Despite the trend embracing the “don’t care” look of ratty muscle cars, nothing says quality like perfect paint. No, were not talking an exterior blow-over here. We mean paint that is crisp at every edge and blind corner, the kind that makes the vehicle look brand new. Getting there necessitates major disassembly, removing everything extraneous to the bodywork and going for perfection from there. The end result far surpasses the OEM level of detail. Thanks in no small part to today’s paint systems, such as the Axalta products used here, the result is eye-popping looks that dazzle and amaze.
Our 1973 Camaro project began in a state of average. This was no trashed junker, and the paintwork would pass as “good enough” for many. The front end had been replaced with all-new aftermarket sheetmetal, with the nose job converting the car to the iconic ’70 RS configuration. It seemed like the right time to take it to the next level, and taking it there would prove to be no small step.
Homegrown or Pro
One of the first questions to answer when considering paint is what, if anything, you will tackle yourself. Here, it is important to take into account your experience and skill, the equipment at hand, and, most importantly, your perseverance. Make no mistake, body restoration and paint is one of the most labor-intensive endeavors you’ll encounter, and it is messy work at that. Expert paint and bodywork is very expensive, and it is tempting to save some of that costly work with a little (or a lot) of sweat equity. Keep in mind that it is also all too easy to get in over your head, ending up with nothing but disappointment for your efforts—or even a project that hits the wall and permanently stalls.
We’ve known do-it-yourself paint projects that have resulted in stunning paintwork. We’ve also seen epic failure and poor results. It is important to be realistic in qualifying your own skill level, commitment, and time when deciding whether to tackle some aspects of your paint project, or just turn it over to the pros.
Our 1973 Camaro was delivered to Precision Restorations in St. Louis, Missouri, where the crew handled the full body build and repaint. Precision Restorations is a dedicated paint and body facility with the equipment and technicians to handle the job. This is a shop that understood the job requirement of a custom build, and the role of the paintwork in contributing to the end goal. A quick production shop will not normally have the same level of commitment. Whether you plan on taking on the whole task of bodywork and paint yourself or place it in the experienced hands of an expert, it is worthwhile to understand exactly what is involved in getting the job done.
We’ll go through all of the major steps in taking a car through the body and paint process, from beginning to end. We will show you how it’s done and what’s involved, and leave you with the decision on whether you should tackle the work as a whole, attempt some portion of the job, or just leave it to the professionals. Nothing done on this project is beyond the realm of a capable do-it-yourselfer, though it comes down to time versus money, and, of course, ability.
Teardown, Strip, and Assess
A quick blow-over can be achieved by just scuffing, taping, and shooting. Perfection means pulling the car apart and down to a bare shell, stripped of the last nut and bolt, and kicking off the paintwork from there. Most of us will end up somewhere in the middle. Our Camaro set the direction. Overall, the vehicle was in average condition, with layers of old paint and previous bodywork meaning that the paint would have to be stripped completely off. Another factor that helped define the direction was that we were changing colors. We did not want any trace of the previous paint peeking through. The color change reinforced the need for substantial disassembly of the body. Every bit of exterior trim along with the removable body panels were removed to get complete coverage in the new hue. All of the old paint was stripped off, allowing the project to progress from the bare metal stage.
After stripping the car to bare metal, the body build will progress to sheetmetal repair. In the process of a major body restoration such as ours, you will be looking at two basic choices: repair or replace. In the case of bolt-on body panels for which replacements are readily available, it doesn’t take long for the cost of new metal to make economic sense versus the option of repairing the existing panel. Essentially, this was the case regarding the sheetmetal from the firewall forward, as well as the hood and decklid on our Camaro. With replacement panels available at a reasonable cost, repairing the old bolt-on panels would have consumed far more time and money.
The remaining panels are typically not direct bolt-on pieces. Regarding the doors, replacing a damaged doorskin is more involved than simply bolting on a new panel since the skin needs to be fitted to the door’s inner structure. Luckily, our doors were nice. Rear quarter-panels are even higher in difficulty, as they are an integral, welded part of the body structure. Replacement here means laborious cutting out of the original and welding in new panels. Once again, our stock sheetmetal required nothing more than minimal repairs.
While replacing individual panels might seem simple enough, the real measure of a quality job is the fit and alignment. Replacement panels will typically need custom work for a perfect result. Often, welding and dolly work are needed to get the lines and gaps perfect. The honest news here is that perfection often involves welding on panel edges to perfect the gap, especially with replacement sheetmetal. Never try to build up a panel edge with plastic filler. Obviously, this panel alignment work needs to be completed early in the paint prep process. The crew at Precision Restorations fully mock-assembled the body before moving on to the final bodywork and primer.
The rule with panel alignment is that you start with the fixed portions of the car and add the bolt-on parts, shimming and adjusting as needed for alignment. Naturally, the edges of the rockers and quarters are fixed, so the first step is to align the doors to these parts. Run the doors parallel to the rockers, with the body lines aligning at the quarter with an even gap. Next, the front fenders are aligned to the front of the doors, setting the fore and aft and height adjustment of the fenders. The hood is laid in place and the gap at the fenders is adjusted for an even and parallel spacing at each side. The leading edge of the doors and trailing edge of the fenders can be adjusted inward or outward to meet the alignment.
Prep and Primer
If the metalwork and body panel repairs are nicely done, just a very thin skim of polyester body filler will achieve perfection. The initial filler is worked with a sanding block or body file, reapplying filler as needed. Once the repair is satisfactorily feathered-in with the surrounding metal, it can be sanded progressively finer in preparation for the primer-surfacer coat. If sanding alone does not clean the filled surface, another coat of filler or a glaze coat can be applied.
Applying the primer-surfacer is a major milestone in any major paint project. All of the heavy metalwork and panel massaging should be behind you, and the surfacer coat will transform the patchwork quilt of bare metal, filler, primer, and putty into something that once again resembles the unified look of a car. The main function of the surfacer coat is to build a layer of material onto the surface of the bodywork that can be sanded into a perfectly smooth surface in preparation for the paint to follow. This may require several coats of primer and subsequent block-sanding to achieve a very smooth and level surface.
There is no doubt that the primer stage is a satisfying step in the paint process, but things take another giant leap forward as color begins to be applied. A course of action has to be planned out in advance of the paintwork, especially with a complete repaint. There are plenty of blind areas and jambs that need full coverage for a detailed look, and it is important to consider how those areas will be addressed. Typically, the inside portions of the panels are sprayed first. With these inside areas completed, they could later be masked, and the outside of the loose panels could be shot off the car while the main body is shot as an assembly.
Before painting, it is important that the surfaces are totally free of debris and contaminants. Once the base color coat is sufficiently flashed dry, the clear follows. It is a simple step-by-step process. First, the jamb areas were completely finished and cured. Next, attention turned once again to the exterior of the car. The previously painted areas were carefully masked, and the loose panels racked in the booth. As was the case with the previous jamb painting session, the surfaces were thoroughly cleaned, and the exterior color and clearcoat were shot. The Axalta base/clear paint system looked spectacular as applied right off the gun.
Cutting and Buffing
For a true show car look, the process of cutting and polishing the paint takes it to the next level. In the world of custom or show-quality paint, the cut and buff is what it takes to approach perfection. No matter how clean the paint might be, and no matter how skillfully the paint is sprayed, there will be flaws and surface texture. If everything was done to top standards, the texture will be minimal and the paint surface will have very little contamination. A glass-smooth surface with a mirror finish demands just that little bit more.
The technique here is really not new. In fact, it is a form of burnishing and polishing, which has been around for centuries. What it consists of is fine-sanding the surface until it is perfectly smooth and then using buffing techniques to polish the paint to a brilliant luster. In the world of automotive refinishing, there are special tools, techniques, and materials designed just for this purpose. The sanding is normally a wet-sanding process, using water to clean and lubricate. The sanding is done with very fine sandpaper, with the goal of flattening the surface while removing a minimum of material. Wet-sanding clear requires plenty of skill.
Once the sanding process is complete, polishing compounds and a buffer are used to bring the surface to a beautiful shine. Usually, this is done in two steps, with a coarser “cutting” step to remove the sanding scratches and quickly bring the surface to a shine followed by a polishing step to take the surface to perfection. Precision Restorations used 3M Compound and Polish. The final result was nothing short of brilliant.
01. Our 1973 Camaro had been updated with RS front sheetmetal and an ill-fitting composite hood. The “gloomy day” paintwork would give way to something with a little more “pop,” with the help of the experts from Precision Restoration in St. Louis, Missouri.
02. You can never be sure of what will be found under the paint. Stripping here was accomplished by sanding to the bare metal using a variety of air and electric sanders. Our car had excessive material build-up of old paint, primer, and filler. Fortunately, the quarters, rocker panels, doors, and roof were all nice when taken to bare metal.
03. The stripping process will involve substantial body disassembly to get to blind areas and jambs. All bolt-on panels of our Camaro were removed.
04. Once stripped, the body massaging begins. This starts with any required metal patching, hammer and dolly work to repair small dings and dents, and filler as required. Numerous primer coats followed by sanding with a contrasting guidecoat locate and fill the slightest imperfection. Here, the first primer pass is applied to the main body.
05. Body fitment must be perfected and confirmed before continuing with the sheetmetal and primer work. The doors were already worked while off the car, and are hung to line up with the quarter-panels and rockers. The front sheetmetal is then lined up from there.
06. Sometimes, panel gaps simply do not follow a parallel line. For perfect gaps, especially with aftermarket panels, it is often necessary to build the edge with weld-in areas, such as the upper fender gaps shown here. All of these fit issues must be identified and repaired before paint or even primer work.
07. With the panel fit completed, the final bodywork can progress. This includes any metalwork and a skim of polyester filler as required. Note the thin coat of filler applied to sharpen the character line down the center. All gaps and lines should be perfect for a top-quality final appearance.
08. With the heavier filling done, the entire exterior receives a coat of primer surfacer. There will be numerous applications of primer followed by block sanding and filling as required until all the flaws are worked out.
09. Here we can see the initial block sanding of the hood. Note how the contrasting black guidecoat fogged over the surface identifies imperfections. Generally, spots showing guidecoat after sanding are low, while areas cut through to the bare metal are high spots. This process will be repeated until the panels are level and smooth.
10. With the lines, gaps, and fit of the panels established, all of the bolt-on body panels are removed for final prep and finishing.
11. The inner surfaces of the loose panels are the first to receive paint, using basecoat/clearcoat from Axalta. The color is 2002 Plymouth Prowler Orange.
12. The previously painted inner areas are masked, and the individual panels are racked in the booth for finishing.
13. Similarly, the main body and remaining parts are masked as required and shot with Axalta base.
14. The base is allowed to dry to an even matte, and then the Axalta urethane clear is applied as the final topcoat, providing the gloss and a durable, protective finish.
15. Right off the gun, the brilliant Prowler Orange hue dazzled with color and shine. The paint flowed out nicely with minimal texture or surface contaminants.
16. The cut and polish process takes the paintwork to the next level. The clear is carefully wet sanded with 1,500-2,000-grit sandpaper, removing any surface texture or minor flaws, and then buffed with 3M machine polish and 3M glaze.
17. Here, the finish on the main body has been “cut,” or sanded. Note that the surface takes on a matte look prior to buffing.
18. This is why it is worth it to take the final step and buff the finish. The paint is perfectly mirror smooth, with unbelievable gloss.
19. Body assembly is the final step, and since it had already been mock assembled in the bodywork stage, all the panels are assured to bolt on and align perfectly. Notice the crisp panel fit and perfect alignment of the body lines.