once they’re on the car.


36. For spraying the clear, Aldrin used a SATA RP with a 1.3 tip.


37. After two coats of clear (with the proper amount a flash time in between), this is what we had: a bright, shiny, looking-like-new ’96 Impala SS.


38. After the car sat for two days and the clear fully dried, we noticed there was a significant amount of orange peel in the finish. That’s the dimpling you see in the photo that resembles the skin of an orange. It’s not unusual to see but also not acceptable for a show-worthy finish! The problem is easily solved, though. Time for some wet sanding.


39. Wet sanding is an easy but patient process. It involves sanding on the clearcoat with three steps of very fine sandpaper, 1200, 1500, then 3000. Each step smoothes out the scratches left by the previous grit of paper. It’s critical not to bear down too hard on the sanding block, along with constantly keeping the paper and clearcoat surfaces wet. Just like with the sanding steps before, you should change direction while wet-sanding regularly.


40. When you’re done wet-sanding, this is how the surface should look. The next step is polishing the sheen back into the surface.


41. To polish the surface, Aldrin uses 3M rubbing compound, first with a wool knap pad…


42. …followed by a foam polishing pad. It’s important to keep the pad flat at all times so you don’t burn into or polish through the clearcoat.


43. On the edges like this one where there’s orange peel, it has to be wet-sanded and polished very carefully, because this area is where the least amount of basecoat and clear is sprayed during the painting process, due to the small amount of area it covers and the angle it’s at.


44. After polishing, you can see the difference. On the left is the area we just wet-sanded and polished. On the right is the unpolished surface. You can see how much clearer the reflection of the overhead lights is. That’s the difference between a polished clear and one with orange peel. Now we just need to do the rest of the car, and our job will be done.


Additional Sources:
A&R Motorsports


Summit Racing
Akron, OH



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