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An Expert in Aluminum Body Work

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With nine years of experience working as an auto body technician at Pohanka Collision Center of Crystal City in the greater Washington, D.C., region, Jose Portillo is one of the MSO’s primary aluminum experts with a passion for working on aluminum-bodied vehicles, especially the high-end Audi vehicles that frequently roll into the Alexandria, Va., shop.

Portillo averages 20-plus billable hours every workday—averaging three or four aluminum projects of all makes per month—as part of a team that resembles a miniature assembly line with four technicians, one teardown specialist, and a blueprint employee who acts as a service writer and coordinates workflow throughout the shop.

After becoming aluminum certified through the I-CAR Audi Academy Technician Program, Portillo learned what it takes for shops to prepare for the coming wave of aluminum vehicles, as well as the challenges that working with this radically different material entail for the shop and individual technicians. 

I really enjoy working on aluminum cars and any aluminum projects. I just find them different and fun. For me, it’s not really work when I get to work on them; it’s more like a hobby. You get to rivet and glue, and you also get to work in our cool aluminum repair bay.

I’ll take whatever comes in the door, but when it comes to the Audi A7s and R7s, they usually come to me or the other tech that is also Audi certified, because they’re all-aluminum-bodied cars. You can’t even work on them unless you’re certified for aluminum repairs. I don’t get to pick and choose what cars they give me, but those are cool.

Welding aluminum is a lot different than steel. You’ve got to be careful because aluminum heats up so much quicker than steel does, and sometimes you won’t even see when the aluminum heats up—it just pops and blows. It requires paying closer attention, and you have to focus more on what you’re doing because they’re generally nicer cars and you want to do your best on them.

It’s easier to make mistakes on aluminum cars, and those mistakes tend to cause more damage compared with steel cars. I recommend that techs just follow what is recommended. Just follow the recommendations and you won’t have any problems. You can’t take any shortcuts with aluminum.

There are no tricks with aluminum. You’ve got to go through the required steps, because there are ways that you’ve got to clean the aluminum, then you’ve got to prep it, you’ve got to prime it and then apply the glue. On aluminum, you can’t flatten welds down to look smooth, so you have to leave the weld how it is. It’s the steps that you’ve got to do in order for the glue and rivets to hold, or else you’ll miss something and the repair won’t last over the long term.

To me, it’s a lot easier to work on aluminum vehicles. A lot of times, if you’re pulling a quarter panel or other sheet metal off a car, it’s a lot faster than welding and spot welding.

I went to Wisconsin for I-CAR Audi training. It was a two-week class and it was a lot of hands-on welding of aluminum. The only difficult thing was that I had to do an overhead weld. That was the really difficult one, because you had to weld the aluminum upside down. What made it difficult was that my arm wasn’t stable, and I was basically upside down trying to weld a straight line. Sometimes I get shaky when I weld, so that made it difficult trying to hold still.

The training covered everything I needed to learn with welding, and I found it to be very useful. It was all pretty easy to pick up, the little tricks you have to learn. I get nervous easily, so when it was time to take the test I was sweating and shaking. I don’t even know how I passed it, but it was awesome.

A QUICK LEARNER: Jose Portillo says the transition to working on aluminum wasn’t overly difficult. After training and repetition, he now prefers the work to traditional materials. Photo by Cedric Terrell

After that, the teachers would check the inside of the weld. It didn’t have to look perfect from the outside, but the inside had to look good. They cut it apart, opened it up and looked at the weld from the inside.

I did well—I passed, but I failed on my first shot. My hands shook a little bit, so there was a gap in the weld. I had to redo it, and then the second shot I took, I did it. You only get two shots to get it right. We also put a new rocker panel into an Audi TT. It was just a lot of welding.

After I took the test, I had a car here waiting for me and I felt like I already knew what I was doing. At first, it took me some time for each project, because I was going through my notes. After you’ve done a couple of them you start knowing what to do and they start going faster.

I think the move to aluminum is a good thing. Aluminum cars are a lot stronger. Shops are going to get hurt, though, because they’re going to have to buy a lot of equipment. It’s a lot of expensive equipment just to repair aluminum.

Shops need to buy an aluminum MIG welder, and then Audi also recommends that you get an aluminum bay, but it comes with all of the tools you need. With the booth, it comes with its own tools. Sometimes I will use the same tools on steel or aluminum projects, but then I have to clean them—like my grinder. I will use it on steel cars, but then I have to clean it really good and apply another disc to use it on aluminum.

For Audi, you also have to buy a Celette frame bench that has wheels where you can roll around the shop and pull cars. You can lift the car up and set it on the bench, because the aluminum cars come with jigs and you’ve got to set the jigs right if you’re working on a rail or something. The jigs are already set for the car, so you fit it and use the jigs to help you out to make sure the car is straight.

The Audi aluminum bay really does it, all the tools are in there. You really don’t use any of the tools that you do for metal jobs. A lot of the technique is keeping that bay clean when you’re working in it, and keeping it closed when you’re not. You’ve also got to have a rivet gun. That’s the main tool that you need when you work on aluminum. Working on aluminum is a lot simpler, because there are no sparks flying like when you’re working with steel cars.

For safety, you’ve got to disconnect the battery—simple stuff like that. Also, aluminum is combustible, so the bay comes with a vacuum we use to suck all the aluminum dust off the floor because it’s highly flammable. I’ve never had anything catch on fire.

Before working at Pohanka, I started out at Jiffy Lube and then got a job as a porter cleaning and washing cars. I just moved my way up until I got into this shop and started doing body work.

Getting into the job was a lot of learning on the job from different body men over the years, taking little bits of advice from everybody and just watching them. I also went to I-CAR classes, but that’s about it—just watching people, watching their mistakes and trying not to replicate them.

To stay productive, I just take one car at a time and try not to get overwhelmed. Usually when you get stressed out it causes problems, you lose focus and start making mistakes. Most easy body work, like repairing with Bondo, is where I can make money with my time.

I enjoy helping others at my shop. I feel like, if I went through some mistakes, then I’d like to show other guys what I’ve learned so they won’t have to go through it, too.

These days, you’ve got to be a hard worker, good with your hands and take advice when somebody tells you what to do. You also can’t get a big head or act like you know everything, because you don’t. You’ve got to take what people tell you, and that’s how I do it. I try to stay humble and take advice from other people.

I like perfection. I try to make my cars look like they just came back from the factory. I like to see when my finished products turn out well. I get frustrated when something doesn’t go my way, but sometimes you’ve just got to step away from it and come back to it later, and everything works out. That happens all the time.

When I first started my job it was always fun, something I like to do. It wasn’t just coming to work, it was more like a hobby. Sometimes when I get to work on these nice cars, or when they come in and have already been hit and somebody else repaired them, it gets frustrating to see the work that other people do. We get to see them after accidents, and it really frustrates me.

I consider myself an average technician—I’m not the best. I treat people’s cars like they were mine, and I think that’s the way to do it. 

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