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Being able to wet sand (or color sand) scratches and other blemishes that are too deep to be buffed out, is something that every detailer should be able to do if called upon. As a detailer, this added skill raises your level of professionalism, saves the customer money by keeping the vehicle out of the paint shop, puts you ahead of your competition who may not be able to perform this type of work, and adds a profit center to your shop.
Another aspect of wet sanding that can generate the kind of income that detailing alone cannot, is wet sanding the entire vehicle to bring the appearance of the paint to show-car like quality. While jobs like these may not be an everyday occurrence, it can be a niche that you can fill for the car enthusiast, show car owner, or a discriminating customer who demands perfection in the paint appearance of his vehicle.
Knowing the basics
Before a detailer attempts to touch a car with sandpaper, he must know exactly what will be happening once the process starts. During the wet sanding process, you are actually "shaving" the clear coat off the panel. Much the same as the Zamboni machine shaves off a layer of ice on the rink, sanding is the same thing. What you must remember however is that even the least aggressive method of wet sanding is still more aggressive than the heaviest method of compounding. If you are not careful at all times you run the risk of sanding through the clear coat into the base coat, and that spells trouble. Over-aggressiveness in sanding will mean a trip to the paint shop for the vehicle.
Type of paper and other tools needed
Sandpaper comes in many different grades. There is paper as aggressive as 60 or 80 grit for sanding metal or body filler. This is certainly not to be used on a painted surface. As the numbers of the paper increase the aggressiveness decreases. Don't be fooled however. A piece of 600 or 1,000 grit sandpaper can quickly do damage. A detail shop should have paper ranging from 1000 or 1200 grit as the most aggressive, and 2000- 2500 being the least aggressive. The reasoning is this: Anything more aggressive than 1000 can do far too much damage. You run a high risk of sanding through the clear coat, or not being able to remove the deep sand scratches from aggressive paper. Paper less aggressive than 2500 is a waste of time.
You may as well just compound the area. Finishing the job with 2000 or 2500 paper will mean fairly easy sand scratch removal when it comes time to buff.
You also need a soft foam or rubber backing pad so that the paper may be wrapped around this pad (not around your fingers!) The backing pads can be harder or softer depending on what you need to accomplish and how aggressive you want to be with a particular piece of paper.
You will also need a bucket of water to keep cleansing the paper. This removes bits of clear coat that have been sanded off that may clog the paper or scratch the panel. A water bottle is a good idea to keep handy to spray the area as you come upon it. A small rubber bondo squeegee to wipe water away and check your progress is also a good idea to have available, as well as clean towels and an air hose to fully dry an area you want to examine as you finish it.
If you choose, there are orbital air powered sanders made exclusively for color sanding. The sander is speed adjustable and some come with a water hose to continually cleanse the surface as you work. The sanding discs come in the same grade as hand sandpaper. This method will save time, but it is a more risky way to do the job.
Why sand an entire vehicle?
You may wonder why it would be necessary to sand an entire vehicle? Or, why wet sand a car after it has been painted? Shouldn't a new paint job look great? You may also ask that if wet sanding is so aggressive, how is it supposed to make the paint look better? Many vehicles have what's called "orange peel" in their paint. This is a hill and valley effect, or as the name implies, looks like the skin of an orange. Orange peel is caused by the clear coat not flowing or "laying out" as smooth as you would like. This gives a slight hill and valley effect that some people just don't like in their paint jobs. This effect will slightly diminish the overall gloss and clarity of the paint job, so some people choose to have this sanded out of the paint job to increase the vehicles shine.
Most factory paint jobs have some degree of orange peel, as well as many refinish paint jobs. Some paint jobs have other blemishes such as dirt nibs, dust, runs or sags, or environmental problems that have penetrated deep into the clear coat. In all these instances simple compounding or polishing alone will not eliminate the problem.
Wet sanding, followed by compounding and polishing is the only way to create that absolutely perfect finish. So, what's involved in doing this and how difficult is the process?
Before starting, ask lots of questions
Customers who will have this kind of work done tend to be very picky and have a good eye for paint. You need to ask the customer what his expectations are. Does he want total perfection? Does he want a totally flat finish with every bit of orange peel and every imperfection removed? How much money is he willing to spend?
If the car has been refinished, you should ask the customer what shop did the work and if you could speak with the painter. You would ask him what brand of clear coat he used. Some refinish clears have a higher film build than others, and some are easier to sand and buff than others. You would want to know how many coats were applied. If this information can be attained, it is very helpful for the detailer.
All this investigative questioning can help determine how much clear was applied to the car and how much can be safely removed in the sanding process. The rule of thumb is that refinish paint jobs have much more clear coat on them than a factory paint job. If a refinish paint job has 3 coats of clear or more, you generally don't have to worry about sanding through the clear coat. There should be plenty to work with. A factory paint job is much different. You cannot be that aggressive and the customer needs to know this.
Let's get started
After carefully evaluating the car with the customer, getting as much information as possible about the paint job, and determining the customer's level of expectations, you can get started. The first thing I like to do is take paint thickness measurements all over the car. I try to document this both for the customer and myself with a digital camera. I need to know what the film thickness is "before" I start to work on it. I also want to document for the customer how much is being removed. Next, I determine how many steps of sanding I want to do. Once I know what grade of paper I want to start with, I gather all my supplies and start the job
Sanding entire panel's vs. .Sanding scratches
When you sand an entire panel the method of holding the sanding block is a bit different than the way you hold the pad to sand a scratch. In sanding a scratch, you want to keep the area you are sanding to a minimum, so you bring the sanding block up on its edge a bit and sand in short strokes. This gives you better control and limits the amount of sanding. This is fine for a 6 inch scratch, but if you sand an entire vehicle like this, it will take forever! When sanding larger areas, you need to keep the entire backing pad flat on the panel as you sand. You should also sand in longer strokes to cover a larger area. Keep the paper wet and clean because it will clog with bits of removed clear coat and could cause deeper scratches than the paper would itself. Continue to dip the paper in a bucket of water often. Also keep track of the paper itself. Once it does not cut well anymore, turn it over to a fresh side, or get a new piece of paper. If you are sanding with an orbital sander, keep spraying the paper and the area that you are working on frequently to cleanse it. Change the sanding discs when they get clogged or do not cut anymore.
Constantly evaluate your progress. Periodically dry the panel and inspect it. What you are looking for is no gloss and no orange peel at all. If part of the panel still shines, you have missed a spot. Periodically take a paint reading. See how much clear coat you are removing. This is especially important if you are working on a factory paint job.
You want to finish the job with 2000 or 2500 grit paper. The sand scratches that these grades of paper leave behind are fairly easy to remove. If you started sanding the car with 1200 paper you need to gradually lighten the grades. You want to eliminate the sand scratches from the previous grade of paper. For instance, if you start with 1200 paper, you will need to go to 1500 paper, and then to 2000 paper. You can't skip from 1200 to 2000. Doing this will not eliminate the deeper sand scratch marks made from the 1200 grit paper. Once you have the entire vehicle finished off in either 2000 or 2500 grit, you can begin the buffing process.
Buffing to perfection
The whole idea of wet sanding the entire vehicle is to make it look absolutely flawless. The buffing step is critical to achieving this goal. Having the correct buffing products, pads, and of course skill in buffing, is critical to achieving a perfect finish.
With the entire vehicle totally sanded, it will have no gloss. It will look horrible! The goal now is to buff the finish to perfection, remove every single scratch and mark, so the finish is absolutely perfect. This will take many steps and many hours. Your first goal is to completely remove all the sand scratch marks. Subsequent buffing steps will involve swirl mark removal and polishing for maximum gloss and clarity. You can't be in a hurry in any buffing step or you risk missing some imperfections such as sand scratches, or any other blemish in the paint. It needs to be flawless.
Labor time and pricing.
Customers who are willing to pay for a service such as this will not accept anything less than perfection. You need to satisfy even the toughest critic. To perform work like this takes a tremendous amount of skill and time. What is it worth?
Perfection does not come cheap. The size of the car, how easy the clear coat is to sand and buff, the number of sanding steps required to make it perfect, and the number of buffing steps to remove every single imperfection and produce a flawless finish have to be calculated to determine labor time and price.
I have spent as little as 15 hours total to sand and buff a car and as many as 50 hours. There is no set time. You must get familiar with the entire process and how long it actually takes. Remember, if a small scratch is still visible, it's unacceptable. Somebody at some point will see it. It needs to be flawless!
A labor rate for skilled labor such as this should be at least $40 per hour. I charge $50. Multiply your estimated time based on the parameters I discussed X the labor rate and add a material charge for sandpaper, masking tape, buffing supplies, etc. Is a job like this worth $1,000- $2,000 or more? For most people, of course not. But for the people who only care about perfection, it's really not about the money. It's about the car.
Obviously you need to practice before you should work on a customer's car. Practice on scrap panels from the body shop. Make sure you can produce perfection on these scrap panels. Complete the entire process on the scrap panel and multiply the time by the number of panels on the rest of the car to attain your labor time. Or, sand and buff your own vehicle. Look at the results. Look for any little imperfection that still can be eliminated. Keep track of the time and always add into the estimate a bit of a cushion in case of difficulties. Every car is different and every customer is different. This is a service that can definitely not be menu priced. Its hard work and sometimes very stressful knowing what the car and paint job is worth. The customer has put his vehicle in your care. What is that worth to him? What is it worth to you?
Where to find the work
I have done some cars that have subsequently gone into shows. The exposure that the car gets usually leads to inquiries from other people who may have show type cars, or are thinking of painting or restoring a car. If the car you have worked on speaks for itself, people will call. Go to car shows. Examine all the paint work. Is it flawless? Could a car that you have seen been improved? I have seen many paint jobs that could have been immensely improved. I have also seen paint jobs that have blown me away because they were so immaculate. What was the difference? Skill and time.
Car clubs are a good place to advertise. They are filled with enthusiasts and fanatics who demand perfection in their cars. Custom car shops that restore cars may do great work, but do not have time to sand and buff their paint jobs. Approach those shops for the sanding and buffing part of the paint job.
This is a very small and elite market. However, there are not many talented people who can do this type of work. You do not need many of these types of jobs to make money. Speak to people. Let them know what you can do. Let them see what you can do. Customers who insist on perfection in their paint will not go to just anybody. They need a skilled professional. Let them know who you are and what you can do. At ABS COLLISION we offer any customer an opportunity to visit our facilities to view themselves however we do our work. So please call ABS COLLISION to schedule an appointment.
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