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Professionally respraying a classic car is often an expensive undertaking – so Rob Hawkins explores some money saving exercises…

There are plenty of cheap alternatives to a professional respray, but many of them are not environmentally-friendly or are illegal. If you want a high standard of finish, then there are some aspects that cannot be compromised, such as using good-quality spray equipment, someone who knows how to apply paint properly and using a dust-free, temperature-controlled environment such as a dedicated spray booth with dust extractors and heat controls.

Providing you’re prepared to accept these costs, then surely there are some aspects of a respray that most DIYers can do themselves to help keep the final bill in the three-figure sum territory? We’re talking prep-work and post-respray assembly. However, there’s more to this than you may think.

The extent of a respray helps to determine exactly how much work will be required throughout all aspects of it. This is often based on a car’s history and what you’re likely to find underneath the paint. Ifm for instance, you’re faced with a Morris Minor that’s been painted several different colours throughout its life, it may be wise to strip all of this off and start again. Unfortunately, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. A bare metal stripdown adds several days to the job and could easily grow into a longterm project where the fully-stripped bodyshell is sent away for dipping, or covered in a paint stripper (e.g. Nitromors) to help remove all the layers of paint.

If you’re hopeful that the existing paintwork can be left in place, then a worthwhile starting point for a respray is to assess the condition of the bodywork, repairing any corroded panels and replacing or restoring any exterior trim that is damaged or has aged (e.g. bumpers, brightwork and light lenses). Spares specialists, owners’ clubs and even a donor vehicle are all useful sources for parts. The bumpers, light lenses and brightwork on the 21-year-old Mazda MX-5 that is shown being resprayed in our photographs were all replaced with parts from a scrap 54-plate MX-5. The later bumpers were easier to prepare for painting, the light lenses looked more modern and the brightwork was cleaner.

Removing exterior parts, such as light units, bumpers, badges, brightwork and door handles is essential for a respray, should you want to avoid unsightly gaps in the fresh paint. Doors are best removed to not only ensure they can be painted properly, but also so the door apertures can be painted.

Perfect prepping

The prep-work involved in ensuring the bodywork is ready for painting starts with rubbing it down. Assuming the existing paintwork can be painted over, then a 320-400-grit paper can be used to remove the shine from the existing paintwork and start to key it to ensure the new paint will stick to it. This type of work is timeconsuming and dusty (wear a breathing mask), but there are some timesaving techniques. A dual action or random orbit sander will cut down on the time.

Expect to pay around £40 for an electric sander, which is equipped with a dust bag or in some cases, can be connected to a vacuum cleaner. Some professional sanders include a vacuum cleaner to extract the dust, but such equipment costs several hundred pounds, although it may be possible to hire it.

Scotch-Brite pads can be used on many aspects of the bodywork where the surface only needs to be keyed because it’s in good condition. Door apertures that see very little wear and tear may only need a rub down with this material.

For areas of the bodywork that have deep scratches, marks and uneven surfaces, they will need to be repaired to ensure a smooth finish. This is where a lot of time can easily slip away, but the key to a successful respray is in the preparation. Filler is often the cheapest solution, which may need to be applied several times and rubbed down in between with 80-320 grit papers before a satisfactory finish is achieved. Stopper can be used to fill in pinprick size holes and tiny scratches. Primer filler (also known as high-build primer) helps to cover an area of bodywork that has been rectified with filler, ensuring it’s keyed for painting.

Etch primer is ideal for applying to bare metal. Stonechip is a useful covering for hiding minor imperfections along the sills and bottom edges of the doors.

Whilst the key to a successful respray is in the prep-work, the agreement you have with a bodyshop and the use of their spray booth is one of the most important factors for keeping the cost down. If they are willing to apply the final coats of paint, then the logistics of delivering the vehicle that may or may not be painted in primer need to be planned (if the existing paintwork has been adequately prepared and it won’t react, then primer isn’t always necessary). This may entail refitting all of the parts that have been removed to be able to legally drive the car to the bodyshop, or arranging for it to be transported. It’s worthwhile asking the bodyshop to inspect your prep-work prior to delivering the car, just in case there’s anything you’ve missed, or there’s more to do.

We’ve come across many restorations where the paintwork was going to be completed from start to finish by a professional bodyshop who agree to do the work when there is some spare time (i.e. when business is quiet), helping to keep the cost low.

In many cases, this never happens and the respray is never completed, leaving the owner of the car to take it elsewhere and pay a higher price.

It’s a slog to make that body beautiful

There’s undoubtedly a high level of skill in good-quality prepwork, so don’t assume that a few hours spent rubbing down the bodywork will suffice. Using the right materials and equipment can save hours of work, so it may be more expensive to buy your materials from the bodyshop, but at least you will be using the fillers, primers, abrasive papers and pads that should work efficiently and reliably. Similarly, if the bodyshop recommends specific tools (e.g. a particular make of sander) and they are expensive, it’s worth using them, but it may be possible to hire them from a specialist.

Ensuring the bodyshop does a good job isn’t always that easy. Assuming you’ve already negotiated a cheap price and agreed to complete the prep-work and reassembly, the bodyshop will be naturally wanting the car to spend as little time as possible in their workshop and spray booth. However, it’s important to insist on standards, such as masking-up, cleaning and degreasing before all stages of painting and a sufficient amount of drying time inside the heated booth.

There’s a fine line between showing that you’re keen to do a good job and becoming an unreasonably demanding customer, especially when the final bill is cheap, so offer to help whenever possible.

Once the paintwork has been applied and allowed to dry, it’s time to reassemble the car. If possible, have the car transported back home where you have the time and the tools to meticulously rebuild the car. The reassembly should not be rushed and it’s worthwhile making sure that every part that’s refitted is adequately secured.

The reassembly stage is where accidents need to be avoided to ensure the paintwork doesn’t get marked or scratched, but it’s inevitable that something will happen. Protect the bodywork with paper and masking tape when refitting large items, such as bumpers and doors, and ask people to help.

Return to the bodyshop once the car has been reassembled for them to look over it. They may want to polish and buff the paintwork, or at least show you how it should be done properly. It may be necessary to wet-flat the paintwork, which can be done before or after reassembly.

Was it worth the savings?

So how much money can you really save on a respray if you’re prepared to do as much of the work as possible? It’s probably easier to work out the costs that cannot be avoided. Budget for up to £50 for materials such as abrasive papers, filler, panel wipe, clean cloths and Scotch-Brite pads. An electric dual action sander costs from around £40. The cost of the paint alone is going to be at least £150-£200, depending on colour and the size of the bodywork.

If you manage to get away with a minimal amount of etch primer for any bare metal (usually on the edges of the bodywork) and high-build primer for repaired sections, then add another £20 or more to the costings. So materials could be as cheap as around £220, providing you don’t need to buy any equipment.

Negotiating a price for the use of a bodyshop’s £10,000+ spray booth, along with electricity and filters for their dust extractors, gas for the heaters and a salary for the person spraying, means you can’t exactly slip them fifty quid. It’s going to cost the bodyshop at least £200-£300 to break even when you factor in rent and rates.

Realistically, the bottom line for a budget but professional respray has got to be at least £500, and that’s assuming the bodyshop is happy to not make any money out of a job. Paying a little more may keep everyone happy, whilst remaining keen to do as much of the work as you can.

Case study: MX-5 make over Rob Hawkins

Towards the end of 2018, I was faced with a dilemma. My mechanically sound, rot-free 1998 Mk2 Mazda MX-5 had very tatty-looking paintwork. A professional respray involving all of the work from start to finish was going to cost upwards of £1500, which was three times the value of the car in its then rat-look appearance (if resprayed, it would probably be worth just over £1000). I approached a local bodyshop, Elite Accident Repair Centre of West Yorkshire (01924 443071, and discussed this dilemma. I suggested completing the prep-work and reassembly myself at a workshop nearby in the space of a working week, hoping they would roll the car into their spray booth, mask it up, apply the paint and hand it back. A tin of Porsche Viper Green paint left over from another job was going spare for £40, so I could already save £120 on costs. Assuming everything went to plan, a reasonable £420 including paint and VAT was agreed. Typically, it didn’t. My prep-skills weren’t as good as expected, so Elite stepped in…. More filler repairs were required to straighten out a warped wheel arch. I was happy for them to do this work to a better standard, so an extra 30 hours of labour was added to the bill at a generously discounted rate, resulting in the final cost doubling to £840. It was still far cheaper than what they would have charged at around £1500 or more, and the results look fantastic. If I could do it all again, I would have done the prep-work at home in my garage, hiring the tools that Elite use (their DA sander/vacuum costs around £800), buying the materials from them and paying them to visit and inspect my efforts. The costs probably wouldn’t have been much cheaper, but at least I would have learnt how to prep paintwork more effectively. Maybe that’s for another time, assuming they’ll have me back.


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