Color is one of your car's most defining elements. It's the sheen of its shine, however, that gives color its personality and attitude.
For most of rodding history, a non-gloss finish meant your car was wearing primer, and primer was just temporary while you saved your nickels and dimes for a paint job. Sure, some cars stayed suede longer than others, but most were eventually destined for some shiny stuff.
In the past decade or so, though, many rodders have started to see non-gloss finishes in a more permanent light. Some use suede to make a statement, a means of thumbing their noses at high-dollar paint jobs and establishing their rides as bona-fide, traditional-style drivers. Others have just come to appreciate the visual texture of an un-shiny sheen, so much so that they're mixing up pearl and metallic finishes without the gloss.
We wanted to take a closer look at this parade of suede and learn the pros and cons of life without gloss. So we talked to several painters and enthusiasts to get their input. Here's what we learned.
As long as most rodders can remember, primer has been available in three basic colors: black, gray, and rust oxide. These hues have always been rodding staples, but for many enthusiasts they're just a bit too common, too bland. One of the simplest ways to give primer more punch is to give it some color by mixing in paint toner. When blended into gray or white primer, toner can create a variety of soft, subdued, distinctive hues.
Customizers have used tinted primers since the '50s, though most agree it's a temporary finish since most primers will not hold up to the elements over time. The same tinting approach can be used with more contemporary primer-sealers, which are much more durable and corrosion resistant, but even these will generally deteriorate with time and exposure. The colors you can create using gray or white bases are also somewhat limited.
As the retro-rod and custom movement gained steam in the '90s, young builders like Cole Foster and Scott Guildner began experimenting with new ways to create suede and satin finishes that were not only more vibrant, but also durable enough for long-term use. One method was to spray the basecoat color from a basecoat/clearcoat paint system, but forego the clear, which is the part that gives the finish its gloss. This gave them access to a wide variety of colors, not to mention effects like metallics and pearls, which take on a completely different look without a shiny clearcoat. More recently, paint companies have introduced a new crop of low-gloss clears and flattening agents that allow painters to give basecoats more protection without the high-gloss finish.
Pros and Cons
There seems to be an underlying assumption that non-gloss finishes are cheap and easy-a simple way to put color on your car. In reality, cost and effort vary wildly depending on which approach you take, and there are tradeoffs in durability and upkeep.
Tinted primers are probably the least expensive and the easiest to mix and spray. Depending on the primer you use, they can also be somewhat forgiving over sanding scratches or less-than-perfect bodywork. The problem is that most primers are not durable when used as topcoats. They fade and deteriorate with sun exposure, and absorb moisture over time, which can lead to rust problems.
"With your tinted primers, if you get a year out of them in the sun, you're doing pretty good," says Jeff Myers, who runs Premier Body & Paint in Arkansas City, Kansas. He says tinted primer-sealers are better, and will often hold up for several years with proper care.
Obviously, care and environment are significant factors in the upkeep of materials that are not intended as topcoats. Keeping your car garaged and dry certainly helps prolong primer's lifespan, but not indefinitely. The problem is, you really can't wax primer to protect it. Primers also tend to scuff and stain easily, absorb oily and greasy fingerprints, and fade or get chalky with sun exposure.
Southern California bodyman Scott Guildner, of Guildner Kustoms, is responsible for many of the satin finishes on cars from clubs like the Choppers. He says he's had good luck with both finish quality and durability using PPG basecoats without the clear. One caveat to this approach is that the car's body must be straight, clean, and very well block-sanded, often with sandpaper as fine as 1,000-grit. That's because basecoat has enough sheen to reflect a wavy surface and highlight even minor sanding scratches, which are usually "hidden" under a color-sanded and buffed clearcoat on conventional paint jobs.
Even when the basecoat-only finish is applied well, long-term upkeep can still be an issue. "It mars easier," Guildner says, "and gets little scuff marks. And obviously you can't sand and polish it."
Tony Genty, whose satin '53 Mercury was featured in our February 2006 issue, says his car's blue and silver basecoat-only finish has held up well since being shot in 2003. "I can wash it with soap and water," he says. "I can use a quick detailer [spray-type wax] on it, no problem. I don't drive it every day, but it definitely holds up the elements.
"One of the greatest things about it," Genty adds, is that "it photographs like a million bucks." That's because harsh reflections and glare are virtually eliminated.
Myers says he had a much less satisfactory experience when he tried a basecoat-only finish on a friend's car several years ago. "It sun-faded bad," he says. Of course, the extremes of Midwestern weather may have played a part in that. Regardless, Myers now prefers using a flattened clearcoat to achieve the suede effect.
Myers says he has tried some of the ready-mixed low-gloss clears, but doesn't particularly like them. "The flat clears were just a little too shiny," he says. He prefers a Sikkens matte clear (which is made for bumpers and other non-gloss parts), to which he adds 40 to 50 percent Sikkens flattening paste. He has discovered through trial and error that it works best when the flattening agent is shaken in very well, not stirred.
Of course, no two painters follow the same recipe. Guildner says most of the low-gloss clears he has tried are too inconsistent, and he hasn't had much better luck with flattening agents. The one satin clear he likes comes from Pacific Coast Lacquer (PCL). "It's a lot more uniform," he says.
Both painters agreed that, while matte-finish clears offer more durability than standalone basecoats, they still have quirks. You can't polish matte clears if you want them to stay dull, nor can you use paste wax on them. Most will get a little shiner over time just from routine cleaning, especially if you use a chamois to dry your car. Any scratches you incur will show up white or chalky, and repairs or touch-ups can be tricky.
It's worth noting that a few products can make the suede approach simpler for those who don't care about color and just want a basic "hot rod black" finish. Several companies-including DuPont and PCL-now offer single-stage satin black products in durable polyurethane. We have also heard of people using industrial-type paints from tractor supply companies, camouflage black from military supply stores, or Trim Black, like that used on musclecar hoods in the '60s and '70s.
There's a bit of irony when you realize that durable, lasting satin finishes require as much preparation and upkeep as glossy paint jobs. Myers says he pointed that out to his friend Dennis McPhail when they were planning McPhail's latest project, a '56 Chevy. "If we're going to color-suede it, we might as well make it shiny and be done," Myers told McPhail. He says they would've spent the same amount of money on materials either way, and it might have even cost more to go matte.
The bottom line is, unless you're spraying temporary primer, the choice between gloss and suede is largely a matter of personal preference, not cost or skill. Some people simply favor un-shiny finishes and the distinctive way they capture and reflect light.
Interestingly, Genty tells us he never intended his Merc to wear permanent suede. He says it was going to get a glossy finish after he got it on the road and worked out all the bugs. Now, however, he really digs the blue suede, as do most of the enthusiasts he encounters. "I would say nine out of 10 people tell me never to paint it," he says.
On the other hand, Genty says, flat finishes can still carry a stigma. Despite the fact that his car is built with quality parts and first-rate craftsmanship, he says he still gets guys coming up to him saying, "Man, I love your rat rod!
Before getting its shiny finish (as seen in the February 2007 issue of Rod & Custom), Jeff
Tony Genty's Mercury wears a basecoat without clear on top. He says the finish has held up
The satin Chrysler Glacier Blue finish on Diana Branch's '32 sedan was done using DuPont b