Clean and Shiny - Part Two

by Jason Cisper

This is the second in a two-part series focused on keeping your truck looking like new. This installment focuses on caring for your truck's paint job.

There's perhaps nothing as sharp looking as a freshly-painted truck. You don't have to be as thorough as those who put their trucks on display at various truck shows around the nation, a little elbow grease goes a long way in keeping your truck's paint job looking newer longer. As mentioned in part I, a clean truck holds its resale value. Plus, it sends a message to all those with whom you deal while traveling down the road that you take pride in your work.

There are essentially two components to a truck's paint job. That is, the base coat and the clear coat. Knowing the basic principles of both can put you on the right track to giving appropriate care to your truck's paint job.

The base coat is the paint coat, which contains the color. It is applied first and given a certain amount of "flash time," in which the solvents contained in the paint are allowed to evaporate out. During this time, the paint forms a not-quite-solid-film. The clear coat application comes next.

A clear coat will protect (in varying degrees, depending upon the type of clear coat you have) your truck's paint job. It is applied atop the base coat, and is used to seal in the paint's color. Truck manufacturers spend a lot of time and effort in developing the perfect match of paint shade and clear coat application to give today's trucks a beautiful finish.

According to Leroy Brooks, finishing operations manager for Navistar, there is a basic "time window" in which the clear coat can be properly applied. If it is put on too early, the paint will absorb it. If it's put on too late, it can leave a less-than-smooth surface (see sidebar). The clear coat is then "baked on," a process by which the surface is cured through the use of extreme heat and made more resistant to the elements.

Protecting the finish means keeping it clean, and that is up to the truck owner. There are basically two choices: You can stop at an industrial wash, or do it yourself at home.

According to Steve Bright, manager of the Blue Beacon Truck Wash in Oak Grove, MO, the fact that paint jobs are "more resistant" to damage than they were a decade ago shouldn't be a reason for drivers to fall lax in their cleaning duties.

"A couple of dollars is nothing when it comes to protecting your paint job," he says.

Bright adds that the industrial systems haven't changed much over the years. Although the pumps are more "high tech," they still use the same water pressure as always.

Some drivers are a bit suspicious when it comes to commercial truck wash companies. They are concerned that some of the products they use can be corrosive on paint jobs. Opinions vary, from "does no damage," to "will eat your clear coat right off." It is a good idea to talk to other truckers and see what their experiences are before you choose a truck wash company.

Although it's not always the available option, Brooks says that in some respects, washing at home can have its advantages over an industrial wash. He points out that a low-pressure garden hose may take more elbow grease to get a truck clean, but is gentler on its surface.

"Truck washes can use too much pressure," he says. "If your truck has a stone chip, you can do some damage when 2,000 (pounds of water pressure) hits it."

And during your truck's first year, Craig Kendall and Jerry Petty of Peterbilt say that it's not really necessary to use anything other than water to keep your truck clean. Although the truck is cured at the factory, the curing process can continue for several months after it leaves the factory. They say it isn't a bad idea to allow your truck some exposure to the sun before pouring on the cleaners. And Petty says that beyond that first year, even the polish should be used sparingly.

"Your clear coat protects your base coat, and you want to keep that intact," Petty says. "If you keep it intact, there's no real need to use polish."

"Some abrasive polishes will sand your paint away," Kendall adds. "With some of the stuff people use today, you have to wonder what their expectations are."

Like Bright, Brooks says that the biggest mistake truck owners commit with regard to caring for their paint jobs is simply not washing their truck often enough. Although the problem is less prominent among owner-operators, the fact is that there are some drivers who won't take the time to wash their trucks.

"I used to work out in the field, and the problem that I noticed time and time again was that some fleet owners never washed their trucks," he says. "I've seen trucks that were painted in 1989 that still look good finish-wise because the owner took care of the truck regularly."

Both Brooks and Kendall agree that it's difficult to provide a specific timeline by which an owner-operator should wash his truck. Miles traveled, terrain, and weather conditions can all be harsh on a paint job. And you have to be careful about washing your truck too often, particularly if your rig is highly detailed.

The basic rule of thumb, they say, is simply to use your best judgment.

"(United Parcel Service) washes their trucks every day," Kendall notes. "But there are some guys who have really fancy lettering and graphics on their trucks, like goldleaf and such, who should be careful not to overwash."

Brooks says that the typical life expectancy of a Navistar paint job is five to six years. But he says he's seen trucks on the road that are as much as 10 years old that still look good because "the finish is taken care of regularly."

The "Orange Peel" Effect

If you take an extremely close look at the surface of your truck, you'll notice that the surface is not perfectly smooth, but slightly dimpled. This dimpling is known as "orange peel," because it resembles the surface of an orange.

Depending on what type of clear coating your truck has (and what kind/type of paint is used), this dimpling comes in varying degrees. It can be tight (somewhat wrinkled in appearance) or loose (where the paint looks much more deep and slick). For example, a "waterborne" finish will have less of an orange peel appearance than a urethane finish.

Brooks adds, however, that orange peel is not necessarily a sign of the clear coat's effectiveness. "Waterborne is not as durable as urethane," he says. "But it gives a slicker appearance."

Likewise, Petty says that simply matching the type and/or color of paint with the type of clear coat used can reduce the amount of orange peel a truck's surface has.

"Most people generally don't like (orange peel)," he says. "Your manufacturer, a lot of times, can help you put together a paint with a clear coat to keep orange peel to a minimum."