One dilemma that many owners of classic cars face at one time or another is how to make a repair to the body without affecting the originality and worth of the vehicle. A small dent or a mild crease on a custom-painted body is another situation that will make you wish there was some way of fixing the sheet metal without having to repaint it.
There are a few “N” words that you should learn, one is “N”ever use the word Bondo, “N”ever say “good enough” in front of a customer. And never, ever say “it will buff out.” Classics and vintage cars are not to be taken lightly, and if you cannot do the job perfectly, or the customer will not cover the cost of a premium job, then you both would be better served if you just pass on the job.
I often fight this dilemma myself because of my eagerness to do certain jobs, such as movie work. For example, I always wanted to build a mechanical great white shark, and I got the opportunity a few years ago. I was so excited about project that I agreed to make the shark do a big list of extra things without adding to the cost of the shark. In other words, the shark got the best of me! But once I said yes, I was committed to it and had to see it through, even as the labor alone far exceeded the price I agreed to on the project. What I should have done was distance myself from the project and look at it as just another job.
If you are doing the work for a profit, as are most people, you should start seeing how long it takes to do certain projects so you can get a feel for charging customers for your skill.
There is a “not so new system” out on the market called paintless dent repair and it is a way of using leverage and skill to remove dents from cars without having to use filler. The reason I bring it up is that it teaches you to read the dent and how to reverse the impact and iron the dent out by using your brain, not your muscles. There are a number of systems on the market that are all pretty similar. The process is mainly used for door dings caused by runaway shopping carts, kids on skateboards, or other minor mishaps. The system works best on small cosmetic blemishes that can be repaired in a matter of minutes in most cases. The technicians, as they are often called, will gain access to the area behind the dent and massage the metal back into place using slow wiping motions and light prying force on the back of the panel, “ironing the dent out” without damaging the outside painted surface. These technicians will study for many months to perfect this skill and wind up making a very decent living removing dents on cars with custom paint jobs. For car owners, a $50 dent repair sure beats a $2,000 to $4,000 bill for touching up a three-stage custom multicolored pearl paint job.
Small dime-size dents to full door panel dents can sometimes be removed in a matter of minutes. It’s pretty amazing to watch a trained professional perform this trick. In many cases, there is no evidence a dent ever existed. And the only evidence in other cases it a small black plug in a door jamb indicating paintless dent removal was necessary. Paintless dent removal may be the least invasive way to repair a dent. And for vehicles with custom paint jobs, paintless dent removal is often the only way to salvage the design. However, it is not an end-all cure and I would not expect you to run out and plop down $2,000 to $3,000 for the complete set of tools for the process until you learn a little more about it and its shortcomings. Yes, there are shortcomings and much of the training is in knowing what you can and cannot repair with the system.The paintless tools and methods are not foolproof and they do have limitations as to the type and extent of damage that can be repaired with them. The only bad knowledge is the lack of knowledge (grasshopper), so a trip to a paintless dent repair shop is an education in and of itself and something I would encourage for everybody interested in paint and bodywork.
Depending on the dent and the skill of the operator, you may be able to remove dents up to 6 inches in diameter, but the biggest concern is how much of the vehicle’s metal was stretched on impact. Stretched metal cannot be unstretched with any kind of pry bars and requires a different type of repair to get back into shape.
Another factor is the brittleness of the paint. Paint that is brittle may crack during the paintless dent repair. Some vehicles’ coatings take years to reach a brittle stage, while other paints come out brittle from the factory. If brittle paint is a problem, using a heat gun to warm a dented area may help.
Gaining access to the area behind a dent is normally not a problem, but it can be on some cars. Although every dent can be accessed eventually, some may not be worth the effort. What is the point spending 20 hours getting access to the back of a panel to remove a dent that only takes about 1 hour to fix from the front side with a bit of filler? That is, unless the car is a classic or custom and it absolutely has to be repaired correctly. Fixing a small dent in a hard-to-reach area is often tougher than fixing a large one.
While dents, dings and creases vanish in a matter of minutes at the hands of a pro with the proper tools, developing these skills is not an overnight feat. It takes a few months to learn the basics, and a few years months of continued training to become skilled at it. The absolute best way to learn is to watch someone doing it or get a how-to video, then put in a ton of practice.
The tools needed for this type of repair are very specialized. A set of basic tools can cost $2,000, and investments of about $3,000 are required for more complete toolboxes. Most of the tools on the market are similar. Among the more important ones are:
- Rods with multiple ends bent into various angles, or a single rod with multiple tips and adjustable angles. These can provide access to damaged panels.
- A fluorescent light or a reflective board. These show every wave, dent and mark on a vehicle’s body. Use the light to observe the dents and to mark your progress. As the dings disappear, the light’s reflection on the vehicle improves. With the light, the tool’s path is also monitored. Another idea is to make a filter that goes in front of the light that has slits cut in it for casting parallel lines that will reflect on the surface of the car.
Access the Dents
Before agreeing to perform a paintless dent repair, most experts will verify that the technique will repair the vehicle. If the metal is stretched or gouged, or there is just too much damage, the “expert” will pass on it and suggest you visit a repair shop. However, even if they cannot remove the dent entirely, they can improve it and this will translate into a lower repair cost at the body shop. If you are determined to get the damage repaired, try the paintless repair first and then continue from there. This will just make the rest of the job easier and you can mix techniques as you go.
Once you have decided to repair a dent, you have to figure out how you are going to access the dent. Hoods and trunks are much easier to get at than doors, but doors can be approached from below and most have weep holes to allow moisture to escape. These holes are great access points for the rods to be inserted through. Front fenders are a snap to access on most cars, and rear quarter panels are also accessible through the trunk or rear passenger area. Repairing the hood or trunk frequently requires removing noise dampening pads found on the underside and working through and around the cross braces that are on the underside.
Working on a roof requires dropping part of the headliner to access the panel.
In a worst-case scenario you can drill holes to access the panel and plug the holes later with plastic plugs made for just such a situation.
Under the Hood
For dent removal under the hood you will be dealing with three things: the noise-dampening pad (if there is one), a brace that will almost certainly block the path to the damage, and the bonding caulk between the hood and the brace that will often not allow you to get your tool in place to perform the repair. The pad is usually not much of a problem. It is normally easy to remove. If it is glued in place you may need to cut it to gain access to the damaged metal of the hood.
One you have access to the back side of the dent you will need to secure the hood. One technique is to use an adjustable hood prop that will allow you to adjust the work height. Place the prop under the center of the hood and evenly space two motorcycle tie-down straps on each side of the prop. Adjust the straps so no movement is possible. Then you can slide the dent removal tool through the brace, using what was a former obstacle as a helpful point of leverage.
Doors are easy because there are so many access holes in a door that you can use, including the window slot, that you will not have to drill any holes to pry against. If you use the window slot, be sure to place something against the window glass to spread the load and protect the glass from shattering.
Picking a Tool
Once access is established, select the proper tool. This will come with time and experience. I always hate it when someone says something like “use the right tool,” especially when you are just learning and have no idea what the right tool is.
First, figure out which tool has the length you need to get from an access hole to the damaged area. Take into account the length, diameter and tip size when choosing the tool. The diameter should be as large as you can fit in the hole so the tool does not flex too much when prying with it. Don’t use a tool that’s too big, however, or you won’t have room to move it around.
Let There be Light!
To start a repair, you will need a light source that will allow you to have a reflective surface to help locate the dent. For example, if the surface of the car is black and you hold a fluorescent light next to it you will see reflected straight lines on smooth, straight surfaces and clean, curved lines on shaped areas such as a fender. If there is a disruption in the fender, such as a dent or ding, the light reflection will give it away. It is best to have a light that you can mount on the car by a magnet or some other method so it can be positioned to allow you to view the reflection of the panel that you are about to repair. Position the light perpendicular to the damage. Working at an angle creates an optical illusion and makes it more difficult to locate the tip of the tool. Standing perpendicular to the dent is the beat method.
Now you can start the repair. The idea is to use repeating movements to duplicate the pressure that caused the damage in the first place. Remember, a lot of small pressures can equal a single large pressure. By applying pressure over and over again, you can slowly move the metal and paint back into its original position, in most cases without damaging the paint. It will take many soft pushes to reverse the damage because only a small amount of metal can be moved at a time, and this is where you will start to build a skill. You will no doubt get a feeling of satisfaction as you see the dent roll slowly out of the damaged area.
There are different types of damage and there is a preferred method for fixing each type. Oil can dents are reversed by slowly massaging the center of the damage. To repair a crease, apply pressure to the center of the crease using a motion that runs the length of the crease and slowly slide the tool along the crease until the dent is removed.
If you have a dent within a dent you should start with the smaller dent, repairing it to about 90 percent, then move out to the large dent. After the larger dent is repaired, move back to the smaller one and finish the 10 percent that was left over. The repair of the smaller dent may have been holding the larger dent in the panel.
The larger end of a teardrop-shaped dent should be repaired using the method for standard dents. Then the remainder of the dent can be treated as a crease and slowly worked out from the outside inwards.
Once the tip of the tool is located, move it to the center of the damage. Apply pressure in short, steady pulses. Watch the light bulb’s reflection on the vehicle. You should see the wavy reflected line start to follow the curve of the repaired body as you push the metal back into shape. The light reflection will be your guide.
Remember, you will be removing the dent from the outside inward. To help you with this concept, visualize the dent as a large bicycle wheel. Divide the wheel in half as you place the tool at the “tire” area of this imaginary wheel. Now draw the tool from the tire area to the center “axle” portion of the pretend wheel. As you draw toward the center of the wheel you will be increasing the pressure on the tool.
As the dent starts coming down in size, more force will be required to press it out. This is the point that you will have to be very careful to avoid pressing in the wrong area and adding to the damage. Keep the high pressure to the center of the dent and not the outer area, or you will distort the panel and have to resort to traditional methods of repair, including a repaint of the panel.
Also be very careful that the tool does not slip across the back of the panel, causing a crease that will be all but impossible to repair. Make sure the pivot point is not slippery. You may even place a rag over the edge of the metal to help guarantee that the tool does not slip. Move the tool in short controlled strokes.
After repairing a dent, you may be left with a few high spots. These can be easily pushed back flat again by using a small hammer and a tool that resembles a plastic punch or an oversized pencil. Some of these tools are designed with a variety of tip sizes. Another way to prevent high points is to wrap the rod tip with several layers of duct tape. This will help soften the tool’s force on the area. Remove the tape when you are nearing completion of the repair to help you finish up.
Once the repairs are made using the paintless dent repair (PDR) method there is little chance to rectify errors. It is a skill that will need to be perfected before you ever start on a customer’s car. However, for do-it-yourselfers who just want to work on their own cars as much as possible, it can be very beneficial to simply understand the basics and logic behind PDR. It is another tool in your bodywork arsenal.
If an access hole was drilled to allow the tool to be inserted, you will need to seal it with either a sealant or a plastic plug. These are available at most body supply shops and automotive paint shops.
After a PDR you may need to wet sand the paint down and buff the area out or, in a worst-case scenario, do a spot paint of the area.
A variety of paintless dent repair kits made by companies such as Dent Out and Dentool are available from Eastwood. These kits range in size from a simple starter kit to elaborate professional systems complete with special lights, picks, hooks, bars, punches and rods. Keep in mind that some conventional body tools can serve double-duty as a paintless repair tool.
The kit I’m using here does offer small dent repair and an affordable price
and it will work for some small dents.