Body Work Basics | Touching Up the Tundra
We’ve all had it – that chip in the paint or dent in the side that isn’t really worth paying a body shop to fix but still annoys you. When I started doing body work in high school I quickly realized it was a skill that few people knew how to do or wanted to take on in their driveway. It’s intimidating and easy to mess up, but can also make for a cool learning experience if you have a car you’re willing to try it out on. I was lucky enough to be in auto shop for three years in high school, have a dad with experience in body work, and a truck that needed a lot of aesthetic attention. That being said, I spent the second two years I was in auto shop in conjunction with countless hours in my driveway learning how to pull and fill dents, blend and smooth filler and paint, and practice the patience it takes to do the job right. I ended up finishing the body work on my truck, smashed up the front end, did all the body work again, and then got too busy with college and my job to actually paint it. After college, I had a summer off of work and school for the first time in seven years so I spent it doing the same to my RSX, this time learning how to do a “professional” garage paint job.
Now that Kyle & I are looking to sell our Tundra, we looked around the body & saw many more smashed areas than we cared to explain to a buyer – all from the previous owner in our defense – so I decided to bust out my sandpaper and show you guys the quick and “easy” way to do driveway body work. I must admit that it didn’t turn out as beautifully as my car did because I no longer have the means to use professional spray equipment so I took a chance on touch up paint that comes in a spray can along with “professional” clear coat in a spray can. However, it did the job it needed to do and if you are just learning and don’t want to spend the money on a spray gun & the time building a garage paint booth, it’ll work. I’m gonna write out all of the steps I take when doing body work & if you want to see it visually, check out the video below to see how I did it.
Step One: Evaluate the Area
There are multiple types of damage that can occur to a vehicle and some are much easier to fix than others. If you have small dents such as that from hail, it would probably be best to get a dent pulling kit made specifically for that so you don’t have to mess with the paint. With this project, I chose to leave small dents and only tackle the larger areas so that’s what I’ll be speaking to. If you have deep scratches that are too large to fill with the store-bought brush-on paint, you’re good to start sanding (step 3). However, if you’re facing smashed areas – especially corners – you’re going to want to do some prep work before you start sanding.
Step Two: Prep Work
If you’re looking to tackle big dents or smashed areas, the next step is to pull out as much of it as you can before proceeding. Depending on the type of damage you have, a suction cup with a handle might pull it out most of the way. If not, you can pound the inside of the metal with a rubber mallet if you have the necessary leverage. If neither of these are an option, there is a tool you can invest in called a stud gun dent puller where you weld a small rod of metal on the deepest part of the dent and use a slide hammer to force that welded section of the metal outward. I found a complete kit of this on eBay for about $130 if it’s worth it to you to invest in doing it the most efficient way (in my opinion). If you want a cheaper route of that same concept, they make a slide hammer that uses a screw on the end instead of a welded rod. You will then have to sand down the hole that the screw made and fill over it instead of just sanding off the extra metal material the rod left, but it’ll run you less than $50. Otherwise, a mallet & suction cup can be your best friends! Either way, pull out the damage as far as you can without going past the point it was originally at. You want to close as many gaps between where it is and where it should be as possible so you are using the smallest amount of filler possible.
Step Three: Sand
When first going in on sanding down paint and surface rust, I go in with 80-grit sandpaper. Note that the larger the number of the grit, the finer the “sand” in the paper. 80-grit is pretty rough and if you press to hard on the paper while sanding, you can potentially cut grooves in the paint that you’ll have to sand even further to get out later. If you find that it is too rough, move down to 120 or 220 and sand until the area that had metal exposed is relatively smooth to the touch. You want as little clear coat/paint on the metal you’re going to fill or paint over as possible. Additionally, if the damage has been there a while and surface rust has formed, sand off all of the rust you can visibly see.
Step Four: More Sanding
Move down to a finer grit sandpaper – I use 320-grit paper at this point – and sand the clear/paint/primer until you get a bullseye effect. When a car is painted, the metal is sprayed with primer (usually grey), your color paint, and then a clear coat. When you are sanding with a fine sandpaper, you will be able to see each of these layers of product and you want the transition from the metal that you’ve revealed to the clear coat that you’re keeping to be a smooth and gradual transition. If you can barely see the different layers of product, you are going to have a quick jump from metal to clear coat and you will be able to feel that jump. Once you’ve sanded this way all around the area of damage, move down again to a finer grit and sand until the transition is as smooth as possible. The trick I learned is to take a shop cloth over your flattened hand and run your hand over the transition. This should emphasize any high or low points that need more work. When you’re done, use a wet paper towel or tack cloth to remove any dust from sanding.
Step Five: Fill
If you only had a deep scratch that couldn’t be filled with touchup paint, you don’t need to do this part – sanding should get it smooth enough to prime and paint. If you had enough damage to need to pull and now fill, you will need to get body filler, plastic applicators, and spot filler from an auto store or walmart even. I prefer Bondo which comes in a can that has the grey filler and a little container of red hardener. Mix the grey filler with a dab of the hardener and mix to get a light pink color. You will quickly learn how much is too much hardener because it will crumble and dry before you are able to apply it where you need it. Use the plastic applicator to fill the area a little higher than you need. If you are doing a huge spot that needs a lot of filler, do this stage in multiple layers, sanding in between.
Step Six: Sand Filler
Make sure your filler has fully dried! Then use a 180-grit (or so) sandpaper to sand down any obviously high spots in the filer. Move down to a 320-grit and sand – using the shop towel in between to gauge where to sand next – and get the filler as smooth and perfect as possible. One characteristic of filler is that little pits will form as it dries and as you sand. Use the spot filler to fill these pits after your first stage of sanding. Then sand more (are you sensing a pattern?) with a finer grit sandpaper (800), getting smoother and smoother as you go. Note that ANY imperfections in the filler/sanding will be emphasized when you paint so take your time with this stage!
Step Seven: Prime
Tape off any body parts that you don’t want painted such as the next panel or a taillight. Use a high quality auto primer to spray the area. When the primer dries you will quickly see if you need to revert back to steps five/six. If/when the primer looks good to you, wait for it to dry then take a very fine grit wet/dry sandpaper (800 is what I use) and wet sand the primer. This means you wet down the area and sand with the area always covered in water. Make sure you’re using wet or dry sandpaper and not just regular sandpaper or the paper will disintegrate. Do this until the primer is VERY smooth but you haven’t sanded it off. You basically just want to knock off any roughness.
Step Eight: Paint
This guidance is for if you are using a spray can of your stock paint color. That being said, the paint that I used (from automotivetouchup.com) specifically stated to not wet sand the paint (like you normally do with the primer). When I did this on the Tundra, I sprayed the area concentrating on where there was no paint and applied lighter and lighter as I went throught the layers of product up onto the paint I wanted to keep. It’s important to keep the can roughly 8-12 inches away from the body of the vehicle so the paint doesn’t run. Once the paint dries, evaluate if you’re satisfied with the coverage and look of the paint. If you are, you can move on. If you aren’t, apply another coat.
Step Nine: Clear Coat
Apply the clear coat evenly and thoroughly over the whole area you painted, feathering out the clear as you venture onto the original paint that you’re keeping.
Step Ten: Polish
Wait a couple days for the paint to fully cure, then go in with a high quality polish and microfiber pad and polish out the clear coat so you get maximum shine. I like to then wax so you get it as clear and shiny as possible, but that’s just a bonus!
Whew. Now that I write that out I’m seeing that it may be more involved for a beginner than I originally was thinking. If you follow these instructions and watch a YouTube video or two, I’m sure you could get it done & make it look pretty dang good. I would definitely keep in mind that you need to set aside a weekend or a few days to dedicate to this job as there is a lot of waiting in between stages and re-doing what you just did as you go through the learning process. Practice your patience and don’t get frustrated! Once you get the hang of the art of body work, it can be fun and super rewarding.
To see what I did on the Tundra, check out the video embedded below! X