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Painting Guide for Restoring Pontiac Trans Am and Firebirds (70-81)

One of the first things you notice about a car is its paint job. Your car is often judged, whether informally or formally, by the quality of its paint. And therefore, a high-quality paint job enhances all the bodywork that lies beneath it as well as the entire restoration. And, of course, the reverse is true. A substandard or flawed paint job diminishes the quality of a restoration, establishes a poor impression of the car, and negatively affects its value.


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THIS TECH TIP IS FROM THE FULL BOOK :

TRANS AM & FIREBIRD RESTORATION: 1970-1/2 - 1981

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The big difference among paint jobs is the body prep time and amount of sanding and buffing required to give the clear coat and paint the deepest shine. The amount of labor involved often has the biggest impact on the overall cost of the paint job. As most car owners can attest, painting a car is one of the most, if not the most, expensive stages in a restoration project. And while many variables exist, such as prep time, paint type, paint process, sanding and buffing, shop rate, and more, you should expect to spend $3,000 to $7,000 for good daily-driver paint job. But this isn’t a definitive range for a paint job; a concours or high-level paint job can cost $20,000 or more.

You want to do everything possible to ensure your Firebird or Trans Am receives the highest-quality paint job within your budget. To attain the best results, you should rely on a qualified professional restoration shop to prep, shoot, and buff your car. The following are some things to consider if you want to paint your Firebird yourself.

This 1973 Trans Am is in a paint booth. Prep work and taping off the car is a tedious process.

Painting is not as simple as it appears. If something appears to be done easily by someone who does it for a living, it usually is not. Having a professional shop spray your car may not be as expensive as you may think if you have done all the prep work. If the shop makes a mistake, it will rectify it at its expense. If you make a mistake, it is all on you. Repairing a paint job is not easily done. This is a critical decision you have to make.

Although you can perform a competent-quality paint job at home, you have to battle against contamination. A restoration shop has a professional paint booth; you probably do not. Constructing a temporary paint booth in your garage is an option, but it does not produce the same results. When you paint at home, you need to do everything in your power to avoid contamination and drips, runs, orange peel, or other problems.

As with the various levels of restoration, there are as many grades of paint jobs as there are types of paint. First and foremost, you need to determine how you will use your car. Second, you need to determine your budget so you can allocate the money for a particular type of paint job. And third, you need to know where the car will be parked. Will it be in a climate-controlled garage or outside and exposed to the elements?

If it’s a daily driver, weekend car, or a car that sees regular use, most people opt for a urethane paint job because it resists abrasion and sun damage and is far more durable than the original lacquer paint. And any of these paints can be matched to the factory color code so it appears as a factory original color.

Environmental Laws and Safety Considerations

Local and federal laws may prohibit you from painting your car in your own residential garage. You would be wise to not only check with your local law enforcement, but also the state environmental authorities. If the law allows you to paint at your residence, you need to take every precaution to protect yourself, your neighbors, and all property.

If you come to the conclusion you cannot properly ventilate the painting booth and control over-spray, have no shame in relying on a professional shop with a commercial booth and the necessary equipment. Painting is an expensive and exacting process that involves using hazardous chemicals. Bottom line: You must control the paint, and over-spray cannot be allowed to fly into the open air and leave your property. Do not ignore this advice! Paint overspray may blow into your neighbors’ yards and houses and can color anything in its path. Eliminate any possibility of paint mist floating about and overspray covering their house exteriors, cars, and anything else. Imagine what could happen if a cloud of overspray traveled into a neighbor’s yard and a child breathed in the paint or fumes. That kind of exposure is most likely not covered by your homeowner’s insurance; it would be deemed an illegal act. Additionally, if the state environmental police issues you a ticket, those fines could easily exceed $10,000.

Most painting products are combustible and you could seriously injure yourself or others, or worse. You also have the possibility of breathing the toxic fumes. At a minimum, you could get sick or, at the very worst, die. The long-term effect for exposure to paint fumes is not fully known. The hydrocarbons, solids, solvents, and other chemicals that are used in the mixing and manufacturing of these primers and paints can cause damage to your lungs and other parts of your body, not to mention anyone in the vicinity. In my opinion, it is simply not worth it to save a few bucks.

Paint Job Types

Now that you have decided whether to paint the car yourself or have a shop handle it, it is time to decide what level of paint job you want. The levels run from a driver-quality to top-level paint job. This is not to say that there is any difference in how your car is restored and prepped for paint. Every decision made from the time you start disassembling your car to performing metalwork and bodywork to priming affects the finished product. Paint reflects all the work done prior to the actual painting.

I have always said that you can do the proper bodywork and prep and apply a lesser-quality paint and the results look fantastic. However, if you do not follow the proper procedures and take shortcuts when performing bodywork and sanding, a high-quality paint will not yield good results. The correct prep is an absolute necessity. It is obvious when looking at a restored car whether the prep was done correctly or not. Under budgeting a restoration or attempting shortcuts usually results in a vehicle that is diminished in value. A well-done restoration usually returns some percentage of the investment when it’s time to sell.

The three types of paint jobs are driver-quality, concours-level, and top-level. These represent a wide range of paint qualities and financial investment. You need to determine the type of paint job that’s best for your restoration project.

Driver Quality

The term driver-quality is usually reserved for any paint that is one color covering the entire car and is consistent throughout. The type of restoration can affect the type of paint you choose. Enamels are the least durable and do not shine much. Lacquers are not available in their original formulations. The modern base/clear systems are urethane with lacquer origins. The most commonly used systems are base/clears because they offer original paint color replication (for the majority of colors) and ease of repair when damaged or scratched. Enamels are the least expensive and can be purchased for as little as $25 per gallon. The cost of a base/clear sys-tem can run in excess of $1,000. The cost of paint materials is usually tied to the quality of the materials. The prep and labor to apply the paint is the same no matter the type of paint. It really does not make much sense to use low-quality paint materials. A Maaco-type paint job or inexpensive collision shop respray is an example of a driver-quality paint job. It’s meant to protect the sheet metal more than it is meant to showcase the car. This type of respray is usually done with all the bumpers and trim installed, or what is commonly known in the industry as a “tape and shoot.”

A single-stage paint in Starlight Black covers this 1978 Trans Am.

These types of paint jobs could be single-stage (meaning no clear on top of the color) or clear coat. Paint material costs vary, but expect to pay $600 to $1,000 in materials for this type of paint. Believe it or not, reds and greens cost more than any other color.

Concours Level

This level of paint is needed to meet points judging criteria for restored cars competing in an orig-inal or concours-type show. This paint replicates the original finishes and sheen (or lack thereof) that an original car had. Most of the paints applied to Firebirds were single-stage lacquers and enamels that had little shine and varying degrees of orange peel throughout. These paints were also hit or miss in their applications.

A concours paint job attempts to replicate the paint so it appears as original; it also replicates all of the mistakes and faults common to the assembly plant where the car was built. This paint job takes much more time and expertise because special techniques must be used to make the paint appear factory original.

Concours-level paints replicate original finishes such as on this 1977 Special Edition Trans Am. This type replicates the original finishes and sheen (or lack thereof) that an original car would have had. Most of the paints applied to Firebirds were single-stage lacquers and enamels that had little shine and varying degrees of orange peel throughout. These paints were also hit or miss in their applications. A concours paint job is meant to replicate the paint to appear as original and that includes replicating all the mistakes and faults common to the particular assembly plant. This paint job takes much more time and expertise because certain techniques must be used to make the paint appear factory original.

This 1974 Super Duty Trans Am has Show Quality Paint. Achieving a top-level paint job requires many levels of prep starting in the finishing of the body work process. You start by block sanding the body to make sure the panels are arrow straight and the contours are perfect then you finish sanding with a 400-grit paper. Afterward you apply a primer coat and sand the body again using 600-grit wet sandpaper. Next, you apply a base coat of color and wet sand the color coat with a 1500- to 2000-grit sandpaper and then follow up with multiple layers of clear coat. The process continues as you wet sand the clear coat starting with 800-grit and transition to finer and finer sand paper in wet sanding until the desired surface finish is achieved. You progress from 1000-, 1500-, 2000-, 2500- to 3000-grits and ultimately the finish is smooth as glass. Power polishing two successive times is required with compound, finesse mid-level compound, and then finish with a hand polishing yields out-standing results.

Those techniques are generally secrets that are closely guarded by individual painters. However, most of the time, you can practice on old body panels until you feel you have the technique down and the results you want. Generally, the technique involves increasing the air pressure and adjusting the distance that you hold the spray gun from the body. The type of paint you use also can affect your technique. Obtaining the factory orange peel is best done by experience and practice.

If you really want the paint job to replicate the factory paint as closely as possible, you should take the car to a professional shop. A car owner typically selects this type of paint job for entering a national points judging contest or a concours d’elegance. You can expect to spend roughly the same amount in materials as the driver-quality job. Most of these paint job types do not involve clear coat because General Motors did not use clear coat until late 1981 and 1982. Bear in mind that if your car has a metallic single-stage paint, it cannot be wet sanded and polished because that will ruin the metallic flake and create a distorted and dull paint.

Top Level

I define a top-level paint job as “show-quality paint.” However, this term has been widely misused and does not mean what most people think it means. This refers to a level of paint job that has a deep shine to it and is nearly flawless. Obviously, this term is correct as used here. In this case, the show is not judging a vehicle based on its originality. Instead a car’s paint is judged on its quality, which is far better than the original paint job.

Achieving a top-level paint job requires many levels of prep, starting with the finishing of the bodywork process. You begin by block sanding the body to make sure the panels are arrow-straight and the contours are perfect; finish sanding with a 400-grit paper. Afterward, apply a primer coat and sand the body again using 600-grit wet sandpaper. Next, apply a base coat of color and wet sand the color coat with a 1500- to 2000-grit sandpaper, and then follow with multiple layers of clear coat.

The process continues as you wet sand the clear coat; start with 800-grit and follow through with successive wet sandings of 1000-, 1500-, 2000-, 2500-, and 3000-grit papers to smooth the finish out like glass. Then power polish with com-pound, finesse it with midlevel com-pound, and finally finish with hand polishing. This will yield outstanding results.

This kind of sanding and finish treatment is labor and time intensive, but it’s essential to attain the best finish possible. This means that the entire Firebird required an additional 9 full sandings over the entire body. For a Trans Am, at least 11 additional parts require the same sandings.

Now, add in the two entire vehicle power polishings, plus a hand-applied glaze. This all translates into dollars.

Choosing Your Paint Job Type

Before you order any materials or perform any work, you need to decide on the type of paint job you want for your project. Of course, your bud-get and the intended use of the car largely dictate the type of paint you select. For obvious reasons, the person applying paint to the vehicle needs to know whether driver-quality or concours-level paints should be used.

This decision is even more important with top-level paint. The painter has to apply four or five coats of color rather than the normal three because wet sanding removes mate-rial; you do not want to cut through the color to the primer.

The power polishings also remove material, especially because of the intense heat that is built up. A burn from a power polisher can require the entire panel to be repainted. The paint material costs associated with this type of base coat/clear coat paint can run $1,500 to $2,500, depending on the system you use. PPG, Glasurit, Dupont, and Sikkens are all good- quality paint systems. Custom paints can run more than $5,000 in materials only for pearl or candy paint.

All of these paint job types require skill to apply, and it’s no mystery why body shops have trained professionals to shoot cars. An amateur can spend a lot of money for materials, and if you do not have the aptitude to use the paint guns, booth features, and other materials, you do not wind up with a top-quality paint job. Even if you manage to measure and mix the paint and clear correctly, you need the knowledge and experience to apply the paint.

Another reason to use a professional is that if the shop makes a mistake, or you are not happy with the results, you have recourse that does not cost you additional money. If you make a mistake, you are on your own. I can tell you that paint is not where you want a mistake to happen. Repairing your own paint job mistakes are the most time consuming and difficult to overcome.

Another factor in choosing the type of paint job is how you plan to use the Firebird. If you put a top-level paint job on the car, you may be a lot more stressed about using it for anything other than shows. A door ding, paint chip, or careless scratch can result in an expensive repair.

A concours-type paint job probably resigns the Firebird to a life of enclosed trailers and climate-controlled garages and high stress at shows. A driver-quality paint job may not look the best, but it places a much lower stress level on you because it’s a moderate investment and doesn’t require constant vigilance and protection.

I believe that you need to be happy with the visual aspect of your Firebird every time you look at it whether it is in a garage or outside in a parking lot. Just remember: Paint can always be repaired. It is really not worth getting so stressed about something happening to your Fire-bird that you cannot enjoy your time with it.

Painting at Home

If you decide to paint at home, you can take steps to prepare the area. The first is to create your own temporary paint booth. You need to make it as clean as possible before and during the painting process; otherwise, the contaminants in the booth area get into the paint, and this necessitates touch-up painting.

If you have limited space, you will most likely cause dust or debris to get into the paint job, and that may be a good enough reason to have a shop paint it. You may also inadvertently brush up against the body with the air hose or your clothes. Mount as much lighting as possible all around and in both high and low spots to eliminate shadows.

Create Your Own Paint Booth

For a home paint booth you need at least 250 feet of heavy-duty, thick-mil clear plastic sheeting. The sheeting should hang from the ceiling to the floor on all four sides. You also need to cover the floor. The space you create with the sheeting needs to be at least 2 feet larger in every direction than the car to allow for proper movement while painting.

Once you have hung the plastic, tape off the entire area with a high-quality duct tape. You want the only airflow to come through the opening you create. Any outside contaminants are sucked in through any open areas if not properly taped. You are actually creating a vacuum chamber.

An explosion-proof fan should be mounted in an opening in the plastic wall opposite to where the air is drawn into the booth. This fan must be a sufficient size to move the air rapidly. The way to tell if you have enough airflow is to feel for the air moving when you stand in the middle of the booth. Place a high-quality charcoal filter before and after the fan to clean the air. These filters greatly diminish the smell so you don’t disturb the neighbors.

The opposite end of the booth requires a fresh air source with filters on both sides of the opening. These are ordinary paint booth filters. If your paint booth is in the garage, you can open the garage door high enough for the filters to stand in the opening. Be sure to tape all around the filters and outer openings to keep the incoming air directed through the filters. You want any air coming into the booth and exiting the booth to be channeled through those filters. Make sure you have a large Class B fire extinguisher in the booth with you.

Of course, you could also rent booth space at a body shop for a weekend when the shop is closed. That way you can perform the work yourself without creating your own paint booth.

Safety and Cleanliness

A high-quality paint job requires meticulous work, correct handling of harmful chemicals, skilled application, and adherence to safety protocols. But that does not necessarily mean you cannot do it at home: it does mean that applying automotive paint comes with a substantial responsibility.

You also need to recognize that painting is difficult to do correctly. To do it professionally requires a commercial paint booth and a great deal of equipment. For most paint types (enamel, lacquer, polyurethane), the materials are hazardous and expensive to manufacture. In addition, a large amount of preparation work is required for a quality outcome, but it also takes the mastery of several different operations, all of which are essential to a high-quality result.

Where the car is painted, or more specifically, its painting environment, has an enormous impact on the outcome, or quality level, of the paint job. Will it be a high-tech paint booth with state-of-the-art temperature and humidity control and filters for dust and overspray, or a damp and dusty cement-floor garage? Regardless of how well you clean the garage, some errant dust or debris can get into the paint at the most inopportune moment. As such, if you follow all the procedures and take all the precautions, you can complete a decent paint job at home, but you won’t achieve the same results as a pro in a commercial paint booth.

Selecting the Right Shop

On the surface, it may seem that a body shop and a restoration shop are similar because they both repair car bodies, but there is a huge distinction between the two. Most people are not aware of the differences between these types of shops.

Body Shop

Most body shops primarily repair modern cars that have been involved in collisions. Collision customers depend on their vehicles for daily driving and therefore are not concerned about a factory-correct level of repair or restoration. In addition, insurance companies dictate how much they pay for repairs, how long it should take, and what type of parts are to be used. As such, these shops are focused on efficiency so that the vehicle gets back on the road as quickly as possible.

I know a very busy and successful shop owner who is proud of the fact that he can deliver a car to the customer 11⁄2 hours after painting. Taking your Firebird to this type of shop is rife with perils because its business philosophy, focus, and priorities are not suited to classic car restoration.

In many cases, a collision shop takes on a restoration for filler work during slow times. That usually means that your Firebird has many different people working on the body during any slow periods. It is difficult to maintain a high degree of quality when that happens. One technician may feel that the technician before him did not do the job the way he would have done it. Then another technician may not care at all; he just wants to get it done and employs the methods used in the collision industry, which can mean shortcuts.

Most collision shops do not know how to properly deal with rust and fabrication. They may just apply body filler over the rust.

This is not to say that all collision shops are not capable of performing a quality job on your vehicle. It is just not their business model.

Restoration Shop

A restoration shop is dedicated to restoring classic cars to their original condition or to a customer’s specific requirements. As such, a restoration shop has a completely different approach and philosophy toward completing bodywork than does a collision shop. A restoration shop’s business model does not involve repairing daily-driver vehicles. A genuine restoration shop is set up to accommodate a wide range of restoration projects, and the planning and execution of the work is to achieve high-quality results that meet the customer’s expectations.

Do Your Research

When it comes to selecting a shop to perform bodywork on your Fire-bird, you need to do your research, visit the shop, and speak to former customers. And you’re far better off choosing a Pontiac specialist that has restored many cars. A shop that specializes in muscle cars requires some degree of learning curve. A shop that specializes in second-generation Chevrolet Camaros, for example, may have less of a learning curve. However, certain body pieces, the interior, and most of the mechanicals on a Firebird are not familiar. In particular, Firebirds were equipped with the Endura bumper material and the Pontiac engine.

Choosing a shop that has the experience with Firebirds can also reduce the overall costs because shop workers are not learning how to take your car apart and put it back together. They know all the weak spots and problematic areas; they have the experience to repair them properly.

Some unique examples for Fire-birds are the 1970–1973 Endura bumper and the fitment of the flares and spoilers on the Trans Am. If the shop has no experience with these, how can you expect your car to be restored correctly? A collision shop probably doesn’t have the knowledge to properly repair the Endura bumper and likely employs some other method that does not last.

Some unique examples for Fire-birds are the 1970–1973 Endura bumper and the fitment of the flares and spoilers on the Trans Am. If the shop has no experience with these, how can you expect your car to be restored correctly? A collision shop probably doesn’t have the knowledge to properly repair the Endura bumper and likely employs some other method that does not last.

A direct conversation is the best way to find out whether the shop you are considering does quality work or not. Visit the shop to watch an actual restoration in progress. This will give you information you need to make a decision.

Visit Car Shows

The best way to locate a good shop is to attend car shows. When you see a car that you like and that looks great (especially a Firebird), talk to the owner. Find out where the restoration was done and how the owner’s experience was with that shop. If the car was purchased restored, does the owner know who did the restoration? Are there any problems with the quality of the work? Any paint bubbles indicating issues with the bodywork?

I suggest that you do not consult only Internet forums to find a shop; the information can be unreliable and is not verifiable.

Choose Your Involvement

Paint and preparation may not be your strengths, or maybe you just do not want to do that work. You certainly have options, as there are so many other necessary aspects of a restoration that you can perform. Removing and installing trim can be done with care. Removing the interior and re-installing it afterward also may be within your abilities. Mechanical work, such as working on the engine, transmission, rear axle, brakes, steering, suspension and wiring, may be more suited to your skill set. In addition, many car guys already have the tools and facilities or can acquire the tools and learn the necessary skills to complete many mechanical restoration procedures.

After the body work has been completed, your car should look very similar to this. At this stage use a sanding block because hand sanding can leave indentations from the curvature of your fingers that you will not see until the car is painted.

You could also act as your own general contractor by subcontracting out the various parts of the restoration. Disassembling and reassembling the vehicle is entirely possible by most mechanically inclined people. Sending the body to a restoration shop, the engine to a machine shop, the transmission to a transmission shop, the rear axle to a mechanic shop, and the seats to an interior shop all are easily done once you have selected competent players and are comfortable with them.

You could even do all of this but have the restoration shop disassemble and reassemble the car. You can decide how you want the restoration to be done.

Panel Sanding and Cleaning

Before you actually paint the car, the bodywork must be properly completed so the paint has the best foundation for adhesion. Bodywork finishing requires meticulous work and a lot of verification because once you’ve sprayed the body it’s too late to fix underlying problems. The last sanding is at the 320-grit stage, the prep for paint actually starts.

Before you actually paint the car, the bodywork must be properly completed so the paint has the best foundation for adhesion. Bodywork finishing requires meticulous work and a lot of verification because once you’ve sprayed the body it’s too late to fix underlying problems. The last sanding is at the 320-grit stage, the prep for paint actually starts.

Prior bodywork should have used minimal filler. Today’s body filler is exceptional in quality and nothing like the old lead, which is no longer available in its original form. However, as with any product, if it is not used as directed, it is doomed to fail.

At this stage, you should obtain a sanding block because hand sanding can leave indentations from the curvature of your fingers; you won’t see them until the car is painted. Obtain good-quality 400-grit sandpaper, such as that made by Norton or 3M, and start sanding at one end of the vehicle. You need a good-quality spray bottle filled with water to spray on the panel as you sand. It is important to keep the panel liberally wet because you do not want to generate heat.

It is necessary to sand each panel in a forward-to-backward motion of 18- to 24-inch sweeps with light pressure on the panel. Do not worry about the actual measuring of the stroke you use; just use what feels comfortable. You do not want to sand in short strokes because that makes the panel potentially uneven. When you think you have completed a panel, run your hand over the surface feeling for any inconsistencies.

Once you are satisfied with the feel of the panel, wet a cloth with “DuPont Prep-Sol or PPG’s Wax and Grease Remover (PN DX330). Apply it liberally to the panel and, before it evaporates, look down the side of the panel for any waves. You are finished with this stage on that panel if you don’t see any waves.

Repeat this step for each panel. It is best to work methodically. For example, start on the right front fender, move to the right door, the right rear quarter panel, the trunk lid, and so on. On the larger panels, such as the roof, trunk lid, and hood, it might be more beneficial to apply the solvent on half of the panel at a time.

After all of the panels are sanded, it is time to clean the car thoroughly. All sanding residue must be removed not only from the panels but also from the edges, inside the engine compartment, inside the trunk, and inside the passenger compartments. Pay attention to the underside of the panels and the wheels and tires.

Contamination from missed debris is your enemy when it’s time to spray primer and paint. You want to make sure the body is as clean as possible. If you run into some rough-edge issues, use a red Scotch-Brite pad to knock them down. Open the doors and get into the fender edges. Every nook and cranny must be cleaned. Using compressed air also greatly helps to vacate unseen contaminants. This step should not be rushed, as cleanliness is critical.

Masking

The next step is to mask off everything on the car that you do not want primed. Removing primer over-spray takes far longer than masking and creates more issues than taking your time to tape off the car properly. Using a good-quality tape is of paramount importance.

Make sure that the edges of the masking tape are stuck down completely to prevent primer and paint bleed through. The tape should be 1/2-inch wide in most cases unless you are using masking paper for the larger areas such as glass, the trunk compartment, and the engine compartment openings. (It is acceptable to use a single-edge razor blade to trim the edges before priming). Make a practice of running your finger over every piece of applied tape to make sure it is stuck properly. Having bleed-through could require a re-prime or repaint of that missed area.

A proper tape job can be a full-day affair so don’t rush the process or underestimate the amount of time you need.

Do not forget the underside of the vehicle. Overspray on the subframe, floors, and suspension components requires substantial work to get them back into clean condition. Tape from the back side of the rocker panel lip with the masking paper on the floor. This helps prevent overspray.

Paint Type and System

The cost of paint materials, the time to apply the materials, and the type of restoration are the primary factors to consider when making a decision on paint type. Several types of solvent-based paint are currently available, including lacquer, enamel, and urethane. You can also choose a waterborne paint. Each paint type has benefits and drawbacks, so be sure to choose the best paint type for your project.

The type of restoration you are contemplating also can affect your paint type decision. Enamels are the least expensive but the least durable and do not have much shine. Lacquers are not available in their original formulations.

The base/clear coat systems use urethane with lacquer origins and are the most commonly used paint systems. Base/clear systems offer original paint color replication (for the majority of colors) and ease of repair when damaged or scratched. These paints are offered in one- or two-stage systems. A two-stage sys-tem needs an activator to dry while a one-stage system does not.

A one-stage system is the easiest to use and can be a suitable choice for a beginner. You need to mix the paint often with a thinning agent to attain the correct ratio for the spray gun, and then you can simply apply the paint. One-stage paints contain the color coat and do not need a clear coat. However, in many cases, one-stage paints don’t provide the shine and luster for as long as a two-stage system.

Two-stage products contain a base coat and require a clear coat. In addition, a hardener is added to the paint to set up and dry. In most cases, you are better off choosing a two-stage paint product with a base coat and clear coat applications because the clear coat provides vital paint surface protection so your Fire-bird’s paint job lasts for many years. If your car is a solid color, you may go with single-stage paint. However, if you use a metallic color, I recommend using a two-stage system. It is not feasible to wet sand a single-stage metallic paint because it can distort the metallic color. And I think that metallic looks best under clear coat.

As a professional restorer, I have found that clear coating solid blacks and whites is not necessary. If you do, the color tends to appear a bit hazy. The exception is with two-tone colors, such as on the Macho Trans Am. I always use clear coat on metallic paint finishes.

The clear coat has been applied to this Macho Trans Am in the booth.

Paint formulations have continued to improve over the years so your Firebird will receive a paint job that’s far superior in quality to the original paint. Although I am not advocating any particular brand of paint, some companies have earned a solid reputation for high-quality paint. PPG, House of Kolor, DuPont, and 3M are a few of the top brands available.

As with most aspects of car restoration, you get what you pay for, and painting a car is a sizable investment. The cost of the paint materials is usually tied to the quality of the materials. Don’t cut corners; buy the highest-quality paint you can afford. The prep and labor to apply the paint is the same regardless of the type of paint you are using. Currently, the most popular paints are acrylic enamels and urethane paints, but other options are certainly available.

Prime Time

After the car is properly taped, you apply primer. I recommend a high-quality primer, such as PPG DP50LF, because it is a light-sanding epoxy primer.

Just prior to spraying the primer, wipe down the body with Prep-Sol to make sure all contaminants are removed. The oils from your fingers can create areas where the primer does not stick; this is known as lift. Anywhere that your fingers and body came in contact with the car body while taping may not become apparent until well after the car is painted and assembled. Yes, it is critical that the body be clean!

The primer application process is really quite simple. Apply light coats and do not try to cover or hide all of the bodywork in one pass. After about three light coats, you should start seeing a uniform gray color throughout. On the fourth and then fifth coats, the application should be a bit thicker. You will block sand the primer so make sure that you have enough material to work with.

Let it dry thoroughly. Leave the tape and paper on for the block sanding process.

After the primer is dry, sand with a Dura-Block sanding block and 600-grit wet sandpaper. The 600-grit makes the panel really smooth to the touch. Be sure the body has no imperfections. The paint job makes every imperfection very visible if the block sanding process is not done properly. You need a can or two of black spray enamel for the guide coat. Spray a mist of black all over the primed areas.

Reapply black spray enamel and sand the panel again to make sure it is arrow-straight. This process can be extremely time consuming, but it makes a huge difference to the finished product. This is where the amount of work that went into the restoration shows because the results are stunning.

You block sand as before, panel-by-panel. As you complete each panel, you will see if you cut through the primer or if black paint is left behind. If you sand through the primer, bare metal or bodywork is evident, which means you have a high spot. The high spot has to be knocked down either by more sanding or performing metalwork to level the area.

If you see black paint, you have a low spot. That requires using spot putty or icing to level out the low spot.

Whether you have corrected a low or high spot, it is necessary to finish sand the areas and reapply primer.

Color Coat Process

Now that all the preparation is done and the primer has been block sanded, it is time to start seeing the results of all your hard work. This and every succeeding step require skill and patience because any mistake will be obvious and could potentially require the process to be redone. Because you should have already decided what paint you want, the next step is to make your car ready for the first coat of paint. If you chose a single-stage paint, there is really nothing else to do once you are ready to spray.

Every paint manufacturer has its own set of instructions and they should be followed to the letter. These companies spend millions of dollars to develop these products and the instructions are created by engineers who know how these chemicals react at every step of the process: from the time you mix them to the time they have dried on your car.

If you decided to use a base/clear system, you need to choose driver-quality or top-level application. The processes are similar with the exception of sanding between the color and clear coat for the top-level job. If you choose a driver-quality paint job, once the color coat is finished, you can go straight through to clear coat. Mix the paint in a measuring cup according to the instructions on the can. Remember that the shop air temperature affects paint. Using proper equipment such as respirators, a fresh air system, and proper ventilation all affect the outcome of your paint job.

Once the clear is applied anything left over in the color is sealed in. The clear process is pretty much the same as the color coat process. I commonly use a PPG product (DBU 2021) that costs more than $400 without the chemical additives. The clear is mixed in a plastic measuring cup and is subject to ambient temperature. The spray techniques include applying a very light coat on the first pass. The second and third coats are applied a little heavier after allowing sufficient time to dry. This is known as “flash.” The average time to allow the paint to flash between coats is 15 minutes at 70 degrees. (If the temperature is warmer or colder you need to adjust according to information in the product literature.) The fourth coat should be applied the heaviest. This coat receives many wet sandings and polishings. When you are sanding you are removing material. When you are polishing you are heating the material so you need enough material present to not burn through the clear.

If you want a top-level paint job you lay on a fourth coat of clear a bit heavier because of the wet sandings to come. It is common for the final coat of clear to run. These runs are not a problem as they sand out in the wet sanding process. After the paint has dried sufficiently it is time to wet sand. I generally wait several days after painting in warm weather. I often put the car outside in the sun and allow it to bake naturally. In colder temperatures I advise waiting at least a couple of months before starting the wet sanding process. You begin at with 1000-grit. Using the same type of Durablock as before wet sand each panel while keeping the panel and paper wet during the entire process. It is a messy job. Do not wet sand without using the block as the curves of your fingers will make indentations in the paint that you will not see until after the car is polished. I do not advocate using power wet sanders because you can’t “feel” the surface as you sand. I also believe that they lead to inconsistent sanding that makes the paint job look splotchy. After you have completed the 1000-grit stage, clean the car thoroughly. Make sure all of the sanding sludge in the cracks, crevices, and gaps are completely removed. Once that sludge dries it acts like concrete. You do not want to be chipping away concretelike slabs on your beautiful new paint job. The next step is to start all over with 1500-grit wet sandpaper and a block. Repeat the entire process. Depending on the level of shine you are after you can stop here for most driver-quality paint jobs. If you are looking for the deepest shine possible then continue with 2000-grit sandpaper and a block. Repeat the process. Next is to use the same techniques with 3000-grit. If you want to go further use a 5000-grit sandpaper. Repeat the process. Clean the car extremely well after this as you do not want any sanding residue during your polishing processes.

Using an HVLP spray gun greatly reduces the amount of material used and actually directs more material onto the car than into the air. Generally speaking, you should not use more than 2 quarts of color, and you should only need to spray three or four color coats.

The only exception is the 1978 Solar Gold cars, as that color does not cover as well. Solar Gold can require substantially more material because of its composition. Trans Am models use at least a quart more because of the flares, scoops, and spoilers.

Clear Coat Process

Before applying the clear coat, check the base (color) coat before spraying, even if you are not sanding the color coat as you would for a top-level paint job. This is the time to check for any bugs, hair, dust, runs, or any other contaminants before applying clear. These problems can be sanded out once the base coat has dried after 15 minutes or so (depending on booth temperature) and, if necessary, resprayed.

However, once the clear coat is applied, the color is sealed.

The clear coat process is very similar to the color coat process. Following is an overview of this process and techniques.

Apply a very light coat on the first pass. Allow this coat to dry, or flash.

The average paint flash time between coats is 15 minutes at 70 degrees F. If your temperature is warmer or colder, you need to adjust accordingly. (Information in the paint literature explains how to adjust specific flash times.)

Apply the second and third coats a little heavier.

You have the option of stopping at 1500- or 2000-grit paper depending on how deep you want your paint to look. Darker colors benefit more from really fine grits, whereas light colors do not.

The fourth coat should be the heaviest. This is the coat that receives many wet sandings and polishings. When you are sanding, you are removing material. When you are polishing, you are heating the material so you need enough material to not burn through the clear.

For a top-level paint job, I lay on the fourth coat of clear even a bit heavier. It is common for the final coat of clear to run. These runs are not a problem as they sand out in the wet-sanding process.

After the fourth layer has dried sufficiently, it is time to wet sand.

Wet Sanding

Once the clear coat has thoroughly dried (at least 72 hours) you can begin wet sanding. If you are going for a driver-quality result you may have to only lightly sand the clear to remove any dust or imperfections in the paint. If you are going for a top-level paint job you will wet sand multiple times.

The procedure is the same as previously outlined. You must start with a coarser grit (800) and move to finer grits at each stage.

I generally wait several days after painting when the weather is warm. I often put the car outside in the sun and allow it to bake naturally. In colder temperatures, I advise waiting at least a couple of months before starting the wet sanding process.

Again using a Dura-Block, sand each panel while keeping the panel and the paper wet during the entire process. It is a messy job. Do not wet sand without using the block because the curve of your fingers make indentations in the paint that you will not see until after the car is polished.

I do not advocate using power wet sanders because you cannot feel the surface as you sand. I also believe they lead to inconsistent sanding, which makes the paint job look splotchy.

After you have completed the 1000-grit stage, clean the car thoroughly. Make sure all of the sanding sludge in the cracks, crevices, and gaps is completely cleaned out. Once that sludge dries, it’s like concrete. You do not want to be chipping away concrete-like slabs on your beautiful new paint job.

The next step is to repeat the sanding process with 1500-grit wet sandpaper and a block.

Depending on the level of shine you want, you can stop here for most driver-quality paint jobs. If you want the deepest shine possible, sand again with 2000-grit sandpaper and a block.

If you want a top-level or concours paint job the next step is to repeat the process with 3000-grit paper using the same techniques. If you want to go even further, sand again with a 5000-grit sandpaper.

Cleaning the car extremely well after the complete sanding process is critical. You do not want any sanding residue when you begin the polishing process.

Polishing and Hand Glazing

Once you have completed the wet sandings to the necessary grit level, it is time to polish the paint finish. Polishing requires skill and you need to follow a process.

Starting with the coarsest-grit compound, you must be sure that you don’t allow the polisher to stay in one place too long, and do not exert too much pressure on it. Both are key to a successful polish. A wool pad is also necessary for this step.

As in every previous step, working panel by panel is the way to go. Polishing the top of the car is far easier because you don’t have to fight against the weight of the polishing machine. The sides create interesting challenges thanks to all of the Fire-bird’s curves. Holding a 14-pound machine on its side while applying some pressure and getting to every angled surface but not burning through the paint requires tenacity.

After the initial compounding, change to a foam waffle pad such as this 3M pad (PN 05723). Use a polish such as 3M Perfect It Ultra Fine Machine Polish (PN 06068).

A good-quality polisher is a must to properly complete the paint job. These are obtainable at almost any tool supply store. The polisher is a heavy piece of equipment and requires guidance so it does not burn through the paint. Although the weight of the polisher is not a factor for the top surfaces, it makes polishing the curved side panels much more difficult. Be sure the pressure is consistent for an even shine.

Once you have finished polishing the paint, it is time to thoroughly clean the body, especially the crevices. When these compounds harden, they are like concrete and are difficult to remove.

Once you are finished, the results of this process are evident. With a high-quality paint job, you can see the reflections of the scenery as if you were looking in a mirror. Another test is to look at your face in the paint, and if you can see every detail, that’s good. Any other type of paint job would have orange peel and lower reflections.

After polishing make sure the body dries thoroughly, and then remove the tape and masking paper so the edges can dry.

Finally, you hand-glaze the body. Use a product such as 3M Imperial Hand Glaze (PN 05990). As the name suggests, this is applied by hand. Use the same panel-by-panel approach. With a soft cloth or foam pad, apply the glaze with some force. Then, using a microfiber cloth, remove the glaze as you complete each panel. Do not apply the glaze in direct sunlight.

A single-stage paint in Starlight Black covers this 1978 Trans Am.

Written by Melvin Benzaquen and Posted with Permission of CarTechBooks

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