Restoration 101: Which Type Of Paint Is Right For Your Project?

Great Cover up

Although it’s true that the sheer number of paths one can take to restore or customize a classic car seems endless, there is one thing that most can agree on: paint choice is one of the most important decisions to make.

Starting with a car that was stripped to bare metal and primed, the paint choices that follow are endless. When it comes to painting a car, do you go old school and cover it with lacquer or enamel, or do you dive into the 21st century and go for a waterborne paint? All these options have their own strengths and weaknesses, but in the end, it is personal choice.

The goal here is to try and give restorers a general understanding of each paint type and their specific applications so that an informed decision can be made. With that in mind, when talking about a period-correct restoration, the real issue is restoring with the correct technology and type of paint system.

If you choose a single stage you can go with the original type of chemistry like lacquer, enamel, or a single-stage urethane system.

Restoration Paint

Images courtesy of Muscle Car Restorations. No matter what type of paint you use, keeping dirt out of the paint is crucial.

Going Old, Old School – Lacquer

Lacquer, plain and simple, is the type of paint that was used decades ago. For a long time, it was the only way to paint a car. Up until the mid-1960s, enamel paints (followed by polyurethane) weren’t being heavily used in the automotive industry. If you needed to repaint your mom’s ’49 Chevy when it became your first car, odds are, you were throwing lacquer down. Some enthusiasts still prefer the waxy look that lacquer provides.

There is an element of pride that goes into laying down five (and sometimes twice that many) coats of laquer and still maintaining clean edges and lines. But, we can’t say that you will be happy with the way that it looks in three to five years – especially if you drive the car regularly. If you are considering a lacquer-based paint for your restoration project, there are a few things to consider.

Restoration paint

Not many people use lacquer paint for cars anymore. Spraying a urethane is much easier, and the finished product is more durable.

Lacquer, when applied correctly, requires multiple coats – and steps in between coats. Adrian Casados, proprietor of Custom Restorations of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, knows all about how paint has evolved over the past three decades. His dad owned a shop while Adrian was growing up, and he has been painting cars his entire life. In his opinion, lacquer just isn’t worth the time it takes to apply.

Corvette Done in Single Stage Lacquer Restoration paint

This Corvette was done in lacquer. Even though the paint is older, the car still looks fantastic because it was meticulously maintained.

Due to the nature of lacquer paint and how porous it is, the drying time is significantly longer than that of modern paints. Adrian noted, “Typically, you are going to be sanding between most coats of paint you lay down – if you want it done right that is.” Adding to that, “The more coats you lay down, the more orange peel you are going to get.” What is the point of painting a car if the paint isn’t smooth as glass?

This report about lacquer may seem negative, but we will concede that lacquer does have some advantages. The most significant being cost. Lacquer is extremely inexpensive, and can help replicate the factory appearance of your car. If you were to paint your car in the same way and with the same materials as it was on the assembly line, it should look accurate (if that is what you are going for). If you want longevity and are willing to upgrade the tools you need to do so, then lacquer isn’t really for you.

Typically, you are going to be sanding between most coats of paint you lay down – if you want it done right that is. – Adrian Casados

Painting With Water Colors – Waterborne

In the mid-1970s, government agencies began to consider the idea of substituting waterborne paints in place of solvent-based paints. Waterborne paints were introduced in the mid-to-late 1980s, and have been a work-in-progress ever since.

Although it was much better for the environment and the people using the paint, the costs far outweighed the benefits at its inception. Those significantly higher costs were not just for the actual paint, but also the equipment that was needed to spray it.

Restoration paint

Image Courtesy: GEM Tool. Yes, we know it’s not a Chevy, but shown is a Waterborne Drying System that is produced by GEM Tool. Note the constant air flow on the panels of the car in order to ensure proper drying.

Almost all waterborne paints require a two-step process of application with a basecoat covered by a urethane clearcoat. Preparing a car to apply waterborne paint is similar to using older style paints. Waterborne paints tend to be faster, delivering better coverage with fewer coats, which means using less paint.

We spoke with Cam Miller, founder of HS Customs and 2016 SEMA Battle of the Builders champion about his choice when it comes to laying paint on a fresh canvas. Cam noted that at HS Customs, they shoot “almost every project, with the exception of a few” in PPG waterborne paint.

“The Urethane paints just aren’t what they used to be,” Cam noted, stating that they have lost some of their luster, especially when it comes to metallic paints. The thing that struck the biggest chord with us is that Cam said waterborne paints are just more effective in most situations, cutting down on drying time and making blending much simpler.

If you want a high-quality paint job using a waterborne paint, you need to get a gun designed specifically for use with waterborne paints. Also, a paint booth that delivers constant airflow over the panels at all times is required. Waterborne paints are very susceptible to atmospheric conditions, so a proper booth is a necessity.

Although it got off to a rough start, waterborne paints have since made a huge impact on the new car and the collision repair markets alike, mostly because of its ability to cover panels and bodies in fewer coats than its enamel/urethane counterparts.

Restoration paint

PPG Envirobase Automotive paint is a waterborne variety.

We spoke with Tim Jones, the U.S. Marketing Manager for Waterborne Paints at PPG Paints, regarding the current status and future of waterborne paints.

PPG supplies all major car companies with some form of paint, and is also an industry specialist in waterborne paint technology. Tim noted that PPG’s current goal for waterborne paints is to expand their use in the collision industry. PPG currently provides a large portion of waterborne base coats to car manufacturers, but the collision industry can also benefit from this technology the most.

He believes the ability of waterborne paints to match OE colors, coupled with their advanced drying times can definitely “provide productivity enhancements for collision shops.”

restoration paint gun

Waterborne painting requires a gun with stainless steel parts. The SATAjet 3000 K, is a great example of the type of stainless gun needed to properly shoot waterborne paint.

Due to EPA regulations, many states have employed waterborne paints for years, and PPG would like to see others employ the same paints even if they are not faced with similar government standards. Tim also noted that the auto industry is a long way away from switching solely to waterborne systems, but that PPG is hard at work on new waterborne sealers and primers that should be available soon.

Although automakers and many repair shops in the United States have made a concerted effort to employ the use of waterborne paints, the smaller tiered restoration business is still hesitant.

Adrian confirmed that the start up costs for a shop his size does not make financial sense. Let’s face it, in terms of paint materials for the job, waterborne painting is comparable in cost. But, in terms of physical equipment the costs are dramatically different. Adrian said that putting in a booth that is conducive to the use of waterborne paints could cost around $100,000.

That means the typical restoration shop or the guy painting his car in his garage or barn probably can’t afford to ventilate the painting area the way it needs to be in order to create a high-quality finish with waterborne paints.

restoration paint

Prepping a car for paint with any of the paint systems requires the pre-paint work be perfect. A great paint job is only as good as the base underneath.

The painter must also be extremely careful with the spray gun that they intend to use.  It is recommended that waterborne paints be applied using a stainless steel spray gun. Also, waterborne paints also tend to bleed under traditional masking tape used during the painting process. Companies have introduced products to combat this, but the ability of the paint to run and “ooze” under tape can cause issues during any restoration.

restoration paint

Also, don’t be fooled by the name. Just because the paint uses water as a substitute for solvent does not mean that it is solvent free. The cleanup and disposal of waterborne paints is similar to that of solvent-based paint (no you can’t just run it down the drain like you might with your kid’s leftover finger paint).

Going Not So Old, Old School – Urethane

In terms of versatility and affordability, there is still no substitute for urethane paint. The ability to customize the paint to achieve any color, coupled with the versatility of the painting process, is what sets it apart from other materials.

Urethane paints can be used for anything from a period-correct paint job to one of the most gorgeous multi-layered candy paint jobs that you would swear is always wet.

Urethane can be applied in a variety of settings, dries quicker in a variety of painting environments, requires less maintenance, and is more user friendly. You can use a variety of spray guns and application systems, and there is no need for a specialized ventilation system to make sure it dries correctly. Some owners have painted their cars in their backyard under a pop-up tent on a weekend with decent results.

Although urethane is more versatile in terms of painting location than waterborne, it definitely does have its drawbacks.

When we spoke to Jeremy Cortner at Muscle Car Restorations and he laid out some of the issues with modern urethane paint jobs. Jeremy noted that urethane tends to build up due to over-spray in tight places like door jambs and along tape lines, increasing the likelihood of contamination.

Urethane also tends to be much less forgiving when compared to its waterborne counterpart. Not to mention,  the fumes in the paint booth are stronger with urethane and that shooting during the humid months can cause the paint job to take significantly longer.

restoration paint

Getting a show winning surface.

One thing to always keep in mind, regardless of the paint used, is that the spraying of paint is just a small portion of what has to be done. A customer can go out and buy high-end PPG paint (like the one Ferrari sprays its cars with) but if your bodywork and sanding skills are subpar, all you did was put lipstick on a proverbial pig (a glorious shade of lipstick I might add).

Digging Deep – Costs

In order to set a cost baseline, we asked Adrian what his shop might charge for a paint job. According to him, a good paint job is around $8,000 to $10,000, and a really good paint job from his shop could run you $20,000 to $50,000 (depending on the car and finish you require). That paint job will be a traditional urethane paint job, and costs increase or decrease depending on the paint and clearcoat you choose.

Custom painted Chevy C10 done by Custom Restorations with Urethane paint.

The necessary gear required to paint a car can be purchased for around $1,000 to $2,000 (if you know what you are looking for), and then the rest of the costs are material related.

What Does It All Mean?

Waterborne paints hit the scene to combat pollutants that the auto industry created, and since there is no denying that the automotive industry releases a ton of VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) into the air every year, the question of when we can expect a full waterborne system remains unanswered.

It is known that a complete waterborne system reduces VOCs as much as 50 percent, and PPG and their counterparts believe that the industry will make its way to complete waterborne systems in the future.

restoration paint

If you are like us, you might loathe the day that autonomous driving takes over our roads, but you have to respect the technology and innovation that has and is going into that process. In many ways, the current painting landscape is the same way.

restoration paint

Urethane does a great job of replicating OE paint. When restoring a classic such as this ’70 Chevelle SS, urethane is still the standard for period-correct colors.

During this process, we found that most large restoration shops are shooting almost exclusively in waterborne. The difference between those shops and someone trying to paint in their garage, however, is astronomical.

Urethane is currently more cost effective and still provides great results. No one is knocking the finish on a lot of newly-manufactured cars (which tend to employ waterborne basecoats), just the opposite is true. Waterborne is more forgiving, matches factory colors extremely well (especially metallics), and will come out cleaner when done professionally. Waterborne costs a bit more initially, but, if we have learned anything from our conversations with professionals, it’s that it is definitely worth it in the long run.

However, until the initial cost of shooting waterborne can become more tolerable for smaller shops and individuals, we expect to see urethane remain as the norm in that market.

About the author

Geoff Boyle

Geoff is a graduate of Messiah College where he obtained an accounting degree and played both basketball and golf. He grew up in a Ford family but has always had a soft spot for Mopars after seeing his first 1968 Dodge Charger when he was 10. His interest and knowledge is mostly in Fords and Mopars from the mid '60s to the mid '70s as well as modern musclecar equivalents.
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