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Automotive Coatings Chemistry 101

To be honest chemistry wasn’t my favorite class at school. Probably it was because of the teacher, but I didn’t succeed in getting an A on chemistry no matter what. However, life is unpredictable, and sometimes things you wish to avoid, become part of your life or career. I began my entrepreneurial path with trading chemical raw materials for coatings manufacturing, and now I am in automotive refinishing business, where the greater part of products are chemicals. I don’t know if you experienced my difficulties with chemistry, but if you use or supply automotive painting products, then chemistry is important for your work too.

Chemistry is an exact science

You may wonder what this article is about? Well, I intend to stress the importance of understanding and respecting chemistry as science, and not just any science, but an exact one. Chemistry is in the heart of the automotive refinishing industry. Paints, clears, primers, bodyfillers, sealants and other paint related materials are developed based on the fundamental rules of the applied chemistry. We all know that.

The exact sciences are characterized by accurate quantitative expression, meaning that the reaction between the chemical elements happens in accordance with the quantitative parameters of these elements.

You do not need to know the chemical formulas, but understanding the essentials is the key to success in our trade. Failing to do so will cost you money and reputation. Below you can find the most common examples how chemistry can “punish” you if you didn’t learn the lesson.

Adhesion problems

Unfortunately adhesion problems are very common paint defects in collision repair works. Painters many times fail to understand that adhesion of one material on another depends on two parameters: mechanical bond (this is why we use abrasives to create the right scratch pattern for the subsequent coating’s bonding) and chemical bond, which happens on the molecular level. If you do not remove the waxes and release agents from the new OEM bumper, for instance, it will cause flaking. Similarly, silicone particles can not mix with any other liquid, therefore the so-called “fish-eye” defect will appear on the contaminated surface. Proper surfaces preparation and following the TDS will help to avoid unpleasant situations of poor adhesion.

Problems with curing of 2K materials

If a clearcoat’s technical data sheet says that the mixing ratio is 2 parts of clear to 1 part of hardener without any thinner (or “reducer” as our American colleagues call it), it means exactly that. Not 5%, not 10%, not “I am used to do it like that all the time!” Period.

Similarly, if you add more benzoyl peroxide hardener to polyester-based body filler, it will not speed up the curing process, simply because the crosslinking between hardener and resin can happen only given a certain amount of available styrene and polyester molecules. More benzoyl peroxide will not “find” free elements and just stay unused, causing problems like bleeding.

Problems with expired products

You wouldn’t eat smelly meat or drink expired milk, would you? Just like we respect the shelf-life of our food, we must respect the indicated storage times on your fillers or clearcoats.  I have seen dozens of times how easily painters mix and use coatings, which are expired. While sometimes one can get away with this, in the majority of cases problems are almost guaranteed. It is worth mentioning that even similar products, but from different suppliers may greatly vary as to the shelf-life of the materials. You can find in the market primers ranging from 12 to 36 month’s storage. Needless to say that treating all the primers the same way is a big error. Careful stock management and implementation of the logistic practices like FIFA (first in, first out) will save money both for the bodyshop and coatings supplier.

Incompatibility of the coatings

In chemistry there are two main scenarios how two substances can react in case of contact: no reaction or intermixing or some kind of reaction. In the paint shop we observe both of them. When hardener is mixed with clearcoat, we have chemical reaction, which leads to fast curing of the mixture and crystallization. This is a desirable outcome. On the flip-side, we do not want any chemical reaction between bodyfiller and primer, for example. What happens if we spray etch-primer over the bodyfiller? Aggressive acids in the etch-primer will react with bodyfiller, causing lifting and adhesion failure.

Problems caused by using wrong thinner/reducer

Many products in the market are designed to be used with certain thinners (reducers) in order to get the desirable viscosity. Unfortunately, not all thinners are created equal. In the paint workshop you can find different types of thinners: acrylic thinner, base coat thinner, nitro thinner and epoxy. All of them have different base and purpose. One of the most common mistakes I have observed is using of nitro-based solvent in the 2K primers and clears (for the cost reasons mainly). The vast majority of 2K materials in the collision repair shop are made on the acrylic-urethane resins. If you use nitro thinner, for example, which is much faster than acrylic ones, it may cause gloss reduction and orange peel effect.

Good news

When you are taking exam at school, you are not allowed to use any help or source of the information. The good news is that in our business not only we have the cheat sheets available, but we are encouraged to use them as we wish. I am talking about TDSs or technical data sheets. I am confident that if every painter used TDS whenever doubtful, the amount of the paint defects and costly re-sprays would have dropped significantly. Nowadays, thanks to the internet connection and smart phones, you can find the needed information within just a few minutes. TDS is the best source of information for every single product you use. Chemists and technicians worked hard to put the necessary information together for you, so use it. No need to re-invent bicycle… Well bicycles are more about physics, but this is another subject though…

 

 

What force is the ultimate drive for change in the collision repair industry?

Insurance companies’ role.

I admit that it is a tricky question without an obvious answer for everyone. However, I believe that insurance companies – the main payers of the repair bills – push the collision repair industry forward. Some of you may disagree, claiming, not without a good reason, that insurers often prevent bodyshops from having healthy margins and nourish unhealthy competition and excessive consolidation. In fact, these statements are also true. On the contrary, insurance companies are probably the most efficient businesses as to calculating risks and optimizing costs. And yes, repair bills are just costs for them. Being themselves in a very competitive market, insurers push the collision repair industry towards costs optimization, starting from the accident itself all the way to the repaired vehicle delivery to the customer. The repair process must be safe (they hate law suits), smooth (extra communication and claims handling is expensive), and, above all else, fast! Hours billed by bodyshops is the key component of each invoice to be paid, therefore it ought to be as low as possible. This immense pressure from the insurance companies inevitably cause rates cutting, so only the strongest and fine-tuned bodyshops survive. One could feel a victim and cries over it, but the rest of us will think of how to cope with this harsh reality and turn lemons into lemonade.

Conflict of interests?

For the bodyshops though, at first glance, the math is working just the opposite. A bodyshop is earning money according to the hours billed. The more, the better. So, is it a never ending conflict of interests? Not necessarily. A truly productive bodyshop usually has much shorter vehicle repair cycles and substantially more hours billed per day. This idea is extensively covered in the book «The secrets of America’s greatest body shops» by Dave Luehr and Stacey Phillips, which I strongly recommend you to read. Yet, how to achieve the desired productivity? It is easier said than done. In one sentence, productivity depends on each and every person, who is involved even remotely in the repair process. But this is the subject of the next articles.

Economies of scale in a bodyshop.

Coming back to the initial question, I want to stress once again that insurers are not necessarily on the other side. In order to get more business from them, you need to understand their way of thinking and their goals. Faster and cost-efficient repairs mean happier customers, less costs on the curtesy vehicles and better profits. If your bodyshop provides that, then workflow will be continuous, and you will never have to worry about new customers. More work will trigger economies of scale and empower you with greater bargaining power in relations with your suppliers. The last, but not the least, the business with strong relationships with insurance companies will always have much higher price tag in case you desire to sell it! A potential buyer always evaluate the customers base, prior to evaluating premises, equipment, personnel and other financial figures. For me, being able to sell your business at a good price is a recognition of your lifelong effort and success. Keep this in mind…

Market differences between the UK and the rest of Europe

The idea of this article came to me on board of a flight from my business trip from London to Athens, after a week spent with Etalon’s customers in Ireland and the United Kingdom. I was thinking about the differences between the Great Britain and the continental Europe in various aspects of life. You can not underestimate the old British empire and its influence on Europe (and the whole world. This relatively small island has always been in avant-garde of history. If you are in doubt, just think of the language you use while traveling to any part of the world. Do you speak English? With the procedure of Brexit triggered, the glorious Kingdom has to renegotiate its place on the political and economic map of the old world.

Of course, my article is not about politics. I would like to share with you my views about the automotive body and repair business in the UK in comparison to the rest of Europe.

 

Consolidation of coatings suppliers

For those who are not familiar, automotive paint supplies stores in the UK are called factors or motor factors. Firstly, I would distinguish a very high level of consolidation in the UK paint supply chain, with groups like Morelli Group, Movac Group or LKQ to be very sizable and hungry for growth. While consolidation is not completely unknown in Europe, it is still going in slower pace. Secondly, the corporate groups, like above mentioned, have tremendous purchasing power. They strike deals with manufacturers directly, pushing out of business the smaller players.

Types of factors

In the UK you will see more and more companies with spare parts trade background, which incorporate refinishing departments in their business structure. Supplying spare parts is a business with high entrance costs; it requires  fine-tuned logistic departments, big warehouses and a fleet of the delivery vehicles. With all this set up, they try to achieve much needed growth by supplying paint and consumables as well. Of course, this affects greatly the traditional paint-only stores.

Materials costs

Many of my colleagues from other countries believed that the British market price levels are on the high side. You will be surprised how low the prices are for many essential consumables. Probably it can be explained by the extremely high competition, and, by the levels of the consolidation, I mentioned already. When the large groups manage to negotiate large deals with the manufacturers, inevitably their smaller rivals will search for supplying solutions from the lesser-known brands. In addition, you will see many cheap private labeled products in white boxes on the shops’ shelves. Therefore, prices for many materials are bottom low.

Body fillers

When I look at the shelves with body fillers, I think of the United States. Just like across the Atlantic, in the UK, a traditional body filler is usually lightweight and comes in tall 3-liter cans. You will not see much of flat 2kg or 1L tins, which are so popular in Europe. A lot of the body fillers I tried, required a thin layer of glaze to be used to close pinholes. Also, very “American” thing. In the mainland Europe we see predominantly universal (filling and finishing) putties in use.

Fast is the keyword

I supply paint products to various countries with very diverse climate conditions, but what surprised me most in the UK – a demand for the fastest possible curing primers and clearcoats. We had to introduce extra fast hardeners to all of our two pack materials!  Nothing was quick enough. I have seen a painter mixing an express clearcoat with extra fast hardener, adding accelerator and fast thinner. How is that? Of course, speed comes at cost of quality, but this is a subject for another discussion.

On the other hand, you should also consider the very high levels of humidity in certain regions, which affects negatively curing times of 2K materials. In addition, plenty of smaller bodyshops avoid using a spray booth for drying to save on energy costs.

After Brexit era

Automotive refinishing business in the UK is very dependent on imports. Therefore, uncertainty is very high. What will be the customs duties? What additional costs will the customs procedures bring along? How the payments of VAT upfront upon the goods arrival will influence the cash flow of distribution? What about the border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland? Too many questions, no answers so far. Perhaps a bit of English humor will help our friend in the UK to overcome all the obstacles.

 

Why smaller independent suppliers and producers are absolutely needed for the car repair business.

I am the owner of a relatively small automotive refinishing materials brand. Etalon is not alone. The number of similar companies is increasing, and I am delighted about it. Nowadays, when few big “sharks” try to buy one another, the very existence of companies like Etalon is even more relevant and important.

We do need competition

Unfortunately, without honest, fierce competition this, and any other industry, will not prosper. Public corporations lack human face. Prove me if I am wrong. The owners are investment banks, hedge funds or any other so-called institutional investors. THEY DO NOT GIVE A DAMN ABOUT THE PAINTERS’ NEEDS! What they only care is the current shares price and dividends paid. This is why there has been very little TRULY innovative products, which TRULY solve customers needs. Please share with me, if you believe that I missed something. On the other hands, the management of those companies fly first class, drive expensive company cars and get five and six digit pay cheques.

Does big mean safe?

There is a false opinion that working with “big” names is safe. It is absolutely not true. During my fifteen years career in the car refinishing industry I have seen an international paint producer virtually abandoning the whole continent, leaving its customers with empty mixing machines. I have experienced the results an acquisition of one of the big non-paint consumables producer by a huge multi billion company with a result of the lost customers loyalty, supply disruptions and the best people leaving the brand.

Also, I can bring you the example of the leading equipment manufacturer to raise prices without any particular reason by more than 20% with the ridiculous excuse of “brand repositioning”, but without changing the products itself. You may tell me that small companies can make mistakes too. True. However, the smaller players are more down-to-earth, and the owners of these companies (yes, they have real owners) would think it over before upsetting their customers.

About a year ago I posted on Linkedin the article “Do my company have the right to exist?”. I was really happy to hear that people from our trade share my vision. The main point of this short blog post is to ask you, my dear readers, to give a chance to companies like Etalon. Try us! Be strict, but be bias-free! Our industry needs to escape the hungry teeth of the consolidation. Small can be innovative, small can be efficient, small is an advantage, not vice versa. Governments have anti monopoly rules, but oligopoly is hardly any better. Oligopoly is a market system, which we probably will have very soon if the pace of consolidations will continue at current speed. Two or three paint producers will supply two or three bodyshop groups, paid by a few insurance companies. Is it going to be good for the customers? I have my doubts. And what do you think?

 

The best polishing compound for a bodyshop is… 12 steps guide to find one for yourself.

etalon refinish

Probably when you think of car refinishing job, paint polishing is not the first thing to come up in your mind. Nevertheless, it is an important process for any collision repair specialist. Firstly, when a minor paint defect occurs, in 9  cases out of 10, you will need a compound and a polisher to fix the problem. Secondly, a full car detailing could and should be an additional service offered to a customer who walked through your shop’s door.

Consumption of a polishing compound varies from one shop to another. Usually the excessive use of a compound means two things: too many paint defects revealed during the inspection process or/and incorrect polishing process. I have seen an operator pouring a quarter of a bottle to polish a fender. Also, in certain markets with poor working conditions without a proper spraying equipment, painters have to wet-sand all the repaired surfaces to remove orange peel and numerous dust nibs. It comes with no surprise that in these cases polishing compounds’ and glazes’ consumption is sky-high. What I would like to share with you in this article though is a short guide how to pick up the right polish for you. This is not the advertisement for Etalon polishing system, and my tips come from my own experience and the extensive knowledge of my colleagues and employees.

 

  1. Examine the surface to be polished. Before you decide which compound to use (yes, it’s good to have a few compounds to choose from), you need to understand the condition of paint or clearcoat you will work on. In a bodyshop usually we use compound to remove paint defects, meaning that paint is fresh. Is is crucial to know if the clear was properly baked in accordance with the manufacturers technical data sheet. If you choose too aggressive compound on still soft clear, big chances are that you will end up with excessive haze and swirls. It has nothing to do with the quality of the compound, but with the clearcoat’s chemistry instead.

 

  1. Check what polishing pads do you have available. The quality of paint rectification depends on many factors, like the polish machine, compound used, pads the compound is applied with and, an operator’s skills,indeed. So, if you do not have a quality wool pad handy, then you may need to go for more aggressive polishing compound. While if you have only rotary polisher in your tool box (read the article about polishing machines here), then a choice of medium cut compound would be a reasonable choice for safe polishing.

 

  1. Check what abrasives you have at your disposal. Nowadays one can find in a body and paint supply shop a great assortment of micro abrasive products. It is not necessary any more to remove orange peel, for example, with a polishing compound only. If you choose a film based abrasive disc P1500 first, then rectify the surface with P2000 or P2500, the entire process will take 3 times faster than a compound only process.

 

  1. Assess the ambiance and surface temperature. In case you have high temperatures in your workshop, choose a liquid polishing compound (not a paste) with oily consistency. There are polishing compounds in the market which turn to dust within first minute of use. This occurs due the high solvent content in them. These solvents evaporate very quickly when temperatures are high. You will have to add more and more compound to keep working and face an unpleasant dust spreading around.

 

  1. Avoid compounds, which require added water. You can still find the products in the market, which require adding certain quantity of water before and during the work. It will create a lot of splashes and unnecessary cleaning afterwards.

 

  1. Avoid difficult to clean compounds. I have seen otherwise good products, which are very difficult to wipe off especially from rubber and plastic parts. Such polishes will either require meticulous masking job prior polishing or long time spent on cleaning the residues. No, thanks.

 

  1. Choose a polishing compound with the best cut/gloss ratio. The times when cutting compound was leaving almost mat surface are gone for good. As a matter of fact, you can find fairly cutting compounds which leave lustrous surface with a very high gloss level. Certain brands market such products as one-step. However, you should remember that on the dark colors you may still need a finish glaze with anti-hologram properties.

 

  1. Avoid polishing compounds with silicone. Check that a bottle has a “silicone free” or “bodyshop safe” tag on it. No need to explain why.

 

  1. Avoid polishing compounds with waxes or sealants. It is very popular amongst car detailers to use so called “two-in-one” polishes, which combine abrasive and waxing properties. In a bodyshop, however, the clearcoat, albeit properly dried, still “breathe” with solvents. We don’t want to seal the pores of the paint, while solvent is still making its way out. Generally it is advised not to apply any waxes or sealants within two weeks from the paint job to avoid dieback of the clear coat.

 

  1. Prefer a polishing system with only a few polishing products available. Some brands offer just one-product system, but from real life experience it is obvious that there is still no perfect single compound for all jobs. Likewise, do not be misled by systems with far too many products.

 

  1. Avoid compounds with fillers inside. In car care and cosmetics market you may see a great variety of the polishes with filling properties. Such a product doesn’t remove scratches, but rather mask them for a limited period of time (usually until the next proper wash). The last thing a professional car sprayer needs is the angry customer coming to the shop and spotting the places where a paint defect was. A real pro will remove the paint defect, not mask it.

 

  1. Do not choose the polishing system just because it’s cheap. The cost of polishing materials in the overall bodyshop repair bill is negligible, but the spent on compound might be too long to afford.

 

Bonus tip. If you want to compare to compounds, do it exactly under the same conditions; for instance, split a bonnet half by half and do your test with the same polisher, same pressure, time and pad type. Do not mix two compounds on one pad in order to avoid misleading results.

 

 

 

 

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