Steel is the backbone of our country. It is the material that’s created our modern world and industrialized us as a nation. From fenders and bumpers to basic brackets and light bars, steel continues to be the go-to metal of choice for the automotive industry. While steel serves us well in its many forms and uses, we are constantly looking for ways to protect it from the elements.
At the OE level, this means a multistage-paint process and/or heavy-duty undercoating. For you and I, it’s painting or powdercoating our aftermarket parts. Both methods provide great protection when applied correctly, but there are pros and cons to be said for each. In this article, we’re delving into the paint and powder process to better help you decide which is right for rig.
Powder to the People
Unlike spray painting, powdercoating is a dry-coat process. This simply means that there are no liquids involved. While powdercoating does requires a few specialty tools and a very large oven (depending on the size of the parts), it’s considered to be more environmentally friendly because it doesn’t contain harmful air pollutants like spray paint. See? Now you can tell your trendy friends that you are doing your part to go green.
Powdercoating is nothing new, but the use of DIY powdercoat kits has expanded over the past decade. It’s important to note that nearly all at-home powdercoat kits don’t come with an oven, which is required to cure the powder. This means you’ll be sliding your bumper brackets on the same shelf as your green-bean casserole. This is not advised.
In the name of dinner preservation and simplicity, we still prefer to hand off our parts to a professional powdercoat shop. Given that powdercoating often has to be subbed out, it stands to reason that it is more expensive than a few cans of spray paint from Wal-Mart. So what exactly are you paying for anyhow?
To get a piece of metal ready for powdercoat, it is typically cleaned of any debris (generally requires sand- or media-blasting) and then treated with a chemical bath to ensure the metal is free of any oils. A slightly rough, clean, and dry surface is crucial for the powder particles to bond correctly. The next step is to pick the color and type of powder that you desire (there are almost as many varieties as paint). Most commercial-grade powders are comprised of tiny plastic particles. The powder is held outside of the spray room and fed through a clean hose that is dropped into the powder bag.
The hose is attached to a low air volume powdercoat gun (think heavy-duty hair dryer). As the powder flows through the end of the gun it becomes electrically charged. The positively charged powder then adheres to the part, which is attached to a rack that is electrically grounded at two ends. Once the powder’s base is uniform, the part is placed into a curing oven. Depending on the part, the curing times and oven temperatures will vary. As for the size limitation on what you can powdercoat, we’ve seen entire cabs and frames fit into large powdercoating ovens.
Once the part has cured and cooled, the powdercoating process is complete. Unlike paint, which can take 24 hours to dry, a powdercoated part can be handled and ready to install around 30 minutes after it has left the oven. A powdercoated parts finished layer can range in thickness, but 1 to 5 mil is typical. It’s the mil thickness that has created such a strong association between durability and powdercoating. Whereas paint can scratch and peel more easily, the thicker powdercoat tends to have a higher surface strength.
Paint By Numbers
Every red-blooded American should know how to use a can of spray paint. We’ve painted bumpers, brackets, and heck, entire vehicles, with little more than a few cans of paint from our local hardware store. Just because it comes from a spray can doesn’t mean that it has to look bad or amateurish. You can even opt for a color-match finish with paint-code correct spray paint from companies such as Dupli-Color.
Prep work is just as important here as with powdercoat. The big difference here is that you can do everything at home with paint. We’ve turned our home garage into a makeshift paint booth a few times. The key is to paint in a well-ventilated area where you can control the air flow. Trash floating in the air, even tiny dirt grains, cans gum up an otherwise nice paint job. Another part that people commonly have trouble with is the first coat.
We always start with a light basecoat, to avoid runs and heavy spots in the paint. A can of acetone to clean the surface, a few pads of sandpaper, and a bundle of Scotch Brite pads, will get your parts primed to paint. Old newspaper and a few rolls of blue painters tape are great to have as well (to prevent overspray from getting on your suspension components, wrap them in aluminum foil). Different from powdercoating, most paints need a primer base. A basic etching primer works great on tubing and an automotive-grade primer from companies like Rust-Oleum is fine for items such as bumpers and fenders.
How advanced and quality of a paint job you’ll end up with is largely based on the time you put into it the job. Spray painting is not hard. Sanding parts and smoothing out imperfections pre- and post-paint is time consuming and often tedious work. Flat paints tend to be more forgiving (will not show as many imperfections) and can more easily be touched up. If you mess it up, it’s just spray paint. Sand it down and try again!
While you can apply as many coats of paint as you like, the mil-thickness and paint composition will not be as heavy as powdercoat. This is not to say that paint won’t work great to protect your components, as its adhering quality when properly prepped is on par with powdercoat. Aside from being less expensive than powdercoat, probably our favorite thing about a rattle-can finish is that it is easy to touch up. Most of the time you can hit the damaged area with a little sandpaper and shoot the spot you need.
Location, Location, Location
The question of what to paint and what to powdercoat often comes down to location in the off-road hobby. While we rarely set out to damage our rigs, we understand that trail scars, dents, and general metal morphing are all fair game off-road. We also understand that not everyone wants to bash their 4x4 against rocks each weekend. The fact is, most people don’t intentionally set out to scrape their trucks against anything, but it happens.
For our rigs, choosing what gets powdercoated and what gets painted is pretty simple. If we know that we are going to consistently gouge and grind the part(s) in the dirt and against rocks, we are going with paint. Powdercoat is more durable overall, but doesn’t hold up well to heavy abuse. We are not talking about desert pinstriping or branch etchings, think more along the lines of a rock outcropping carving chunks out of your wheels, axles, and sliders.
We want to have the ability to easily touch-up our parts in need. Yes, you can paint a powdercoated part, but the mil thickness will be different. To fix the gouged powdercoat part correctly, we would need to recoat it, which isn’t a cheap, quick, or easy process. Engine components, small accessories, and even steps (not rock sliders) are all well served with a durable powdercoat finish. Possibly our favorite use for powdercoating is to bring new life to rusty or old parts. A light-texture finish can make pitted and decades-old parts look new again. This is a great option for old wheels and racks that have seen better days. In fact, if the parts or components are not directly in harm’s way (at least not routinely), we prefer powdercoat.