Jim Smart
August 1, 2009
Photos By: The Mustang Monthly Archives

Automobile finishes have come a long way. One hundred years ago, it was any color you wanted as long as it was black. When the auto industry was just getting started early in the 20th century, paint finishes were brushed on, hand-rubbed, and labor intensive. In the years since, automotive finishes have become more durable, striking, and easier to apply. But it wasn't easy getting here. Nitrocellulose finishes were developed during the 1920s to make paint easier to both apply and service. In the 1930s, paint technology took a large leap forward with sprayed on alkyd enamels, the gateway to the high-tech, hot looking finishes we have today.

Classic Mustangs were clad in either red or gray oxide primer, with single-stage enamel or acrylic enamel finishes with a hint of orange peel. Enamel, though durable, wasn't easy to repair or color match. It also contributed to air pollution and health issues. Ford and Chrysler were big on enamel while GM mainly used lacquer because it was easier to repair and yielded a shinier finish. Primers in those days weren't for corrosion protection; it was primarily designed to help the paint bond with the metal.

Although paint technology has evolved in more than 100 years of automobiles, one hard and fast rule remains true-preparation is 90 percent of a great paintjob. Without good surface preparation, you wind up with disappointing paint.

In the 1980s, Detroit began experimenting with two-stage basecoat/clearcoat finishes, which were ultimately disastrous because they often peeled off at a record clip. Paint manufacturers and the automakers went back to the drawing board to make improvements. In due course, paint technology got better with more vibrant colors, improved durability, and environmentally responsible methods of application. Along with better paint technology has come great improvements in corrosion protection.

Today, the focus is on environmentally sound finishes that look great, endure for the life of the vehicle, eliminate corrosion, and offer ease of repair. Each paint manufacturer has its own approach to automotive finishes, and this is what we're diving into here.

Paint application couldn't have gotten where it is without a lot of R&D that has led to zero emissions paint booths; low-emission, gravity feed paint guns; and ventilated paint suits. The latest waterborne finishes use water instead of solvents to reduce emissions and improve paint quality. There must also be new levels of patience because waterborne finishes are slow to dry. And because automakers are using more powdercoating, this means new approaches to coating removal and refinish. Powdercoating makes more economic sense when you're building thousands of new cars every year because waterborne finishes take too much time to cure. This might be a lesson for Mustang enthusiasts as well because powdercoating may make more sense in some instances.

Here's an outstanding '68 GT/CS restoration with a factory style finish and that hint of orange peel for authenticity.

Regardless of the type of paint you choose, a Mustang's refinishing process requires a lot of advanced thought and planning. It's never as simple as just a visit to your local auto body supply house because this is a very expensive undertaking even if you're doing it on a budget. For one thing, materials alone for a paintjob can run upwards of $1,000 for paint, sandpaper, body filler, spot putty, and primer. You don't want to make a mistake that involves doing it all over again.

One more thing-don't waste your time and money on bad Mustang body parts. The cost involved in trying to save a bad fender makes little sense if you can find good new-old-stock, used, or a reproduction for less money. Remember, time and labor are expensive; it's often cheaper to replace the piece.

You must first determine what kind of finish is desired. Those performing concours restorations will want a hint of orange peel like the factory finish. Expect to use single-stage acrylic enamel if you're able to do so legally in your state. Otherwise, opt for single-stage urethane. It's challenging to get the factory original look if you go with a basecoat/clearcoat two- or three-stage system. Single-stage looks single-stage and two-three-stage basecoat/clearcoat looks clearcoat no matter how many coats of clear are applied.

Think there's not much difference between factory original and basecoat/clearcoat? Here's Vintage Burgundy in basecoat/clearcoat that's been color sanded and rubbed out at The Restomod Shop. Basecoat/clearcoat makes a classic Mustang look like it was dipped in clear.

The advantage to two- and three-stage paint it that you can color sand and rub it out to achieve exceptional results; it just won't look like a factory paintjob from the 1960s. Multi-stage finishes, when properly color sanded and rubbed out, give your Mustang a "dipped in clear" look with a deep richness.

There are three basic paint approaches-budget, factory original, and basecoat/clearcoat urethane with color sanding and a rubout with compound. A budget paintjob, as its name implies, is an affordable repaint you can get into for around $1,000 or less, not including bodywork that may be required. You can get a good budget paintjob at Maaco from coast-to-coast and 1-Day Paint & Body in the greater Southwest.

Much of what you get from a budget paintjob depends on what you can do yourself and what is best left to body professionals. Learning how to do bodywork is more about persistence and patience than anything else. It's something you can see with your eyes and feel with your fingertips. It's important to keep coming back again and again until the surface is perfect, which takes a lot of practice. The greatest favor you can do for your Mustang, even when you're on a tight budget, is to strip the body to bare steel and start with a clean foundation. This is something you can do yourself, then lay down a couple coats of a self-etching urethane primer-sealer to protect the steel while bodywork is performed, either by you or a professional. Be prepared to strip all the doorjambs, trunk area, and more. Always resist the urge to lay down layers of body filler. You don't want it any thicker than 1/16- to 1/8-inch based on what we've been told by auto body professionals. Body filler is intended to fill minor imperfections. It was never intended for filling huge dents, even though shops and individuals tend to do that. Spot putty is used to fill small imperfections in body filler.

The Eastwood Company's Single-Stage Urethane Automotive Finish is the paint to use for a factory finish. This is a catalyzed product that cures to a super-hard, durable finish that will stand up to the elements for years to come. Eastwood's urethane paint is available in a variety of colors for classic Mustangs.

Budget Painters
When it comes to budget auto painters on a national scale, Maaco winds up being one of the best operations because quality is an important element. Maaco holds its shops to a very high standard. On average, Maaco's shops are a class act and a cut above most discount painters. What's more, Maaco can color match from 10,000 different colors for both paintjobs and spot repairs.

Maaco is full service, meaning its shops perform all kinds of body repair, including frame pulling and major structural repair. It can prep your Mustang as well as paint it. There are four performance levels available at Maaco, ranging from a few hundreds dollars to more than $1,000, depending on region:

Entry level gets you high-grade enamel that's durable yet affordable depending on how much body work is needed. This is a single-stage finish that is perfect for nice driver Mustangs.

A higher-grade catalyzed enamel finish that is more resistant to the elements. Also appropriate for driver Mustangs.

This is the look you're going for with a concours restoration. Jan Byrd's '70 Boss 429 doesn't look dipped in clear, but instead sprayed on with a hint of orange peel. Jan went with single-stage paint when he restored his car. Single-stage makes all the difference to authenticity.

A polyurethane finish with sealer for better protection.

A high-tech basecoat/clearcoat ideal for late-model '79-'04 Mustangs because it provides the correct factory look. When you have Maaco apply additional coats of clear, it gives you something to work with for color sanding and rubout.

The American southwest also has 1-Day Paint & Body. Like Maaco, 1-Day focuses on quality depending on how you much you want to spend. If you're not seasoned at auto body repair and would rather have someone else do it, 1-Day can get the job done. We've worked with 1-Day on project cars in the past and had good results. Ideally, you'll bring your Mustang to 1-Day with all chrome and trim removed.

1-Day uses DuPont and Sherwin Williams color matching systems, which allows its staff to determine your Mustang's proper color. This provides an exact factory color match if you're aiming for an original finish.

Multi-stage paints begin with a basecoat. In this case, House of Kolor basecoat black goes on first, on top of self-etching gray primer-sealer. Black sets the tone for our cobalt blue finish.

Here's what's available from 1-Day Paint & Body:
Plus 1: For $329 (at press time), you get DuPont or Sherwin Williams enamel for durability and gloss. There are 20 colors to choose from. One-year warranty. Good for nice driver Mustangs.

Plus 2: For $499, you get DuPont or Sherwin Williams urethane. A choice of 10,000 colors includes pearls, metallics, and micas. Three-year warranty. Good for classics where an original single-stage finish is desirable

Plus 3: For $629, 1-Day offers its best urethane paint for an extremely durable finish. Choice of 15,000 colors and five-year warranty. Good for classic Mustangs where an original factory finish is the objective.

Plus 4: Priced at $999, or $1,595 if you want a color sand and buff. This is 1-Day's best paint with a basecoat/clearcoat that's ideal for late-model Mustangs and restomod classics. A choice of more than 15,000 colors.

Blue color coat goes over the black basecoat. One coat is rather light. Two coats are darker. We stopped at two blue color coats.

Whether it's Maaco, 1-Day, or another discount painter, you get what you pay for. Entry level pricing gets you entry-level results. With the discounters, we suggest their best paintjob, which normally gets you preparation that includes minor repairs, application of primer-sealer, and a good basecoat/clearcoat paint. Custom work is available with most of these discount shops; just be prepared to spend accordingly.

Factory Original
A factory original paintjob will cost you more money at a reputable body shop, but is worth every penny if you're doing a concours restoration or a nice driver. A concours restoration entails getting the car's finish like it was when it rolled off the assembly line. That means not over-restoring. You want some of those factory flaws in the finish for authenticity. A factory original paintjob is going to have a hint of orange peel so it won't be perfect. It's going to have irregularities, just like Mustangs did from their assembly plants in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Here's our clear topcoat, which is why we call this a three-stage basecoat/clearcoat paint. Clear brings the blue alive, giving our '66 Mustang hardtop a "dipped in clear" look.

Again, if you're seeking factory-style paint, you should use a single-stage urethane, enamel, or acrylic enamel. Because the latter two are harder to come by these days, expect to use single-stage urethane depending on your state's environmental laws.

In the 1960s, enamel and lacquer were popular finishes used by both the factory and individuals. Show cars got color-sanded, hand-rubbed lacquer, often with clear topcoat for an outrageous shine. Car builders had painters throw on several coats of clear to give them room to rubout a shine without getting into the color basecoat. It was standard protocol for hot rodders to brag about umpteen coats of clear on top of umpteen coats of lacquer. And when there was a lacquer basecoat, you had a lacquer topcoat comprised of several coats of clear.

In the late 1980s, Detroit decided what was good for hot rodders was good for manufacturing. We're not convinced Motown got the idea from Main Street, but more from Washington and the Environmental Protection Agency. Basecoat/clearcoat has been Dearborn's policy for almost 25 years-a flat-color basecoat and a clear topcoat to reduce VOCs and make paint repair easier. Basecoat/clearcoat finishes are easier to apply, more durable, and easier to take care of. Plus, the clear topcoat adds depth to a factory paintjob, enhancing appearance. This is why we have to differentiate between factory paint in the '60s and '70s (single-stage enamel) and what Detroit was doing in the '80s and beyond (basecoat/clearcoat)

PPG's Envirobase waterborne does an outstanding job. But remember, you must use waterborne-specific equipment when you're spraying waterborne finishes.

If you're restoring a late-model Fox-body Mustang, it makes more sense to go with a basecoat/clearcoat finish to achieve not only a factory finish but also a finish you can work with in the years to follow. You can also apply basecoat/clearcoat logic to classic Mustang restomods where having a factory original finish isn't important. Restomods should look like they were dipped in clearcoat. When you color-sand and rub out the clear topcoat, you wind up with a hot-looking restomod.

How To Get Great Paint
Kevin Tetz: Paintucation
Editor's note: Kevin Tetz is an established body and paint professional with a lot of outstanding work to his credit through the years, including sharing valuable information with thousands via his Paintucation video series. Here's what Kevin has to say about today's finishes.

Here's PPG's waterborne Envirobase on top of solvent-based primer and beneath clear topcoat. We like the result.

The automotive refinish industry turns itself on its ear about once every four years, typically in response to ever increasing EPA demands to reduce airborne pollutants. Thinner/reducer is the culprit, which means paint companies have to reduce more and more solvent content from paint. This means ongoing updates that call for changes in paint guns so they can spray thicker material. It's like painting with pancake syrup. The great news with recent waterborne technology is that solvents have been virtually eliminated from the basecoat. Think of it like latex house paint for cars except for all the snazzy colors. PPG, in particular, has great crossover formulas dating back to the 1930s, so all our Mustang colors can still be sprayed. Chemists are still working on formulas for a waterborne clear topcoat; none are available yet but several are on the horizon. So you must still sandwich your waterborne basecoat colors between solvent primers and clearcoats.

Kevin Tetz, producer of the successful Paintucation Paint Your Own Car video series, has introduced a new Paint Your Own Car series for waterborne paints. In it, Kevin shows you how to work with the new waterborne basecoat finishes. His colorful presentation keeps you attentive as he cruises through all the things you're going to need to know about waterborne finishes-prep materials, paint guns, tools, rust repair, basecoat/clearcoat finishes, safety equipment, and more.

The biggest battle facing purists and restorers is the steadily vanishing single-stage paint technologies-namely lacquers and enamels. It's difficult to get a modern two- or three-stage basecoat/clearcoat paintjob to look like those original muted one-stage enamels. Newer systems are much easier to use by a long shot, and perfect for the driver repaint or restomod where incredible depth is important. To get that classic look, you need classic paint, which is very difficult to find these days.

Classic car outlets, like The Eastwood Company, still carry some variations of old-fashioned single-stage paint, but availability is scarce. And keep in mind that secondary paint lines, like those marketed to enthusiasts, are not under the same strict environmental guidelines as the big players like DuPont, PPG, Glasurite, Sikkens, BASF, Sherwin Williams, and others. So don't always be intimidated by a brand name you don't recognize.

When it comes to using new waterborne basecoats, it's refreshing to report, most of the time, that these finishes are easier to use than solvent-based finishes. Color saturation happens much faster, with fewer coats. Metallics are easier to get even, which prevents that awful tiger striping we've all seen on metallic paint cars. This makes waterborne easier to control and much safer for the painter. The rip of this is compatibility between solvent finishes on bottom and top.

Waterborne finishes mandate the use of waterborne-compatible paint guns and equipment with stainless steel internals. Be advised you can't even clean a waterborne gun with the same thinners and solvents used on regular paint guns because there's such a big difference in waterborne and solvent. The two are very incompatible, which means separate guns and cleaning systems.

Personally, I don't like being disrupted from my comfort zones. But change is our ever-constant reality. I have firm confidence in the entrepreneurial spirit of Americans and believe the automotive restoration market and its hobbyists will continue to adapt to the changes to find ways to overcome problems as they arise. This mindset will not only make our classic Mustangs safer, but will also save our planet for generations to come.

PPG/Global, BASF, Sikkens, and Glasurite are all great products used by professionals everywhere with incredible results. However, I prefer to spend my money with an American company like PPG or DuPont. Auto Air Colors is a relatively new automotive paint system that started out in the fabric paint business and grew into the custom airbrush community. It has since turned into a high-quality automotive refinish system with a solid reputation. However, Auto Air Colors is more custom colors, not original colors. In the end, my favorite is PPG for its ease of use, availability, and close attention to training end users.

Jan Byrd drives home cleanliness throughout every phase of bodywork and paint. He tells us dirt, no matter how small, can hide and reappear when compressed air through the gun disturbs small particulates that wind up in your paint.

Jan Byrd: Byrd's Auto Body
We befriended Jan Byrd back in 2007 when we drove to Illinois to photograph his Grabber Green '70 Boss 429. We found Jan's craftsmanship stunning in its execution. He took a low-mileage and original Boss 429 that had been torn apart and stuffed in a garage for three decades and managed to restore the car while retaining its original character.

Jan is very disciplined in his restoration, bodywork, and painting technique. Being methodical means never having to apologize to the customer-or worse, having to do it all over again. As a result, Jan has a regimented routine he follows for every car. For classic cars, he kicks the discipline up a notch.

Jan tells us dirt tends to hide, then surfaces when it's time to lay down paint. This is why he stresses pressure washing a Mustang body thoroughly before bodywork is performed, then afterward to ensure cleanliness. He also stresses taking plenty of pictures of the car before disassembly because, no matter what you may think, you're going to forget what goes where even if you've done it a million times. And if you're doing a late-model Mustang, there's a lot more to take off and reinstall. Items like door handles, mirrors, emblems, and antennas must also be removed. Never try to sand, prime, and paint around them.

Jan insists on a hospital clean paint booth and everything in it because fallout (dust, dirt, debris) will find its way into paint. Basecoat isn't as critical as that all-important clear topcoat, but your basecoat should be clean. When dust settles in the clearcoat, it's there forever. You can color sand and rub it out, but chances are you will see some evidence of that piece of dust when the job is complete.

Although it's common practice to strip paint to bare steel, Jan doesn't always do this. For Jan, it boils down to the condition of the existing paint. He believes good paint makes a good foundation-but only once. After that, it must be stripped to bare steel, primed, and sealed. If there are imperfections like cracks and chips in the paint foundation, the car must be stripped.

Jan says, "Any reputable body shop will show you what needs to be done. Small rock chips can be handled with spot putty, which is nothing more than a thick lacquer primer that will shrink underneath the new paint."

Jan says surface prep should be performed with 320- or 400-grit sandpaper, flooding the surface with a lot of water. This is known as wet sanding. If you're working with a paint foundation, work the surface with 320/400-grit and water. It will tend to clog the paper, so keep a lot on hand. Jan says wet sanding scores paint surfaces for better adhesion when it's time to spray paint. When surfaces are dry, look for shiny spots, which can be sources of delamination and peeling.

When it's time to paint, Jan cleans every square inch of the paint booth and keeps it closed when not in use. Everything-air hoses, tools, paint guns, masks, and mixing tables-are kept hospital clean to prevent fallout from getting into the paint. Paint booth filters are cleaned or replaced regularly. They are wet when it's time to paint, ensuring a minimum of debris.

Although many of us use newspaper for masking, Jan says this is the worst possible material because there's a lot of lint in newspaper. Newspaper also collects dust in its travels. Use lint-free masking paper along with lint-free towels. Never use a shop towel, which is loaded with lint and dust even when it's fresh out of the washer. The best material for wipe down is the humble tack rag, a static cloth designed to grab and retain dust and lint.

Painters must be as clean as the paint booth and car, meaning lint-free clothing, hair net, gloves, and the like. When it's time for body wipe down, Jan suggests starting with a wet sponge to get rid of waterborne contaminants. Next, use a silicone removal solution to eliminate petroleum-based contaminants. After that, gather dust and lint with a lint-free cloth or tack rag.

Jan reminds us to think about the air supply, which must have dryers to remove moisture. Few things upset a painter worse than condensation coming through a paint gun and onto the body. If you're painting the car yourself, consider renting a good downdraft paint booth that's both environmentally responsible and safer for the painter.

Bubba Williams of 91 Octane is an outstanding auto body professional who has performed a lot of final prep and paintwork for Stang-Aholics. Ron's Screaming Yellow Mustang fastback is painted with DuPont two-stage basecoat/clearcoat.

"There are so many small mistakes that can happen while painting a Mustang," Jan cautions, "like a loose-fitting paint suit that can contact wet paint." If you can't find a tight suit, tape up any baggy parts. Hot, humid weather can cause a paint booth to sweat, with those drips landing on fresh paint. Always begin painting with a test spray on paper masking to make sure you have a good spray fan. A clogged, spitting paint gun is your worst enemy. Make sure paint isn't leaking from around the pot before getting started. Metallic paints can cause grief because paint guns tend to atomize these finishes in a haphazard fashion. Make sure there's a uniform spray fan ahead of time. Locate your paint gun's pressure regulator and gauge right at the gun to ensure you have exactly the right pressure at all times. Jan adds, "This is why you're wiser having a professional paint your Mustang in a properly ventilated booth with the right equipment and experience."

"You may be the type of person who insists doing it yourself in order to take all the credit for a great job," Jan comments. "But you better be able to deal with setbacks along the way when you're in the learning curve. I remember times when things just didn't want to cooperate and I felt like sitting down and crying. However, mistakes are, without a doubt, the best way to learn."

John Murphy: Restorer Extraordinaire
Restorer John Murphy has a simple strategy for getting great paint. He says to do as much as you can yourself to save money, which frees up cash for other aspects of your repaint, like the paintjob itself. "If you feel comfortable doing a specific task, then do it," John says. "Don't be afraid to make a mistake and try again." Body shops bill at a rate of $50 to $100 an hour depending on where you live, so do as much bodywork as you can and save.

Here's how to save big money. Disassemble the body yourself instead of having it done by the body shop. Items like fenders, hoods, decklids, and bumpers are easy to remove. Stripping paint to bare steel is hard, but worth the trouble when you consider what a body shop would charge. If your Mustang has doors and fenders that fit like a glove, drill a tiny 1/16-inch hole in the hinges, both at the door and pillar, and use the hole for alignment purposes when it's time to reassemble the car. Do this right under a bolt washer to hide the hole.

Stang-Aholics and 91 Octane look to a variety of DuPont finishes, such as ChromaPremier and Chromax Pro, which have been specially formulated for easier application and exceptional durability. These new DuPont finishes lay down smooth, offering easy repair as needed, making them the choice of body shops everywhere.

"It goes without saying that you and your body shop should be singing from the same sheet of music," John tells us. "They should completely understand what's expected, including when the car is expected to be finished. Remember, bodywork and paint are not the most ideal places to try to save money. If you want great results, either do it yourself or be prepared to spend money." Also, insist on a concrete estimate from a body shop because very little should change from the time the car is delivered until it is time to pick it up.

"Switching product and shops may work sometimes, but it can also come back to haunt you later on," John says. "Stick with the same materials, people, and body shop from beginning to end so you will know who to blame when something goes wrong. Also keep in mind not all manufacturers and body shops are going to get your Mustang's paint color where it looks identical to what Ford put on the car to begin with. Go with a brand you trust, ideally the best available, and stay away from bargains."

John adds the most important decision of all: "I do not have to remind you to start off with the best car you can find for the money and stick to what you can afford. Stay in close touch with your body shop. And if there is something they need from you, be there as soon as possible."

Ron And Ryan Peter: Stang-Aholics
This month's cover cars are products of Stang-Aholics, where Ron and Ryan Peter rely on Bubba Williams of 91 Octane for their final bodywork and paint. Ron and Ryan disassemble the cars and do all of the sheetmetal and fabrication work to save expense. Because they want exceptional quality, they look to Bubba, DuPont, and their local DuPont dealer, Lalanne's Automotive & Industrial Paint in Porterville, California.