The Art of Paint Protection

Paint Protection has become the first stop for many new car owners. It consists of putting either a film or a ceramic coating on the car’s clearcoat that can protect it from UV damage and rock debris.

Twenty years ago, it was commonplace to see a car driving around with a black vinyl car bra. They stuck out, obscured the paint. It was a hard trade-off: either protect your cars paint by hiding it under a black vinyl cover or enjoy the paint and style of your car and accept some damage that will lead to a paint job being needed in the future. The new films have almost eliminated that harsh choice. Owners can have protection and still enjoy their car’s original paint, but paint protection comes at a cost. 

Juan Madrigal of ProteKive Coatings in Moreno Valley, CA is one such installer. He honed his skills working in the industry for years under the tutelage of experts. He has worked for West Coast Customs as their inhouse paint protection and vinyl wrap installer and regularly travels to multiple dealerships installing films on Mercedes, Lamborghinis, and Ferraris. “I was able to work at a high level, work on supercars, and that gave me more determination to learn and perfect my techniques”. He opened up ProteKive Coatings. Today he is using his skills to install paint protection on a 2018 Mustang Shelby GT350R. 

Paint protection should be placed anywhere that might encounter road damage. Typically, this means any areas that are pointing forward. There are three coverage options: partial front, complete front, and custom. 

Partial front coverage covers 1/3 of the hood, the full bumper, and mirrors. This is the most popular choice, but Madrigal says that the downside is that you will see the edge of the film on the hood. However, if you are leasing a car, this is the best option. Partial front cost around $600.

The next coverage option is “complete front”. It includes full fenders, full bumper, full hood, mirrors, headlights, fog lights, and in some cases a-pillars. This is the option that Madrigal recommends because it will appear seamless without any lines on the car, and it gives the most coverage, as well as protecting all of the areas that are most prone to debris. The complete front could range from $1600 up.

The new film options offer self-healing. They do not have a hardness factor, but because it is polyurethane it reacts to heat.

Custom applications can include any coverage on panels that are in addition to complete front coverage. This could include rocker panels, roof, or any other areas where extra protection is desired. This can even include full coverage or covering the entire car. Prices vary, but Madrigal mentions that for most situations “complete front coverage” is all the protection that people need.

Original films offer 9H (hardness). They are very scratch resistant. This is similar to what the original paint protection film was. It’s hard, and resist most rocks. The downside is that after multiple rock hits it may start to show wear as scratches and tears in the film will be evident.

The new film options offer self-healing. They do not have a hardness factor, but because it is polyurethane it reacts to heat. A scratch or a tear will mend itself, so any damage will repair itself. The benefit of this is that scrapes and tears will not be as noticeable.

Additional coverage areas can include Windshield protection and Ceramic coating.

Windshield protection is relatively new. ClearPlex by Madico is an optically clear 4 mil protection film. It absorbs the impact of standard road debris like rock chips and pitting, leaving the glass in pristine condition.  It also offers a 9H hardness coating, similar to the glass protection film on your cellphone. Although it won’t save your windshield for something large like a deer, it will stop those pesky cracks that end up causing you to replace your windshield.

Ceramic Coating is another paint protection option that does not include installing a film. Ceramic Coating or Nano coating, places a semi-permanent coating on the paint that seals and protects. The coating offers a 9H hardness, so it will protect against minor abrasions and strikes from rocks. It is also hydrophobic so water will fall right off of it. Its main benefit is UV protection, protecting against swirl marks when cleaning. Being semi-permanent it will wash away after about a year, so think of it similar to a semi-permanent wax that needs to be redone to keep the benefits of its protection.

Installing paint protection involves letting a stranger take a sharp knife and cut film directly on your car.

The first thing that Juan does is wash the car thoroughly. He uses a pressure washer and a foamer to coat the car in soap suds that lift up any dirt and debris from the paint. This step ensures a clean surface for Juan to install the film onto. 

The film comes in 60” wide rolls. For most cars, like the GT350R, the patterns for the fenders, bumpers, hoods, and other areas are precut on a machine. Pre-cut patterns that are sourced from a company that 3D scanned a similar car, so match the car perfectly. For cars where no pattern exists, Juan takes a sheet of film from the roll and manipulates it to the shape, making a custom fit piece of the protective film.  

The film is first laid out on a table. It is sprayed with a water soap mixture that will later help Juan manipulate the film on the paint. Without the soap solution, the film would be too hard to move around. 

He sprays the panel before placing the film down. Juan then picks up the film and lowers it on to the body panel. He starts wiping at the edge with a squeegee blade. He wipes to force the water solution out from under the film. He continues to wipe, spraying frequently to keep the film wet. A slippery surface stops him from applying too much pressure on the film. It also ensures that it is applied evenly. When he gets to the corners, Juan switches spray solutions. He selects a water and alcohol mixture that promotes tackiness in the film. He uses the tackiness to deal with corners or sharp angles where the film would want to slide or lift-off—like on edges. After the film is down he rubs the edges wiping his finger back and forth, this raises the temperature of the film, helping it to stick. 

The precut film has cutouts for vehicle adornments like vents or emblems. They are so precise that you can barely see the edge of the film next to the GT350 fender emblems. There are areas where Juan chooses to make his own pattern by just using a sheet of film and cutting and shaping it to the pane. For the hood, Juan chooses to make his own pattern. 

Juan makes his own pattern by cutting a large piece of film that he cuts from the roll. He lubricates it with the same procedure as before, wetting out the film itself and then spraying the hood. He places it down with lots of excess film reaching over the edges. He then starts wiping, starting at the back of the hood and removing the water from the edges. He works his way towards the center removing as much water as he can. Prior to the installation, he removed the hood vent so that he could tuck the film underneath it for a seamless finish. As he gets closer to the vent, things start to get trickier. The GT350R’s vent slopes down with multiple rising contours on its sides. The film inherently wants to bridge these features rather than adhering to them, so Juan has to work the film, massaging it and stretching it with the help of the alcohol solution. Eventually, after constantly working the area the film clings to the paint surface. It is a timely process; the entire hood took about 1-hour. He cuts the excess film and curls it around the edges so that the edge of the film remains hidden. The hood is now protected.

Now let’s talk about the elephant in the room, or the knife in Juan’s hand: installing paint protection involves letting a stranger take a sharp knife and cut film directly on your car. I know that sounds insane, but an expert has been trained to cut only so far, never letting the blade completely cut through the film. “Blades are a necessity. There is no getting around it. Our blades are carbon constructed blades that give us a very sharp edge to be precise with our cutting”, Juan says. “The point or the art of a true professional is that he has learned not to cut the film, but only to score it. There is an audible screech that you hear when the film is cut correctly. That sound is the film letting you know that you are cutting at the perfect angle and correct pressure point”. All of this is to say that although cutting is a part of the process, an expert has been trained to wield their blade similar to a surgeon with his scalpel. It is an art and they have mastered their blade cutting skills. In the hands of an expert, you paint should never meet the sharp end of the blade, so take a deep breath, and place your faith in an experienced professional. 

Juan wipes the windshield with an anti-static wipe before spraying the glass. He cuts a sheet of ClearPlex film and drapes it over the windshield. Cutting the film to the size of the Shelby’s windshield is the first step, Juan does this by slicing the film along its edge with a razor. Since polyester does not stretch as much as the polyurethane paint film, he must use heat to get it to mold it to the glass. Keeping the film and glass wet, he shrinks the material to conform—“wet-shrinking” the material to fit to the glass. 

People are used to seeing finished cars with paint protection. They are always surprised when they are told that the film needs to cure.

The film is not actually stuck to the windshield yet, he is just making his pattern and forming the film. Once he is done, Juan pulls the film off and places it on a sheet of glass that is affixed to one of his shop’s walls. This vertical workspace allows him to work the film. He sprays it and prepares to install it onto the car. Back on the car, he wipes the windshield, squeegeeing it to remove any contaminants or debris that may be present. He then sprays the windshield again. With the film stretched by David Jensen of ClearPlex, Juan peels off the film’s liner to reveal the adhesive backing. He then lays the film onto the glass and starts wiping it down, permanently affixing it to the windshield. With the film already shaped, it lays perfectly. He continues to wipe, pushing the water out from underneath and setting the adhesive. With each wipe, the film starts to disappear—blending perfectly into the glass. When Juan is finished, the ClearPlex is invisible. No one could tell that the windshield now has a 4-mil protective polyester film installed on it.

People are used to seeing finished cars with paint protection. They are always surprised when they are told that the film needs to cure. With all of the spraying of water, there is a lot of moisture that is involved. Despite all of the wiping, Juan says, “We can only get 90% of the water mixture out. We need heat to help dry it out. You need to have sunlight and temperature”.  

It takes about a week of sitting in the sun for the film to cure. In that time, bubbles and any water should disappear, if they do not then any imperfections are addressed by either fixing that area, using a super small syringe to remove any moisture, or removing and reinstalling that section. Installers like Juan pride themselves on the finish, so they are happy to fix any areas that did not cure correctly.

Armed with this information you can look into paint protection as a way to ensure your car’s finish from road debris, UV rays, and oxidation. It’s the protection that comes with a 10-year warranty and may be able to save you a paint job. Depending on your coverage option, the price varies, but no matter what find a competent and experienced installer that you trust to hold a knife to your pride and joy. 

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