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Preservation of Paint Work on Antique Automobiles

Preservation of Paint Work on Antique Automobiles

Throughout the long history of the collecting of other forms of antiques, conserving objects in original condition instead of restoration has long been the focus of serious collectors, museums and institutions. Most automobile collecting efforts that started in the 1930s and earlier, have until fairly recently, involved completely or partially restoring vehicles to as new condition. In the past, unfortunately, little thought has been given to preserving original cars, and many have been restored that should have been preserved instead.

On a positive note, in the last twenty years the preservation and conservation movement has made headway into the field of auto collecting. Along this line, many unrestored antique cars have savable paint, but it can be peeling in places, especially on the hood, where it has been baked and dried out from engine heat. In this post, we will share with you what has been learned about reattaching old paint that is peeling here at The Old Motor. The starting point for this was researching current conservation methods and practices used in other fields of antiques and applying some of what was learned to automobiles.

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  • Using a section of a broken razor blade in a hemostat for careful scraping of the surface of the steel.

Shown here in this post is the hood for a 1914 Mercer Raceabout, which was chosen to be conserved instead of repainted, as the rest of the paint work had good adhesion to the body metal. The coating on the hood had cracked and crazed, and lost its bond in places and was beginning to peel off. Seven years ago around twenty percent of the paint on the hood top panels was reattached using the methods we will share with you with success.

It is very slow and painstaking work, so if you decide to attempt it, first practice on a piece of metal or wood with peeling paint. This will give you a chance to learn how to remove the old paint and prepare both the backside of it and surface it will be reattached to. It will also give you the chance to work out your own procedures for applying the right amount of the adhesive, and a way to hold and place the piece of paint back where it belongs before the adhesive cures.

Preservation is an ongoing process as other areas of the paint will also lose their bond in time, and you will have to go through the same process to reattach them; this continuing work is being shown here. One other benefit to this process is that it is reversible. By experimentation, we have found that by using this type of adhesive the paint was removable by carefully prying with a knife blade and it could be reattached using the same method. This reversibility is a desired trait for any preservation measure. This reattached paint has also withstood many miles of actual use under all types of conditions including high speeds.

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  • Using a small piece of an abrasive pad for further preparation of the metal for good adhesion.

The first step is to take off a small area of peeling paint by slipping a pointed knife blade behind it and carefully pry it off. The piece will many times break into sections, so be prepared to lay them out order so you can keep track of the sections before the project turns into a jigsaw puzzle. You will also need to test surrounding paint for loss of adhesion and remove it until a good bond is found in the surrounding area.

The next step is to carefully clean the surface of the metal of any corrosion that has built up. A hemostat clamp can be used to hold a small piece of a broken razor blade that can be used as a scraper along with pieces of an abrasive pad to help with the cleanup. The last step is to carefully clean the backside of the paint chip and the metal with soap and water or a cleaning solution with a cotton swab and then rinse with a clean swab and water.

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  • Using a cotton swab and a cleaning solution on the back side of a chip of paint.

Before hand you also need to find, select and experiment with a slow setting cyanoacrylate glue, which is available from industrial suppliers. You need to learn and work out a procedure to apply and use the correct amount of the adhesive to properly adhere the chip, but at the same time not use an excess amount that will ooze out and cover the area surrounding the repair.

The positioning of the piece of paint and lowering it onto the area it will be reattached to also needs to be practiced. Generally, lowering it in place on the tip of a knife blade and then pushing it off with a cotton swab handle or the use of a small pair of tweezers will work well. It then should be pressed onto the metal with another tool until the bond forms.

It has been found that using a black colored adhesive works the best, as that color will help to simulate the look of natural dirt buildup. You can also experiment with various type of artist’s gesso for filling in the void caused by shrinkage over time around a piece of paint. Be sure use with plenty ventilation, wear safety goggles, rubber gloves and follow all directions and safety precautions for using cyanoacrylate compounds beforehand and read the disclaimer below.

If you have an important or valuable car or motorcycle you would like to use this method on, but do not want to do it yourself, an oil painting conservator may be able to do the work for you. More technical features showing work done here in The Old Motor workshop and by others can be seen here. 

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  • The area that was repaired over two years ago is shown above.

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5 responses to “Preservation of Paint Work on Antique Automobiles

  1. We all can make things look new but the next frontier is the preservation of original finished etc. This is different than creating new, faux finishes.

    Ever wonder how ancient Roman wall paintings get into modern museums ? These frescos are covered in a special glue and a sheet of canvas is then stretched over the paintings. When this glue has dried, the canvas is literally ripped from the wall carrying with it the fresco. The canvas can be transported and spread over a new freshly plastered wall. Once the old fresco has bonded to the new wall, the canvas is sprayed with a release agent, allowing the canvas to be removed.

    I remove loose paint with masking tape. The tape holds the paint chips together in ‘correct order’, while the panel is cleaned as you have outlined. Glue the chips back in place and when dry, the masking tape adhesive can be dissolved with mineral spirits .

    Be creative & experiment. Jim Brand

    • Interesting to learn about the frescos.

      I can see where your excellent tip on using masking tape could work well in many instances chips that are close to ready to fall off.

      Having a tape “holder” for them would also be very handy.

      In this instance, part of the piece of paint was loose, but the rest of it was still attached and actually needed to be pryed off to keep the loose part from breaking off of it.

  2. David, Thanks for allowing us preservationists to learn more about keeping one’s vehicle as original as possible. Have a nice Thanksgiving weekend.

  3. Wonderful explanation of the techniques you have developed and are using to preserve paint. Other restorers sould take the trouble to perform these tasks, as opposed to simply repainting (and therefore destroying the original color and patina!)

  4. A great book that will build your awareness and sensitivity for auto preservation (as opposed to restoration) is Peter Simone’s The Stewardship of Racing Automobiles. A REALLY great book about leaving the evidence of age and use in place, not moving to slick up a machine, make it look new.

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