A Brief History of Automotive Paint


Since the early days of automotive production, paint has gone through many changes. In the ’20s, paint was very close to varnish and was either brushed on or (as in the case of Model Ts) doused with paint, starting at the top of the body, with a wide sprinkler head until it ran down the sides like a river.The paint was then captured at the bottom in trays to be reused.

Oakland automobiles, in 1924, were the first to be painted with a spray gun, thanks to dentist Dr. Allen DeVilbiss. In 1888 he invented an atomizer to spray medicine into patients’ throats. The doctor’s son, Thomas, expanded on the idea and created what is acknowledged as the first paint spray gun.

Paints improved, during the '30s, with alkyd enamel and nitrocellulose lacquer being commonly used. Enamel was tough but it oxidized and quickly dulled. Lacquer had more gloss but was prone to chipping. In some cases both finishes could be found on the same car—enamel was used on the fenders and frame for durability and lacquer covered the bodies where more gloss was preferred.

Throughout the ’50s nitrocellulose lacquers remained a favorite until acrylic lacquers were developed. The early '60s introduced durable acrylic enamels.

The popular choices were acrylic enamel and acrylic lacquer but there were significant differences between them. Enamel was tougher but application was far more difficult. Colour-sanding and polishing enamel was impossible so you got whatever came out of the paint booth. Lacquer was certainly easier to work with but it required polishing, which took time but the results were well worth the effort. As a result of these characteristics most repair shops chose enamel, while custom painters continued to use lacquer.

Things changed again with the advent of hardeners for acrylic enamel. Combining the best characteristics of lacquer and enamel, many painters believed that if a little hardener was good, a lot more would be better. The results were less than stellar, causing crazing and paint that came off in chunks.

Over time, painters discovered the best paint applications for each job and the ultimate ratio of paint product to hardeners and reducers in order to produce the paint jobs you see today. But your vehicle still won't come out of the booth looking like the show cars you admire. There will be minor imperfections in any fresh paint job. For a finish like glass, there are hours and hours of wet-sanding and polishing involved. So be prepared to pay extra if you want that showroom shine. For the average "daily driver" though, no wet-sanding is required.

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