When you’re preparing to modify your car, one of the things you’re likely thinking about is color. Creating a new color scheme, or applying colors to traditionally monochrome parts of the car like the alloy rims is one of the simplest ways to change the car. It requires no new parts, no cutting or other physical alterations to the car’s form; it’s something that can be changed again in future should your tastes change.
Painting and Powder Coating
There are two principal weapons that you can employ in the task of changing your car’s color scheme. The first is traditional car paint, and the second is powder coating. Despite both of these being capable of altering the color of various car surfaces and components, they share myriad differences in their makeup, method of application and ultimate uses. In today’s article we’ll be exploring the differences between the two coloring methods, and the specific benefits and drawbacks that each brings to your modification project.
What is Car Paint?
This one should be fairly familiar to most or all of our readers, since paint has applications across our everyday lives outside of the automotive world. Car paint typically comes in liquid form, but is of an order far higher than the paint your kids use in their finger painting at home. Car paint usually exhibits the following properties:
- Very dense and heavy, appearing viscous due to high content of binder
- Great adhesiveness, but requires primer
- Creating a gloss, matte, metallic or other effect when applied to the car surface
When car paint is applied during car modding, it is sprayed onto the surface in layers until the desired effect is achieved. Outside of an effective spray delivery system and protective clothing and face mask gear, there is no need for any other particular specialist equipment.
What is Powder Coating?
You’ve likely heard of powder coating, or can imagine roughly what it is, but perhaps you’re not 100 percent certain. As the name suggests, powder coating involves spraying a dry powder over the surface of a component, which it then subsequently sticks to thanks to an electrostatic charge.
Powder coatings can be made from a number of materials, such as acrylic, epoxy and polyurethane. Once the powder has been applied to the surface, the object is placed into an oven and cured for at least 10 minutes. As heat in excess of 400 degrees is applied, the powder coating starts to melt, forming a hardened shell-like surface around the object, completing the overall effect. The melting allows the polymer ingredients to retake a form similar to that you would find in plastic surfaces on household appliances — smooth, clean and durable.
Differences Between Paint and Powder Coating
Now we come to the main point — what is the difference? It’s clear that the two are both designed to color and coat a metal surface, but what other differences exist?
The most obvious difference is the form that the two coatings appear in when used. Paint arrives and is used in liquid form. Depending on what kind of paint you’re are using and for what job, the paint you use might first need to be thinned by adding thinner to form an applicable paint solution. In short, paint is a “wet” form of color application.
Powder, on the other hand, is a “dry” form of application. The powder is electrostatically charged. It is this charge that helps it to cling onto whichever surface it is being sprayed. This brings us neatly to the second difference.
One thing that will be needed in paint application is primer. The primer chemicals need to be applied to the surface first, which acts as the main adhesive force to hold the paint in place when you apply it. Without the primer, there’s no reason for the paint to adhere properly to the slick, clean metal surface. All of this on top of the very thorough cleaning you have to perform on the surface before you even begin the painting process.
Although the surfaces will have to be cleaned as thoroughly as if you were going to spray paint them, preparation for powder coating is much simpler. Powder coating does not require any additional adhesive material in order to stick to the metal surface. Charged particles of powder travel through the spray gun and then their “mirror charge” helps them stay in place on the surface once there. It means absolutely no other solvents are required to prepare the surface. The raw metals provide the other side of the charge that we need for attraction to occur.
Another big difference between the two is usage. Paint is most often used as the coloring method for car body panels, the hood, bumpers and other large parts. This is because it is easier to use paint on these than powder coatings. Once the component is prepped, it can then be sprayed and left to dry — job done.
Powder coating tends to be used for smaller individual components. The main reason for this is that powder coatings require curing in an oven before they can be completed. Needing all this special equipment means that the ability to powder coat is hard regardless of what size component you are coating. It’s not something the everyday modder would have in their garage.
In addition, powder coatings are often used to color those parts of the car that need additional protection. Alloy wheels are very often powder coated rather than spray-painted. Since the wheels bear a lot of the brunt of road debris, dust and other contaminants, it makes sense to provide a coating that gives more protection. See point 5 below for more.
4. Ease of Application
Speaking objectively, paint is easier overall to apply than powder coating, even though it requires more layers and drying time. Even with multiple layers, including layering adhesive solvents before and clearcoat after, paint remains easier to apply. Whether it’s primer, the paint itself, or clearcoat, the basic method remains the same. It’s repetitive and time consuming, but it’s not complex. The most advanced piece of gear you have is the spray gun. Better yet, paint is self-drying, so once you’ve applied each 15-20-microgram coating, all you have to do is wait until it’s time to do the next one.
If you were to attempt powder coating at home, however, we would first hope that your garage or other workspace is large enough. Besides the spraying equipment, you also need to have an oven that you can use for curing the powder coating. This is an essential step that cannot be skipped. The heating process is what gives the powder coating its robust strength and firm finish. In addition, if you want to benefit from powder recycling, then you have to have the necessary equipment to collect and process that, too. In short, powder coating is a very industrial process, and not exactly “home-friendly.”
Because you don’t need so much extra equipment, painting is also a much cheaper process altogether than powder coating. You have to pay a major premium in equipment and space to achieve that finish yourself. The alternative is to hire a professional to do it for you, which creates additional expense.
If you’ve ever done any kind of paintwork on your car, even just to fix a small chip or minor abrasion, you’ll know that it all happens in layers. If you were to brush or spray a single coating of the basecoat liquid paint, your work would be quite ineffective. Paint has to be applied in multiple layers for the application to be effective. Even once fully applied, the layer won’t appear or feel as thick and robust as a powder coating.
Once a powder coating has been applied evenly and then heated, it forms a thick, strong layer that is much less susceptible to cracking or peeling than paint is. Even to look at, the powder coating appears to have a shell-like thickness quality about it, whereas sprayed-on car paint will always look like the same metal surface but with color.
When applied, the thickness of both paint and powder coating can bring some drawbacks. As you apply layers of paint, it’s very hard to achieve uniformity across each layer and every part of the surface. This leads to dripping, and “orange peel” after it dries. Similarly, if powder coating is not applied at the right thickness, it too will create a bumpy and unappealing look like the skin of an orange.
6. Post-Application Appearance
As we mention in the introduction about paint, there are many finishes you can achieve with car paint. Even when using a single color, there are multiple finishes that suit many tastes: matte, metallic, gloss and others. This gives users of paint more options when it comes to what their surface will look like.
Powder coating, on the other hand, while having many color options available, doesn’t offer the same range of finishes that paint does. Having one finish also means powder coating compares less favorably to paint when you consider what badging, signage or other additions have to be added to that surface. The more varying finishes of paint mean that users can pick certain finishes that better complement their particular usage. New powder coating product are promising new finishes, however, and it might not be long until you have as much diversity in powder coatings as you do in paint. See the video below to see what can happen when you combine spray and powder in innovative ways:
One extra point worth mentioning here is the ability to customize the color styling. While it’s possible to mix powder coatings and achieve interesting and diverse effects, it’s nothing like as easy as with spray paint and you can’t achieve the same multi-color impact. When you’re painting a component, adding specific effects, color mixes, graphics and other elements is relatively simple. This is another advantage of favoring paint over powder coating.
7. Efficiency and Versatility
The sad truth is that paint is a wasteful product in just about all its forms, including car paint. Let’s say you are spraying the hood of your car. Everywhere you spray is bound to create at least some overspray. That overspray will land on protective coverings, as well as your floor or wall, depending on the exact makeup of your workspace. Overspray is to be expected, but the key difference between paint and powder coating is that you can’t reuse paint overspray.
Powder coating can be reused. Industrial setups will include a device called a hopper. The powder hopper will collect excess powder so that it can be reused. It’s not simply a case of reloading it into the spray delivery system and reapplying to a metal surface, though. Powder particles that have been ionized once are smaller than those of the original powder form from which they came. You might get one additional attempt at surfacing your component, but these smaller particles may have to be used in different ways.
Very often, mixed powders are collected in the hopper and then used for different things. The material is actually still quite versatile, even if it has become somewhat useless for that particular coating application. For example, mixing the powders together with black pigment creates a simple, neutral powder color, which can be then used as a protective coating for components that need protection, but aren’t on display. The waste powder can also be melted down for plastic parts, or even used as an additive in cement. It is truly a versatile material.
Paint should not be discounted as lacking versatility, however. One clear advantage paint has in this regard is that you can use it on plastic components as well as metal ones. You can’t put plastic in the oven, after all.
One more issue related to efficiency is timeframe. You will need longer to complete a paint job than you would a powder coating job. Some paint coatings require overnight drying before you can apply the next layer. While some products allow that time to be reduced, the general rule of thumb is that a longer time between coats is better. With powder coatings, on the other hand, you can cure the coating within about 20 minutes. A component being powder coated could be removed, coated, cured and replaced all in the same day.
Even though mankind has made great strides in making paint less toxic and less harmful overall to the environment, it remains more damaging than powder coating. In fact, every time you apply a coating of spray paint onto your vehicle, you are releasing toxins into the atmosphere.
There are greener options when it comes to paint. You can select waterborne paints that contain fewer volatile organic compounds (VOCs). By reducing these, we reduce the amount of toxicity that is released into our atmosphere. The slight problem, however, is that these paints are more expensive to purchase and will require a different procedure to apply. They also do not feature the same glossy finishes as their traditional paint siblings.
Powder coating, on the whole, is a lot more environmentally sound. Not only do the powder coatings contain few VOCs, but the general process if faster and less wasteful. Even when you factor in the extra energy you need for heating/curing, the speed of the process and lower requirement for powder quantity makes it easier on our environment.
Paint or Powder? Which One Should I Use?
As you can see from above, both paint and powder coating have numerous applications and combinations of benefits and drawbacks. If money is no object and you have access to the right facilities, then there’s no reason you shouldn’t take your pick and paint or powder coat whichever components you want. In our view, it’s best to think about how to maximize the benefits and minimize the downside. A good rule of thumb is to powder coat any components that you feel need the benefit of added protection, and paint those areas that you feel need to have that irresistible head-turning finish. Overall, powder coat looks good, but protects better. Paint, on other hand, provides limited protection but is chiefly put there to enhance the car’s overall aesthetic.