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Collision: Spraying Waterborne Paints

I’ve been a painter for about 20 years and have been spraying waterborne paint for the last three years. And I’ll tell you what a successful transition from solventborne paint to waterborne is all about: attitude

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by Doug Goethe

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Lose the ’tude
I’ve seen all kinds of changes happen in this industry ever since I started working as a painter in a shop at the tender age of 17. Right at that time, we switched to HVLP guns. I also experienced our change from acrylic lacquer to acrylic enamel.

And I remember spraying waterborne in 1995 until the industry decided it wasn’t ready for it and the paint manufacturers fought it off. Change is inevitable, and it’s all about how you handle it.

Attitude is 95 percent of everything you do. I was very open-minded about changing to waterborne, and so the transition for me has been very smooth. But not everyone is like that. Some painters fought the switch to HVLP guns because they didn’t spray as much material out or you had to paint slower or they atomized the paint too much. But from my perspective, since I hadn’t used conventional guns that long prior to using HVLP, the HVLP guns were the ones I liked.

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Can a painter be just as productive with waterborne as he can with solventborne? It depends on his learning curve. I could spray 15 cars today much faster with solventborne than I could with waterborne. But there’s a comfort level you have to adapt to. Could I get the job done with waterborne? Absolutely.

But as all real-world painters know, you can abuse solventborne paint more than you can waterborne. You don’t have to abide by flash times between coats as strictly as you do with waterborne. Of course, the paint manufacturers give you guidelines for solventborne but you can stretch those guidelines and thus there’s more play room than with waterborne.

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We’ve all done it! With waterborne, however, you have to more strictly follow the paint manufacturer’s guidelines, and that’s where you may lose time in your initial adjustment from solventborne
to waterborne.

A Different Way of Thinking
What also helps the transition besides attitude is a deep knowledge of the refinish process. I’m not just a guy who sprays paint. I understand how paint works and I also understand all of the in’s and out’s of the refinish process from start to finish.

Couple that with the fact that I had no negative feelings about the switch to waterborne and it adds up to a smooth transition. But there a lot of guys who can apply paint but don’t really understand painting. There’s 100 of them who can probably apply paint as good as I can, but only 10 of those 100 probably can understand what caused die-back, solvent pop or fisheye.

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To troubleshoot in a high-volume shop, you have to be much more than a sprayer. Painting is the least of your problems next to organizing your day and managing your shop. The bottom line is that you have to change your way of thinking and the way you do things, and also slow down a little and relearn some things.

Most guys would probably prefer to stick to solventborne because they’re faster with it, even though they know waterborne works well. But 10 years from now, you may talk to painters who have only ever worked with waterborne who say that solventborne was junk.

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I don’t think it matters if a painter is older or younger, it’s still all about attitude. I have many painter friends who are 10 years younger than me or a few years older, but because they’re open-minded they’re not having any problems with waterborne. Now, a 45- or 50-year-old painter who has never used waterborne may be more resistant to it than a 21-year-old who is a blank slate and is ready to take on the world. Again, it comes back to attitude and being open to change.

Look at paint prep procedures today that are different than ones followed in the past. Everyone used to wet sand everything and mask a different way and use different products. Everyone used to color, sand and buff, but now the terminology has changed to “denibbing.” Equipment today is all much better, including guns, booths and spray suits. About 10 to 15 years ago, you would wet sand the whole panel with your water boots and water hose and sand and sand for an hour to get a car ready to buff. Today, guys are using DAs to machine sand cars in 15 minutes. The bottom line is that you have to be open-minded to change if you want to stay on the forefront of the industry.

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The other thing with waterborne is that you have to plan your day differently and be more organized. You have to be able to see three to four to five steps ahead. Not that you didn’t with solventborne, but it comes more into consideration with waterborne on your high-volume days.

If you ask a paint manufacturer, they’ll tell you that you use less coats and that waterborne covers faster. But from a technician’s standpoint, with solventborne you were able to stretch the rules more. When you put a coat of waterborne on a vehicle, it has to be completely flashed off or all the water has to be evaporated before you can reapply the next coat. If it isn’t, you’ll end up with a big mess toward the end.

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The Basics
Air movement is critical in aiding the drying process. If your booths are retrofitted with ceiling fans or blowers, that will speed up the drying process for waterborne. With solventborne, the manufacturers recommended that allow the paint to flash for five minutes between coats, but anybody who says they do that is probably lying.

The reason is because you can get away with double- and triple-coating solvents. No manufacturers will stand by that, though; instead, they’ll say it will void your warranty, but it happens all over the place. If guys actually did abide by the five-minute waiting rule, solventborne would be as slow as water. But they don’t. With waterborne, you have no choice but to follow the rules. The bottom line is solventborne is a little more user friendly because you can take shortcuts or use little tricks of the trade that won’t hurt the finished product.

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The technique has not changed a whole lot. It’s pretty much the same application and the same procedure – you hold the gun the same, point it at the car the same way and trigger it the same. You have to have a different gun setup, though, with different-sized fluid nozzles and gun tips and different air pressure. And you have to have the proper gun and equipment.

But different manufacturers will tell you different things. For example, with solventborne in the past, you would paint a fender and blend the door. And when you blended the door, you painted through the fender and then out toward the middle of the door. But one paint manufacturer is now recommending a reverse blend – painting the fender then going to the middle of the door and blending back toward the fender, which keeps the area of color smaller.

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As far as cleaning your gun, that has always been important. If you were rolling a car with paint, you wouldn’t want a lumpy roller. I believe a painter should take his gun apart and clean it thoroughly after every job. If you don’t, it will show in the finished product.
As far as paint prep is concerned, it helps to be much cleaner with waterborne. It may be more sensitive or react differently than solventborne if a panel isn’t cleaned or prepped as well as it should be. Also, you have to finish with a little finer grit sandpaper. When I would prepare a panel for blend with solventborne, I would finish with a DA with 800 grit. With waterborne, it might be better to use 1,000 grit.

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Rules Are Rules
Speaking of bending the rules, there are body technicians out there who think that adding hardener to filler will make it dry faster. But the manufacturer will tell you that if you add hardener, the filler will actually dry more slowly.

So let’s say you put two or three coats of solventborne paint on top of each other and let it sit for five minutes. The solvent evaporates fairly quickly but it’s not as flashed off as you would like, but still you clear it. The car looks great, you turn on the bake cycle, put the car outside and start working on the next one. You come in the next morning and notice that the paint on the car has died back a little or looks a little hazy, but you’re going to color, sand and polish it anyway because that’s your standard procedure.

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When you color, sand and polish it, the haziness goes away and the car looks great. So because you were able to put two to three basecoats on, clear it, bake it and get it out of the booth, you were able to do two or three more cars that day.

You can’t do that with waterborne. You can’t slam two or three basecoats on there and clear it quickly. After you put one coat on, you must get some air movement on it and let it dry properly before putting another coat on. You cannot clear that car until 100 percent of the water is evaporated. If you do, you’ll run into serious trouble. The clearcoat might not adhere to the basecoat. And you can’t just polish the car and make that go away.

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This December will mark three years that I’ve been using waterborne. When I started using it, there were other painters who had some experience with it but we all learned together. We stood next to other spraying panels. Now there are trainers out there with two or three years of experience who have good knowledge of the process. But there’s still a learning curve to it. It’s not like we’re the first generation of waterborne sprayers because some of us used it 10 years ago. But there’s still some tweaking to do.

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A big problem I have right now is that the temperature can get as high as 110 to 115 degrees. With solventborne paint, you have different speed reducers – slow, medium, fast, extra slow, extra fast – that allows you to control the dry time of the solvent. So if it’s 85 degrees outside, I can choose the proper reducer for 85 degrees. If it’s 110, I can choose the proper reduce for 110.

That all makes your paint perform properly. With water, you don’t have that luxury, but paint manufacturers are now introducing different speeds of waterborne to allow for faster or slower drying times. I struggled throughout the summer with waterborne not being able to change the speed of the basecoat drying. When it’s 110 degrees outside and you’re in a booth with a swamp cooler that only lowers the booth temperature by 15 to 20 degrees, you spray waterborne and, by the time it hits the panel, it dries almost instantly.

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It’s drying in the air because it’s so hot. With solventborne, you can slow it down to get it to lie down properly where it stays nice and wet on the panel and evaporates properly. Right now, you have to fight the waterborne harder, so we’ll just have to wait for technology and new developments.

I can train a guy as well as anybody else. I’m training the painter who’s working for me now and he’s doing great. He picked it up and ran with it and in two weeks was comfortable with it. Again, it’s all about attitude. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, though, and sometimes no one has an answer because everyone is learning together.

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Water is the way the industry is going and it’s not going to be a problem. The paint manufacturers wouldn’t change the industry’s refinish process if it wasn’t going to be successful and there was going to be massive problems. That’s all they spray in Europe, and they’ve been doing it for years. I know shops that are doing 15 to 20 cars a day without a hitch. It’s all about being positive.

One huge advantage of waterborne is how it reacts in re-repairs. Let’s say you paint a customer’s car and she gets in another wreck the following week and brings it back in. If you had originally sprayed solventborne, you would have to be careful because it wouldn’t be 100 percent cured.

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The new solventborne you would spray would want to attack the fresh paint you put on a week ago. The thinners and reducers in the solvent would want to re-soften what is already on the car and cause it to lift and wrinkle, so you would have to be careful. Or let’s say the car doesn’t even make it out of your shop because your body tech scratches the door when he tries to put the door handle back on. With waterborne, that problem is gone.

You’re not reducing the basecoat with an actual solvent but only a small amount of water, so it won’t attack itself. Therefore, you can paint like it was the first time.

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Paint manufacturers will tell you that you’ll use less paint with waterborne, but I disagree. Let’s say you make a pint of solvent and it reduced 1:1. Now you have a pint of solvent, a pint of reducer and a quart of paint. Let’s say that will paint a hood, two fenders and a bumper. With waterborne, if you make the same pint and reduce it, it will only reduce 10 to 20 percent. So instead of having 32 ounces like you did with solventborne, you have 20 ounces of waterborne, and so therefore it won’t go as far as the solventborne.

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You need about 24 to 25 ounces to go as far with the waterborne and you can with the solventborne. So you’re using more toner and much less reducer. Toner is more expensive than reducer, so now you have a higher cost. This industry already has a problem getting paid properly for paint and materials, but now lots of shop owners will see their paint bills rise substantially. That’s not the paint manufacturers’ fault because they have to follow the VOC rules.  

Full Steam Ahead
Change is inevitable, and one of those changes
coming fast down the track is waterborne. You have two choices: embrace it or fight it till the end. I embraced it, and as a result, I’ve moved forward with no looking back. Waterborne isn’t the first change our industry has seen, nor will it be the last. It presents a challenge to us all to see if we can conform and adapt to something new. If you take an open approach to it, I think you’ll be surprised how easy the transition will be. A

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Doug Goethe is the owner of Yucaipa Auto Collision in Yucaipa, Calif. He can be reached at (909) 797-0100 or
[email protected]

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