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Custom Paintwork

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Tips for Hiring a Custom Painter

The world is filled with great custom motorcycles and the people who own and ride them. The styles may change and evolve with the passage of time… choppers, bobbers, fat-tires, big-wheeled baggers and back to choppers. But there is a common thread that runs through these fickle phases of two-wheeled artistry. Custom paintwork defines the machine and the machine defines its rider/owner.

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Custom paintwork is the cherry atop the sundae and it can take many forms. To some riders, it may be a simple color change or possibly single-color candy over top of metal-flake. To others it may be a rainbow of candy colors, airbrushed murals or highly personalized graphics that define the owner’s tastes. But no matter the style, everyone tends to emphasize the visceral impact of creating a highly unique look for their bike.

For either a dealership shop or an independent shop, there will always be customers who want their machines painted to reflect their personal vision. It is important to create and nurture a relationship with a custom-painter or possibly with a stable of custom-painters in order to meet those customers’ needs and create satisfied and potential repeat customers.

Shops can certainly profit from working with the right custom painter.

But how should a motorcycle shop develop such relationships? There are good painters located everywhere.  Pieces can also be shipped to and from non-local painters who potentially specialize in particular styles of custom work requested by clients. Today’s reasonable shipping costs make this a very viable option. The key is to locate painting shops or individuals with whom you can attain a level of comfort concerning several criteria, including quality, creativity, schedule, pricing and more.

The quality of a custom painter’s work can be determined by examining some of their work or checking with references or past clients. Some of the potential criteria include the uniformity and depth of the finish, crispness of the line work, uniformity of any candy coatings and the overall flow and theme of designs.

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If a client’s vision for new paintwork is a simple color change there is not much creativity involved.  But for clients seeking something more, review a portfolio of the painter’s work to determine his/her range so that you can utilize that same person or shop for many different clients and projects.

Schedule can be somewhat trickier to analyze.  The issue is that higher quality shops will be inherently busier and thus may experience longer turnaround times for their work.  The critical analysis is that a shop can deliver on-time when they state they can deliver, whether that turnaround time quoted is two weeks or two months.

Pricing is equally difficult to analyze. Larger shops with larger overhead for their facilities and marketing will naturally be somewhat more expensive. Smaller shops may be staffed with only one or two people located in a small building or as a home-based shop. The quality of work cannot be based upon the size of the operation but is determined simply by the talent level and passion of the painters.

There are obviously other intangible elements associated with developing a great relationship with a paint-shop or individual painter. These include attention to detail, taking notes about client paintwork descriptions, ongoing communication via phone/text/email, giving status updates on progress and simple trustworthiness and honesty in all business dealings.

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Once you have initiated relationships with paint-shops or individual painters, develop an adequate knowledge of the custom-painting process to enhance communications between your customers and the painter. This will maximize additional potential business opportunities from those custom-painting services.

Some of the issues to consider are the number of pieces to be painted, current condition of the parts to be painted, materials to be used and the style/complexity of the paintwork requested. All these factors impact the schedule and final cost of the work.  The price to paint a Harley Sportster a custom solid color over top of perfect OEM paint will be much different than the price to paint a Harley Road Glide an OEM color with custom graphics and airbrush work over damaged OEM paint with dings and dents.

If a bike to be repainted already has perfect or near-perfect OEM paint or newer aftermarket paintwork, the pieces can typically be wet-sanded with 600-grit and either primed or painted right over top the current finish. If a bike has damaged paint or a couple paint jobs already applied, it is likely best to be sandblasted to bare metal or stripped/sanded down to the plastic. Sandblasting will increase the price and somewhat extend the schedule since it will need to go to a sandblasting shop, but it is often necessary to create a solid durable results.

All painting materials have grown increasingly expensive, but good quality primers, basecoats and clearcoats are critical to creating a beautiful and durable final product.  The custom color market has been dominated by House of Kolor for sixty years, although there are others such as Axila (formerly DuPont) Hot Hues.  These custom colors lines include a variety of solid basecoat colors  plus a variety of translucent topcoat “candy” colors used to create a wide spectrum of unique color combinations for either the overall color or discrete graphics. 

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Since these colors are not licensed to an OEM manufacturer (e.g., Harley-Davidson, Honda, etc.) the unit cost is somewhat lower. For clients requiring an OEM color, those are typically procured from a supplier such as Axila (DuPont), PPG, BASF, etc. OEM colors are proprietary and licensed to the manufacturer and thus carry a somewhat more expensive unit cost. A reputable painter will have good knowledge of the various available materials options plus their applications and approximate pricing.

The complexity of any design obviously impacts final cost.  There is very little difference in materials costs, but the labor time climbs as the complexity increases.  More intricate designs or airbrush work involve multiple applications of masking and multiple trips into the spray booth or airbrush station, all of which results in additional labor time and costs.  Again, a reputable and experienced painter will be able to quote various pricing estimates for various potential designs.

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In conclusion, custom painting has been a huge part of motorcycle culture and “Kustom Kulture” for a very long time and will continue forever in that role. Motorcyclists tend to inherently have a need to set their machines apart from others. Cool paintwork does not make a bike any faster or more reliable, but to a client with a vision to create that “look”… quality custom paintwork is king!

Custom Painter Steven Hennis ([email protected]) is the owner of Flamethrower Customs in Doylestown, Ohio. Samples of his work can be seen at FlamethrowerCustoms.blogspot.com.

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