When I restored my 1958 Apache, I painted it myself using ordinary acrylic enamel with a hardener in it. I didn't want to sink $10,000 into a professional paint job, and I knew I could make my relatively cheap paintwork look dazzling with a couple of modern products the pros use. And yes, I know the new basecoat-clearcoat urethane systems are beautiful and tougher than the old finishes, but you need a proper spray booth and a fresh air pack to spray them because of the paint's toxicity. That's why I stuck with the old tried and true, but I doubt you could tell the difference.
Years ago, people painted cars with lacquer or enamel, sanded them with 400-grit wet-and-dry sandpaper, and then rubbed them out with fairly aggressive compounds. This produced a pretty nice finish, but it still left a lot of spider web scratches, and it took a lot of paint off in the process. But thanks to 3M microfine sandpaper that comes in 1,000- to 2,500-grit, you can now achieve a beautiful, smooth finish without taking off too much paint. And thanks to Tom Horvath, inventor of System One polish, you can have a show-winning finish in just a few hours.
Tom is renowned for his Pebble Beach-winning paint jobs, and he owns a body shop in Anaheim, California. Until recently, he kept his polish secret, but the demand for it became so great that he started manufacturing it. He came up with the idea for the polish after seeing an optometrist polish scratches out of precision plastic eyeglass lenses with a special high-cost compound. Tom figured out how to use the same superfine aluminum oxide abrasive in the optical polish in a water-based solution safer for painted surfaces and less expensive to make.
The result is his System One polish that can buff out a vehicle to a show-winning finish with just one solution and a couple of pads. Anyone who has been around the paint and body business knows that the old way involved three or more compounds and a fair amount of skill and experience. That's all changed now because you can do the whole job safely with one compound in half the time it took the old way. Also, though designed for pros, System One is perfect for amateur restorers like myself who want to make a cheap paint job look good.
This truck's cab has been...
This truck's cab has been polished using the System One technique, but the bed (left) is still as it was shot from the spray gun.
On my old Apache you can see...
On my old Apache you can see where the orange peel and blemishes in the paint have been polished away.
A paint gauge will tell you...
A paint gauge will tell you if there is enough paint on your truck to allow polishing.
But don't try this on a new vehicle with factory paint, because the manufacturers have figured out ways to paint cars using very little paint, and then bake it on so it will last. A modern truck might only have 2.5 to 3mm of paint on it, so any polishing could thin the clearcoat layer and ruin its UV protection. But a restored classic or custom truck can usually benefit from being polished out.
A typical repaint job will be between 13 and 25mm thick. And while a 13mm-thick paint job will look a lot better after polishing, a 17-25mm paint job will not only look better but last longer if it is polished out. That's because thick paint expands and contracts at a different rate than the metal underneath when placed in the sun, and as a result it eventually cracks. You may not even notice the little cracks until rust forms underneath and opens them up.
So how do you tell if your truck's finish is thick enough to polish out? That's easy. Just pick up an inexpensive magnetic paint gauge at your local automotive paint store and test your paint. The further up you can pull the gauge before its magnet becomes unstuck, the thinner the paint is. You can read the gauge on the side of the magnetic base. Paint will usually be thickest in crevices and thinnest on tops and hoods.
Assuming you have enough paint on your old hauler, you can make a marginal gun finish look great, and you can make a good professional paint job look even better. Here's how: Start by washing your truck carefully using a good car wash solution and water. Any grit or dirt left on the finish could make scratches that are hard to get out. Next, it's a good idea to tack rag the car as an extra precaution, and perhaps even use detailer's clay and water to remove any impurities in the paint.
To start the process, fill a bucket with clean water and put a couple of drops of dishwashing detergent in to help soften the sandpaper's edges. Now place several sheets of 2,000-grit sandpaper in the water and let it set for about half an hour. Wrap a piece of the sandpaper around a sanding pad and begin sanding. Never use microfine paper with just your fingers without a pad, because you will make grooves in the paint if you do.
Here is the System One kit...
Here is the System One kit we used to buff out my old Bow Tie hauler.
Detailer's clay available...
Detailer's clay available from auto parts stores will help remove fine impurities.
Put a few drops of dishwashing...
Put a few drops of dishwashing liquid into a bucket of clean water, then throw in the sandpaper.
Use plenty of water on the surface (a running garden hose is good) and start sanding the car. Do not press hard on the sandpaper, and when it dulls, discard it and wrap a new piece around your sanding pad. Use only short strokes (no more than about five inches long) so you won't make long scratches if any grit gets under the sandpaper. Use a squeegee periodically to draw off the water on the paint surface, and check your progress. Keep working until all the orange peel and light scratches are gone.
This process can take a day on a full-size truck, so be patient and don't try to rush it. Put some oldies on your boom box and settle in. Never color-sand sharp corners such as the edges of hoods or door skins because there is very little paint on them. If you are at all worried that you might accidentally go across such edges with the sandpaper or a buffer, tape them off with masking tape to protect them. When you have gone over the whole car completely, wash it and tack rag it again to make sure it is clean.
For the next step, you will need a variable speed buffer. DeWalt makes a good one, and so does Makita. But whichever brand you buy, make sure it is a variable speed type. Old pros who know what they are doing can use a high-speed buffer safely, but an amateur will ruin a paint job in a hurry with one.
Pick up a System One polishing kit. It contains the buffing compound, a glaze, three different grades of buffing pads, a microfiber finishing rag, and a CD outlining the whole color-sanding, buffing and polishing process in detail for professional body shop clients. As we said before, this kit is intended primarily for body shop pros doing high-end paintwork, but the company is happy to sell their products to hobbyists, too.
Always buff your car in a well-lit, clean area, whether inside or out. It is important to be able to study a vehicle's finish from a number of angles, and that takes bright, even lighting. Dark-colored vehicles can be a special challenge. Florescent lights are good for finding spider web scratches, but a bright overcast day is excellent, too. Bright sunlight can be a problem, though, because you could be dazzled by the shine.
All you need for most paint...
All you need for most paint is 2,000-grit microfine sandpaper available at automotive paint stores.
Let the paper soak for 30...
Let the paper soak for 30 minutes, then wrap it around a sanding pad.
Keep the surface wet and lightly...
Keep the surface wet and lightly sand using short strokes to avoid scratches.
Start by using the sheepskin number one pad on the buffer. Apply a small amount of System One compound (about the size of a quarter) to the surface or the pad, because this stuff goes a long way. In fact, if your buffer is throwing polish everywhere, you are using too much compound. Besides, this compound won't burn the paint the way conventional compounds will. Also, place the buffer on the spot of compound so it spins it into the pad rather than out of it and all over everything.
Set the buffer on the slowest speed and slightly tilt it toward the working surface-this will get easier to do as time goes on-and work a surface area of about four square feet. Only use the 12:00, 9:00, or 3:00 o'clock positions on the pad to do the work. Also, tilt your buffer so you are buffing off of (away from) sharp edges along doors and hoods rather than onto them so you don't take off too much paint.
Though you do not moisten the pad with water before using System One like you do with some other polishes, never let the buffing pad go dry of compound. Dry buffing is when there is no polish on the surface or on the pad. This condition will burn the paint and can be a very expensive mistake. Also, keep the buffer moving across the finish to avoid heat buildup, and don't apply a lot of pressure. Just let the buffer and the compound do the work.
Never flat buff with the whole pad on your truck's surface, because you can easily lose control of the buffer. As you begin to buff a surface, you will be surprised at how rapidly it comes to a beautiful polished shine in such a short time. If you have buffed before, you will be amazed at how quickly System One polish works. That's because it is made with fine aluminum oxide rather than the diatomaceous earth in most cutting compounds.
Be critical of the entire area you are polishing, and look carefully for very fine scratches. Continue to buff until you no longer see them. You will wind up with a highly polished surface, but upon close inspection, you will still be able to see a very slight scratch pattern left by the pad and the polish. This is in fact 7,000-grit spider webbing that will appear as a subtle sort of angel hair haze.
Use the sheepskin pad first...
Use the sheepskin pad first and set your buffer on its slowest setting.
Next, go to the number two...
Next, go to the number two foam pad and do the whole truck again. Then finish with the ultrafine yellow pad.
Go over the vehicle lightly...
Go over the vehicle lightly using the sponge in the System One kit.
Change to special foam pad number two and again apply a small amount of polish to the surface. Continue to buff about four square feet as before. You will soon develop a tremendous shine that really looks dazzling, but we're still not quite there. Next we are going to develop that incredibly deep, molten look of show-quality paint.
As you work, keep an eye out for scratches. At this point they are going to be extremely fine, but if you see any coarser straight-line scratches that you missed with the original buffing pad, change back to the sheepskin number one pad and take them out before going on. But keep in mind that the more you buff with the number one cutting pad, the more paint you will take off. Finally, finish buffing with the number three, fine sponge buffer pad.
At this point you will be looking at a stunningly beautiful finish with just a little residue on the surface, because you have not yet dry buffed using the microfine cloth included in the kit. This residue will come off quickly and easily with the special cloth, so do not be tempted to touch the surface with an ordinary Turkish towel, because it will scratch your work if you do.
By this time your classic will look dazzling, but to bring out the final richness and depth, wipe on a little of the new System One Body Armor. Then give yourself a little oh and ah time to appreciate your car's finish. You'll be delighted at how good it looks. And if you keep the truck indoors under a cover and only drive it occasionally, then you can stop here, because a hard wax will only build up and dull the finish if you maintain it in the traditional way.
If your old hauler will be used regularly and will sit outdoors frequently, apply a quality carnauba wax with no cleaners in it and rub it in gently. Don't continue to apply wax in order to build up a thick coat, though. It will protect no better than a thin coat of wax, and the heavier the wax is applied, the more pressure is needed to remove it, thus causing more scratches. And contrary to what you might think, a thicker coat of wax will only dull and yellow the surface.
The only reason you would ever need to heavily apply wax is to cover up errors. And if there are still fine scratches in the surface of your hauler's finish, they should be dealt with in the proper way by more polishing. Otherwise, you will simply mask your mistakes. Old paint, marginal paint and even good paintwork straight from the gun can all be made beautiful using this technique, and once it is done, all that's required is a little routine maintenance for your classic truck's finish to last years and years.
Finish by wiping the truck...
Finish by wiping the truck down with the microfine finishing cloth to remove any residue.
A toothbrush or other fine...
A toothbrush or other fine brush can be used to remove any residue from cracks.
Here's the author's truck...
Here's the author's truck after polishing.
The author heading to the...
The author heading to the Saturday night cruise.
The rear view of the '58 Chevy...
The rear view of the '58 Chevy Apache looks every bit as nice as the front or side view after polishing with System One.
Put the polish on so the material...
Put the polish on so the material will spin into the buffing pad rather than away.(left) Tilt the buffer slightly and buff with the areas at 12:00, 3:00 or 9:00 o'clock rather than trying to buff flat.(right) Tilt the buffer so you polish off of edges rather than onto them so you don't remove too much paint along the edges.(bottom right)