Speeding up paint prep occurs in these six stages

Jan. 1, 2020
Don't overlook seemingly small details to achieve significant improvements in paint prep time.

I've heard a frequent lament among body shop owners that they love fixing cars but can't make a decent profit in the paint shop. This industry is changing and achieving profitability is a challenge. It's not enough to be good at repairing or painting vehicles. You need to know how to run a business, too. A few management tasks include:

  • measure performance by setting monthly, weekly and daily goals;
  • develop standard operating procedures (SOPs);
  • coordinate all departments;
  • manage parts; and
  • negotiate with customers, suppliers and third-party payers, such as insurance companies.

Owners and managers also must plan for growth, marketing, recruitment and training. The skill sets needed to operate a body shop go beyond just repairing a vehicle.

The paint department isn't any different from the other parts of the shop when it comes to maintaining a decent profit – although some would argue more can go wrong quickly. Paint shops must be monitored and managed carefully.

There are six stages a vehicle goes through in the refinish department: communication/collaboration, preparation, examination, implementation, inspection and delivery. At each stage there are small steps that add up to larger profits.


Listening and communicating are among the manager's most important skills. By listening to a staff's needs and concerns, a manager can help coordinate a speedy repair of each vehicle as it passes through the shop. By listening to and communicating with staff, a manager helps create a collaborative environment. Employees who feel they have input in their organization are more satisfied and productive workers.

Simple communication tasks in refinishing include meeting the lead painter to review the work order for each job before it is started (Fig. 1).

Another good practice is writing things – such as vital information, paint code and location of required repair or replacement parts – on the vehicle (Fig. 2). Different colored markers can be used to indicate different processes so the techs working on the car and supervisor can see quickly that the process is being done correctly. As a part is replaced, the old, marked part is removed so it can be noted that that portion of the job is complete. As a part is prepared and its markings removed, the lead painter can see the progress on each vehicle as he prepares to paint it.


Adapting or streamlining practices other businesses have used can help you succeed. For example, Henry Ford often is given credit for inventing the assembly line. He didn't invent it, but he took the assembly line idea and made it practical and profitable. His assembly line reduced the Model A's cost by 200 percent in three years through efficiency. So take good ideas, make them better and make more profit.

The restaurant industry must be extremely efficient to be profitable. The term mise en place means all ingredients should be in place and any unused portion put away. As the chef receives an order, everything will be where it should be, and the meal can be made efficiently.

The collision repair industry should adopt this. Have SOPs available for each type of repair for technicians to review. Consolidate supplies so that, for example, specific grades of sandpaper are on hand and available. When needed, they can be retrieved easily from a storage cabinet (Fig. 3). Provide work carts that allow tools and materials to be gathered and rolled to the vehicle (Fig. 4). Evaluate paint codes. If a spray-out panel is needed, it should be prepared. All materials needed to refinish the job should be on hand (Fig. 5). Before the job is started, make sure everything is in its place and available to the technicians to complete the job as quickly and efficiently as possible.


Thoroughly examine every job before starting. A vehicle arriving in the paint department is assumed to have had all prior work completed to the standards of the shop. Although this is generally true, an inspection is warranted. An efficient way to examine a vehicle in the paint department is to do so while washing it (Fig. 6). While washing, a technician makes a careful examination of the vehicle's prior work, checking for anything that might need to be reexamined before refinishing begins. If flaws or omissions are found (Fig. 7), the lead painter can communicate that to the sales staff and, in turn, to the insurance company for a proper resolution to allow for producing expected results.


Now the implementation can begin. At this point, among collision repair professionals, some surface prep techniques and recent changes are controversial. For example, not all technicians agree on the value of changes such as fine or painter's dual action (DA) sanders, guide coat use, hand vs. power (DA) blocking, and wet vs. dry sanding. Other crucial steps for quality surface preparation – such as washing and cleaning, open bare metal time and bare metal treatment – might not be getting the attention they should.

Because sanding is such a large part of labor cost and prep sanding is such a large part of all sanding, the more efficient a shop becomes will influence its profits.

Dual action sanders

DAs have changed during the past few years. Originally, DAs had aggressive random orbital sanding patterns of 3/16 of an inch, specifically designed to remove paint coatings with course grit sandpaper (P36) and featheredge with the finest grit paper (P350). They were designed to be used at a 10-degree angle, which, because the entire sanding disk didn't hit the surface, made the tool aggressive. Older tools sold with long handles made them even more aggressive because the technician pressed down while tilting the pad even more than 10 degrees. Because the tool was used in this manner, it gained a reputation of not making the surface flat and straight enough for finish work. The first innovation was the development of a palm DA without the handle, which forced the operator to hold the tool flatter, making the sanded surface flatter and smoother.

A few years ago, DAs became available with a finer sanding pattern (3/32 of an inch). These models, sometimes called painter DAs, were much less aggressive. When mated with finer sandpaper (P400) and held flat to the surface, they were capable of producing a flat and straight surface rapidly. These improvements translated to higher efficiency and better results.

Dirt elimination

One of the most disappointing and frustrating situations when refinishing is to notice dirt particles have migrated into the final finish when applying clear. This can be avoided by cleaning thoroughly before starting the paint work. Cleaning the inside of the door jamb before painting (Fig. 9) and tacking the spray hose before painting (Fig. 10) so dirt particles picked up from the floor don't fall into the paint job help greatly. Tacking before painting the car (Fig. 11) and between basecoat applications also reduce contamination.
These practices can be performed quickly and routinely, and they'll quicken the paint prep process. Other paint prep practices that significantly reduce cycle time are taping the perimeter of the area to be painted (Fig. 12) then bagging the vehicle by placing disposal plastic film over it for overspray protection (Fig. 13), then making sure all tape is pressed down tightly so overspray doesn't creep underneath (Fig. 14). A technician can use a cut-down, plastic filler spreader to help tuck tape into its proper position (Fig. 15). Having the sealer, paint and clear mixed and prepared ahead of time will help improve efficiency.


Although it's important in all areas of collision repair, thorough inspection between each step of the repair process before moving on is extremely important in the paint department. Excellent painters inspect their work for quality following each coat before moving on (Fig. 16). The difference between a good painter and a great one is knowing how to prevent and repair paint flaws.


Following the paint job, the vehicle is prepared for delivery. Some shops use this efficient method to save time, materials and labor. The vehicle is taken out of the spray booth, and the protective bag is removed, but the masking paper is left in place. Doing this makes cleanup after detailing much easier. If any defects are found (Fig. 17), the detailer rolls the cart with all the needed tools (Fig. 18) to the vehicle and prepares to repair and polish that area only (Fig. 19). By leaving the masking paper in place, the mess made by detailing is caught on the masking paper, making final cleanup much easier. Preparation for delivery is completed much faster than if it was done the traditional way (by removing all the paper, polishing the vehicle, then cleaning it for delivery).

There are many small details that shouldn't be forgotten or overlooked to achieve significant decreases in prep time. By honing in on these details, higher profit margins can be achieved, even in the paint department.