by Jim Kerr
Most of us never want to see a body shop. Body shops and fender benders are usually closely associated and nobody wants to see a fender bender either. On the other hand, it is unlikely a driver will ever go through a lifetime without scratching the paint at least once, and some of us may want to customize a vehicle, adding colour-matched fender flares or air dams. A complete custom paint job may be your heart’s desire, but before you lay out that hard-earned cash, let’s go body shop hunting.
If your idea of a body shop is a dark and dusty building, surrounded by piles of bent car parts, then you are living in the past. Yes, there are still a few of these shops around but repairing and painting today’s vehicles takes skill, quality tools and a clean work environment.
Modern body shops can be neat, clean, and well lighted; and the best in the business are. Often, a body shop is laid out in several areas. There is the estimating and delivery area. This is where vehicles are brought in to estimate repairs and where the finished vehicle is presented to the customer. Lots of lights in this area help spot damage on the vehicle.
If the vehicle has major damage, it is moved to the disassembly area and onto the frame machine. Few cars have a true “frame” anymore, so this machine is really used to straighten the unibody construction typical of most modern cars. Unibody is a term that describes how sheet metal is stamped, formed, and welded together to form the structural portion of the car body.
Measuring the vehicle body for correct unibody alignment is critical. As little as one millimetre error is all that is allowed by many manufacturers. Laser measuring systems are used by some body shops along with the frame machine to ensure everything is straightened correctly.
With the unibody straight, the vehicle moves to the metal work area where new sheet metal is mounted and damaged panels straightened. This work is still done by skilled technicians using hammers and dollies, but even the work done by body technicians has been changed by technology. Overhead vacuum lines are connected to grinders and sanders to pull dust and dirt away from this part of the shop. A body shop can be very clean!
With all the metal straight, it’s on to the paint prep area. Quality shops will use dust extraction systems to remove the dust when sanding and spraying the paint primers. Infrared light systems may be used to cure primer paint quickly. Using these lights can shorten the cure time from 24 hours to just over 20 minutes. You get your car back much quicker.
Painting the final colours and clear coats is done in a paint booth. There are many booth designs, but the best are “downdraft” units where fresh filtered air enters the top of the booth and any overspray is pulled out through grates in the floor. This can produce the best paint finishes, but like anything else, the operator makes a huge difference. A dust free paint booth of any design is still better than a dirty paint booth of the best design. Ask to see examples of the painter’s work on several vehicles before spending your money. Look for smooth finishes with minimal dust specs and colours that match from panel to panel. Those are signs of a quality paint job done by a skilled painter.
Lastly, the car moves to the final assembly and detail area where all the trim is re-installed and the car is washed and cleaned, ready for final delivery. As you can see, every repair goes through an orderly series of steps. A properly repaired vehicle should have the same fit and finish as a new one. Good body shops can do this all the time, but there are many small shops that haven’t invested the time or money for equipment and training. Any good body shop will be proud to give you a tour of their facilities. If it looks organized and neat, then they will likely repair your car in the same manner.